Quis Docebit ipsos Doctores?

Actually, at school, I hated Latin. The relevance of dead languages was even less clear to me than that of calculus. But I was blessed with teachers who knew how to ignite thrawn teenage imagination and instill a heady mix of curiosity, self-confidence and practical knowledge, despite myself.

For I was an example of those over whom the current political battle rages in Scotland—disproportionate numbers of poor kids who still fail to get a decent education as compared to social ‘upper deciles’. We were all ‘schemies’ = lower deciles—except for one kid whose dad was a teacher and so was regarded as ‘posh’. The really posh kids all went to private school in Edinburgh.

This must surely be one of the great puzzles of our country. Unlike back then, people in all social groupings are fixated by wealth and its trappings. But the single most important tool to acquire it—education—does not register as every parent and their child’s priority. Ms Sturgeon’s top priority is “closing the attainment gap between young people from our most and least deprived communities“. Such focus on attainment is certainly true in most oriental cultures. Why is it still not so here in Scotland? She claims standard assessment will be the answer. But I think it was been chosen because it can be wielded centrally and there is mistrust of devolution to councils. I think she’s wrong.

From parliamentary debates to universities to teachers’ unions to council education committees, all the talk is of lack of resources. That has to be crap. Whereas we had one teacher banging away on a single piano, my old high school now has roomfuls of keyboards and enough woodwind, brass and strings to equip several orchestras. The same riches apply to CDT, language labs, libraries, etc, not to mention school outings and trips abroad. Clearly, a great deal of money has already been thrown at the problem. Half of all council spend (roughly £5.5bn) is now on schools. Why would more resources make any difference?

Parents, pupils, schools, teachers, councils and even governments all claim our kids’ education is improving steadily. But then, it’s in their interest to say so. Is it really? Reports from employers on leaver literacy/numeracy, close examination of exam stats and the laser light of international PISA ratings all disagree. By most objective standards, Scottish education is treading water; resources can be a factor but they are seldom the underlying reason.

Quite simply, it starts and ends with the teachers. They—and especially their union reps—say they are underpaid and overworked, despite a doubling in compensation and easing of class time negotiated in the McCrone settlement back in 2002. Comparison with their OECD colleagues gives the lie to this.

In Scotland, teachers start as probationers at £22.4k, rising to £35.8k. Head teachers start at £44.2k and make up to £86.3k. Their £32.1k average gross compares to a country average gross of £26.5k Not shabby—and also not shabby when compared to other OECD countries. This is 10% better than Sweden and 15% better than France or Italy—only Dutch and Danish teachers earn more. It is also 5% more than Finnish teachers whose kids’ PISA scores on reading, writing and numeracy all knock ours into a cocked hat.

Also, education has a history of lurching from one miracle solution to the next. There have been education initiatives to make everyone’s head spin—from inclusion to GIRFEC to early years to Curriculum for Excellence, pet theories have been trotted out, most of which may have done some good, even allowing for confusion and loss of teaching time involved. But, years into them, the jury is out that any was truly effective, let alone offered any ‘silver bullet’.

So, let’s draw a baseline here before moving on:

  1. It is not about school resources (are you listening, Head Teachers?)
  2. It is not about teacher remuneration (are you listening, EIS, SSTA, ETC?)
  3. It is not about throwing more money at the problem (are you listening, Nicola, Ruth, Kezia?)
  4. It is not about yet another education initiative (are you listening Education Scotland?)

The Economist has recently made a forceful case that it is all about teachers. One American study found that in a single year’s teaching, the top 10% of teachers impart three times as much learning to their pupils as the worst 10% do. Another suggests that, if deprived pupils were taught by the best quarter of teachers, the gap between their achievement and that of non-deprived pupils would disappear. If we truly abhor this social gap that scars Scottish education, does this not point the way?

Teachers’ unions insist that if only their members were set free from central diktat, excellence would follow. But look at EIS web site (there are other unions like SSTA but EIS dominates). Their index page is full of ballots and refugee solidarity but says zip on pupils or education. Even their current issue of SEJ headlines strike ballot success, a workload ballot and LGBT campaigning. But nothing about pedagogy in any form. EIS are Pavlovian reactionaries in modern education the way the riveters’ union was in our shipyards or the firemen’s union during conversion from steam on the railways. And look how well all that went.

Efforts to ensure that every teacher can teach are hobbled by the tenacious myth that good teachers are born, not made. Classroom heroes like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society” or Michelle Pfeiffer in “Dangerous Minds” are endowed with exceptional, innate inspirational powers. But teaching is a mass profession: it cannot grab all the top graduates, nor hope all are inspirational. When poor teachers are fired, replacements will still have been trained in the very same system that failed to make fine teachers out of their predecessors.

