Presidential Address - 77th Annual Congress

Catherine Nicol, SSTA President

Address to the 77th Congress of the SSTA

In October 2021 we were all aware that the Pandemic was not yet over. At that time news of the Omicron variant was emergent but the impact it would have on society was as yet unknown.  It was abundantly clear that the measures that teachers had called for to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our colleagues, our families and friends, pupils, care givers and other service users must remain in place inside educational establishments. Trade Unions remained steadfast and ensured the continuance of mitigations to protect workers from harm. Other voices advocated for reduction and even removal of these mitigations thus demonstrating a shameful lack of recognition of the risks being taken by teachers and fellow public sector employees. The entire Education community pulled together and many employed in the sector left the safety of their homes every working day to ensure continuity of education for the young people of Scotland. There was a palpable sense of trepidation in schools. We all remained optimistic that the hand cleaning, one way systems, face coverings, increased ventilation and carbon dioxide monitors would decrease the likelihood of serious infection. We hoped that the most vulnerable, would be protected as staff and youngsters waited their turn to get the next dose of the vaccine.

As the Christmas break approached the impact of this highly contagious variant was all too apparent.  Infection rates increased massively and staff and pupil absences rose sharply. Whole classes and entire year groups had to be sent home, insufficient numbers of staff were present to teach all classes. The SSTA recognised that this would have a detrimental impact on the health and well- being of members and on teaching, learning and assessment in schools. The union consulted members and as a consequence advocated strongly for school closures and a return to remote learning. This fell on deaf ears as the rhetoric for keeping schools open to maintain pupil engagement and health and wellbeing got louder. The work undertaken earlier in the pandemic by secondary teachers and other practitioners to upskill and use digital technology for teaching looked to go unheeded. Our determination to prepare high quality learning resources for all young people seemed to be disregarded. The cost and effort that had been incurred to equip secondary teachers with resources to deliver lessons using technology appeared to be overlooked.

In early 2022 it became evident that levels of pupil and staff absence in schools had reached critical levels.  Members were reporting timetables were becoming unsustainable and disruption to teaching and learning was the inevitable result. The availability of Supply Teachers was extremely limited. Head Teachers, Deputy Heads and Principle Teachers had time normally earmarked for management and organisation revoked so classes could be covered. Teachers were in front of classes for the maximum number of hours allowable in any given week, redeployment of staff that normally worked in additional support roles became necessary so that pupils could be taught. Classes were sent to Assembly Halls on rotation, pupils were sent home to isolate in large numbers, sometimes entire year groups were sent home because of staffing shortages.  Teachers struggled on however an expectation that they could simultaneously deliver lessons to pupils that were in school and provide for those who were working from home became prevalent. The workload of those who remained in school rocketed.  Pupil, Parent and Teacher anxiety about missing course work and internal assessment increased, worry about producing evidence of attainment escalated. Pupils’ capability to prepare fully for examinations became more uncertain. The pressure over the past two years has been relentless, in the past six months more acute than ever. This has taken a heavy toll on the mental and physical well-being of many teachers and pupils. Where schools and Directorates worked with Trade Union representatives the scrutiny and improvement agenda was paused to reduce workload and alleviate stress.  Unbelievably this was not the case across the board. In some places mitigations to workload were not enacted revealing a shocking disregard by some employers for the health and wellbeing of teachers and staff fulfilling supporting roles.

In response to members concerns the SSTA gathered information about members’ experience of working in schools. This has resulted in actions such as our call for the suspension of the examination diet however this was rejected. The SSTA challenged the SQA to provide greater support for teachers and pupils, this was answered however the guidance and resources that were produced were heavily criticised by teachers, pupils and parents. The SSTA maintained that Education Scotland should suspend school Inspections and provide more resources to support teachers’ health and wellbeing, this message was taken on board. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills was made aware of the concerns that SSTA members had about workload, working conditions and deteriorating behaviour in schools. We trust that the viewpoints expressed on behalf of members influenced decisions concerning the future direction of the Education system.