By contrast, the idea of improving the average teacher could revolutionise the entire profession. Teachers qualify following a long, specialised course. This will often involve airy discussions of theory that have no effect on how well these graduates’ pupils end up being taught.

What teachers fail to learn in universities and teacher-training colleges they rarely pick up on the job. They become better teachers in their first few years as they get to grips with real pupils in real classrooms but after that, improvements tail off. This is largely because everybody from school to minister neglect their most important pupils: teachers themselves. Across the OECD, two-fifths of teachers say they have never had a chance to learn by sitting in on another teacher’s lessons; nor have they been asked to give feedback on their peers.

If this is to change, teachers need to learn how to impart knowledge and prepare young minds to receive and retain it. Good teachers set clear goals, enforce high standards of behaviour and manage their lesson time wisely. They use tried-and-tested instructional techniques to ensure that all the brains are working all of the time. This is not the same as the dead-end career track of the well intentioned but ill-conceived “Chartered Teacher” from McCrone.

One key point that seems to be pivotal in making the real ‘continual learning’ required has already been clearly demonstrated in Finland. Teachers there achieve better results for less salary because they have been given a flexibility in how they learn and advance in their career AND broad flexibility in the curriculum. This contrasts with Scotland where unions exert a passive stranglehold on the former (see their website) and the Scottish Government is about to impose draconian uniformity on the latter. Education here is in stasis. Individual teachers are being given no latitude to experiment with curriculum flexibility and self-learning.

Joyce Mcmillan made useful commentary in The Scotsman on two key issues that might be preventing such experimentation at Scotland’s chalk face right now:

The number of gifted people I have seen, over the past generation, simply walk away from school teaching; and the fact that in the last decade or two, the near-universal complaint of those who have quit is not about their students, but about toxic levels of bad management at school and departmental level.

There is also the matter of the mainstreaming of children with special needs, generally seen as a good thing in principle, but often, so it seems, very poorly implemented, with a chronic shortage of the dedicated classroom assistance the children need.

To some extent, this could be seen as supporting the EIS contention about political interference with their profession. But their solution would be to simply demand more money and time to deal with such issues—and ignore the root causes.

With teaching—as with other complex skills—the route to mastery is not abstruse theory but intense, guided practice grounded in subject-matter knowledge and pedagogical methods. Trainees should spend more time in the classroom. The places where pupils do best, for example Finland, Singapore and Shanghai, put novice teachers through a demanding apprenticeship.

Teacher-training colleges must become more rigorous—rather as a century ago medical faculties raised the calibre of doctors by introducing systematic curricula and providing clinical experience. But the biggest changes are needed in schools to ensure all teachers improve throughout their careers and those who can’t be persuaded to leave. Instructors must hone a craft through observation, coaching and absorbing critical feedback. People who thrive in front of pupils should not have to become managers or narrow specialists to earn a pay rise. Whether the EIS is ready to accept anything as radical is quite another matter.

The key external factor, over which even teachers have little control and about which little gets said because it treads on politically correct corns, is the societal and cultural backgrounds from which pupils emerge to attend school. Rich and middle-class kids don’t always have it easy but engagement by their parents in their education is almost universal. Central government is too remote to have the solution to this; it must be community-based and involve deprived families by encouraging engagement and pride in where they live so that their children attending school see the point of it. Parents must help children want to learn.

“Deprivation” has been bandied about so much it has become an insidious entitlement culture that sees school as a kind of child-minding operation. With so many poorly paid service jobs and a dearth of the skilled lifetime craft positions in steel mills, shipyards and factories, employment’s marginal effect on income vs benefits demotivates much of what should be the workforce. And, by harping on (expensive and non-paying) years university as the route to riches, gives scant incentive to children growing up in that environment to seek out better, especially as creative, craft and vocational skills are seen as secondary.

So, the final leap that the teaching profession must make is to detoxify vocational education and ditch this lunatic consensus that more pupils going on to university is a good thing. Parental pressure to ‘succeed’ is currently all bound up in the idea that a university degree is the only ticket to a bright future. The current mob of jobless graduates has done little to correct this fallacy.

We would do well to study the parallel craft and apprentice system in Germany whereby many bright and creative youngsters find fulfillment and lucrative careers designing, creating and producing the many high quality products for which their country is justly famed. Whereas those so inclined from wealthier families here tend to be coerced down the academic path when they should be in furniture design or horticulture, their soul mates from more deprived backgrounds simply disengage for want of options.

For all their pious hand-wringing, Holyrood politicians (of all parties) perpetuate a huge waste of young talent and resources which standardised testing will do little to correct. Memo to John Swinney:

Usus magister est optimus.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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