The Curriculum for Excellence has been in a continual state of flux since its inception. Education Scotland list eight Policy Drivers that have a direct impact on the Secondary Education sector. A complex web of Implementation Plans, Frameworks, and Delivery Plans underlie them.  An unintended consequence of the multi-layered policy environment has led to multiple interpretations and confusion in the system.  This has led to teachers being confined to highly prescriptive structural frameworks for lesson planning and being told what they must include in lessons. Some common examples:, conversations with pupils that adhere to specific narratives, a need to focus on particular type of attribute or skill , strict adherence to ideological constructs, references to employment or obvious demonstration of aspects of the inclusion agenda. In some schools this may be happening in a series of lessons across the term, or as part of an interdisciplinary learning or themed projects but in others teachers are expected to incorporate all of this into each and every lesson taught in the Broad General Education and Senior Phase.

 Monitoring and recording methods used to provide evidence that teachers are compliant with policy have imposed additional burdens on classroom teachers. A moratorium on Lesson Observations, Lesson Studies, Learning Rounds and the like was in place during the pandemic due to the need to lessen the risk of transmission. The efficacy and suitability of such methods for demonstrating improvement in Education is subject to debate. Currently a drive to reintroduce these measures in schools is taking place:  at a time when teachers have little capacity to absorb the additional pressure and could do with some breathing space.   The manner in which these types of supervision are conducted is crucial, all too often they only serve to feed the accountability culture; demonstrate a lack of trust in teacher professionalism and drive down teacher’s mental health and sense of wellbeing.

The Scottish Government’s “National Improvement Framework Improvement” publication describes plans to upgrade Education in Scotland; much of it stems from the OECD report “Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. Into the Future” Right now we have reached a stage in the journey where we can ensure that what comes next is based on realistic targets, is actionable and focused on outcomes that benefit educators and those who are educated. The Scottish Government intends to co-create a new communications strategy for the Curriculum for Excellence. It remains to be seen if teachers will be fully involved in the change agenda that accompanies Education Reform. Many in the profession will not be convinced that lessons have been learned. Teachers must press for full inclusion in decision making processes.

In the past policy drivers emanating from the Learning Directorate have impacted on the work done in Local Government settings. This forced remodelling of extant procedures, revision of existing policy and has necessitated changes to Local Authority Education Improvement plans. Head Teachers have felt the need to alter School Improvement Plans so that national and local priorities are included. Negotiations that should take place before embarking on any new schemes did not take place on occasion. Where unplanned initiatives were instigated Working Time Agreements that had been negotiated previous to their adoption became less fit for purpose and the potential for conflict increased. Unfortunately when circumstances such as these arise in schools working relationships can become strained to the point of fracture. Inevitably stress levels increase and tension builds in the work place. This exemplifies how top down approaches to implementing change can contribute to unmanageable workloads and encourage the development of unfair working practices.

The reform agenda gives an opportunity to regenerate the curriculum and restructure the Education System from the ground up. Secondary Teachers must be at the heart of the renewal process.  Experienced teachers and SSTA representatives that have dedicated time and effort to develop their knowledge and skills are experts in their fields. It is essential that these professionals are trusted and given the opportunity to make meaningful contributions during curriculum reconstruction and development. In response to the “Putting Learners at the Centre: Towards a Vision for Scottish Education” report produced by Professor Ken Muir the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has announced that there will be a new qualifications body.  Factors such as the architecture of the school day, the structure of the academic year and activities unrelated to direct teaching of coursework must be taken into account by this organisation.  Time taken out of the school day for gathering robust and reliable data to evidence progress towards the National Improvement Framework agenda, National Standardised Assessments and PISA must also be reckoned for. These activities eat into the quantity of time available for internal assessment and preparation for external assessment. Well- informed secondary teachers and SSTA representatives must be directly involved in the establishment of a credible and fair assessment and qualification regime.

A new national agency for Scottish education will come into being.  This body must be focused on supporting teaching and learning and facilitating professional development. The very nature of Education is in question at the moment. Incorporation of more vocational courses is being called for so pupils can gain skills and aptitudes that will transfer to the work place. When curriculum change takes place there is an opportunity to develop course content that would enable the collection of naturally occurring evidence that can be used to support professional judgments on progress and level of attainment.  The creation and maintenance of a bank of resources that can be utilised in secondary schools should be a main aim. This needs to be curated, adaptive and well- signposted. The resources made available must be suitable to meet the needs of the learners in both broad general education and senior phases. Assistance for teachers at all points on the career ladder must continue to be available. The offer of a wide range and variety of information, support and training opportunities must remain. We stand at a junction.

A new independent Inspectorate will also be formed. This organisation must instil a quality assurance culture that is based on supervision, in the supportive sense of the word. Local Authority education directorates already engage in extensive quality assurance reviews in schools under their control so it is questionable whether this type of supervision should be duplicated by a National body. Perhaps their focus should be on Local Authorities and organisations that operate out with their governance.

In any event we must move away from the culture of blame, mistrust and fault finding that has emerged in some schools. Thought needs to be put into the methodology used to gather information about schools during scrutiny. The Inspectorate should ensure that measures used to capture data about quality indicators are fair, relevant and focused on naturally occurring evidence. Quality assurance should not include intrusive approaches for fact finding or necessitate collection of large portfolios of evidence. In Secondary schools analysis of this kind should not take place in the term prior to National Examinations, frankly this is a time when all effort must be placed on completing coursework and providing pupils with the guidance they need to reach their goals for attainment.  Any recommendations for improvements must be reasonable and actionable over an appropriate period of time.

These institutions must work in concert with each other and in partnership with teachers and Teacher Trade Unions.  If a constructive and inclusive approach is taken conflicts between remits can be anticipated and reduced. Temporal reality is a limiting factor and must become integral to all policy drivers. All organisations that create work for teachers and other practitioners must assess where their policy objectives overlap or are repeated. Adaptations to the curriculum, teaching and learning and qualifications must be practicable and time costed. Streamlining and reducing bureaucracy will reduce workload for all involved in Education.

Going forward an emphasis on supporting teachers to fulfil their core duties as stated in the SNCT Handbook is vital.  These duties must be prioritised during any given working week. Policy Makers, Education Officials and Managers need to realise that teacher’s time is a precious commodity that can only be used once. “Managing and organising classes through planning and preparing for teaching and learning”, and “ assessing, recording and reporting on the work of pupils’ progress to inform a range of teaching and learning approaches” are the most important aspects of a teacher’s job. These duties take a little time to do superficially but a great deal of time to do properly. Teachers must be enabled to focus their attention on these tasks because they are of upmost importance to raising attainment and closing the attainment gap. Other policy objectives are not as significant.

The fact that teachers working conditions are our young peoples’ learning conditions cannot be over stated. Education Reform gives us an opportunity to reframe the curriculum and also to re-establish working environments in which teachers can complete their work within the terms of contractual agreements. It is essential that the school day is structured in a way that allows teachers to do their job well and timetables need to provide ample time for teachers to plan, prepare, mark and correct, and give well targeted and meaningful feedback to pupils.  The Scottish Government’s proposal to reduce pupil contact time by ninety minutes within the working week would have a positive impact on pupil achievement and increase job satisfaction. Recruitment of thousands of teachers and hundreds of support staff will be necessary to reach this goal and the funding being offered by the Scottish Government to support these aims is welcome.   If steps are taken to make this a reality building positive relationships between all members of the school community, a core theme in policy related to GIRFEC becomes more attainable.  Schools could become workplaces where every teacher can perform the tasks required of them within a 35 hour working week; no matter what type of post they hold. If this is accomplished school life for pupils and work life for teachers would improve and the benefits to health and wellbeing of teachers and pupils would be substantial. Perhaps greater numbers of teachers would choose to remain in the profession if fair working conditions existed.

The curriculum has become inclusive of a myriad of social constructs and there is now an expectation that teachers will fulfil roles that are more akin to that of those who work in health and social care, this is stretching us to the limit of capacity. Teachers do not take the responsibility they have to help and encourage young people to achieve their full potential lightly.  An Educators core objective is to teach essential knowledge that brings about greater understand of the world and support pupils as they progress towards their chosen destinations. Teacher’s  go above and beyond to provide for pupils but our goodwill has been stretched to the limit as the expectation that we can  take on board more and more increases.  While these expectations have increased the willingness to pay us a fair rate for the work we do has not. The tactics used by our pay masters to delay negotiations show a complete disregard for the work that each of us carry out.  Fair dues for the job teachers do will only be achieved if we stop giving or time away for free and are resolute in this aim.

The last pay offer was derisory and far below what we would have accepted however now that it has been agreed we would expect that it will be paid as soon as possible. Further delay shows a continued disrespect for teaching professionals who have worked tremendously hard throughout the Pandemic.

The campaign for a 10% pay increase in 2022-2023 has begun and we stand ready to take action if the next pay offer is not commensurate with the professional duties we perform day and daily.


Friday 13 May 2022