Presidential Address - Annual Congress 15/16 May 2009

President's Address


15 May 2009

Congress, Guests, Colleagues,

Congress may recall that last year the part of my speech reported in the press was the section on bullying. I discussed the effect bullying had on staff and the need for all of us to stand up to bullies and support victims. Although I was prepared for the response in the press, particularly from those who have a vested interest in denying that such problems could every exist, I was not, indeed could not have been, prepared for the response from teachers across Scotland. Letters arrived from teachers in every sector (and their families) recounting tales of dreadful bullying, of weekends and holidays spent steeling themselves to return to work and of the despair felt when the only option open was to resign and look for a job outwith the profession. Far too many have retired early, exhausted by the workload, made ill by the stress and, in some cases, unable to function due to fear.

As I read these letters and emails a common theme began to emerge. Every letter described being forced to accept additional tasks, or rather, being afraid to refuse. Working weeks of 50 or 60 hours became the norm and weekends were spent catching up on admin tasks or marking. I'll leave you to imagine the effect of the additional strain on their family relationships. As a result, this last year I have paid particular attention to the amount of hours being worked by teachers and once again this trend has begun to emerge. Increasingly, teachers are working beyond 60 hours every week despite the contract, and the salary, stipulating a 35 hour working week, simply to complete the tasks they are assigned and to ensure that their pupils receive the best possible learning experience.

Additionally, some teachers participate in sporting or fun events because they enjoy the contact with colleagues and pupils, because they believe that being seen as a real person helps them encourage young people to learn. The benefit to pupils and to teachers on these occasions is enormous.

Not all teachers, however, participate willingly! Far too many report being informed that participation in extra-curricular activities or Easter revision classes is essential if they want promotion, or that competent teachers have no problems participating in out of hours events. The insinuation here is too obvious to mention! No matter how exhausted they are, these teachers believe they have no choice Others report that they participate solely to support colleagues who "have to offer revision classes every day because parents are demanding extra support and the head teacher says I have to improve departmental statistics." Is it any wonder that teachers are exhausted and at the end of their tether?

At the SNCT event last spring we were informed that a classroom teacher's job simply cannot be completed in 35 hours. Everyone in Education knows, apparently, that it takes about 45 hours to complete an average teacher's tasks. Every teacher in Scotland subsidises the education budget to the tune of 400 unpaid hours every year. Is anyone surprised that so many teachers approaching the end of their careers are exhausted and desperate to retire? That stress related illness is on the increase? Or that, faced with a new initiative, we respond by wondering how many extra hours will be squeezed out of us this time?

This year schools are being asked to begin the process of preparing for a change to the way pupils are taught. There are aspects to Curriculum for Excellence which teachers welcome. In particular, changing the curriculum to improve the learning experience of young people is welcomed by all teachers. Every one of us has experience of a topic which captures the interest of our pupils and which we'd love to spend more time on, but which we have to set aside after a few minutes because of time constraints resulting from a crowded curriculum and the needs of exam prep. The opportunity to collaborate with colleagues on meaningful projects which enhance understanding is particularly welcome if it fulfils the criteria, in other words if it is meaningful and it does enhance understanding. Cross curricular projects on the �tick box system' will do neither!

To be of any educational value, learning, and teaching, has to be planned, prepared by a specialist, a teacher who understands the needs of pupils and staff, who uses appropriate material and who has a commitment to the subject being taught. Had we been furnished with a list of teachers involved in the preparation of Curriculum for Excellence we'd have been much more confident about its appropriateness. As it stands we have outcomes and experiences which are little improvement on those we criticised previously, a lost opportunity to build on the expertise readily available in Scottish schools and, of course, the Unintended Consequences of the exam reform. Those unintended consequences include causing a contraction in the breadth of Scottish education so admired by colleagues worldwide, a reduction in opportunity within post 16 education and possibly the removal of the external verification which gives Scottish qualifications their deserved reputation for consistent quality. It quite simply beggars belief that any group charged with the task of reforming the structure of Scottish qualifications did not fully consider the implications of the changes they were recommending.

If the 3 year phase of general education does go ahead as planned, and pupil choice is reduced to 5 subjects in S4, this will limit pupil choice at S5 & 6. Only the brightest pupils will be able to cope with a Higher in a subject they haven't studied since S1 or S2. Whether unintended or not, this will seriously damage the potential achievement of less able pupils, exactly those young people who would be adversely affected by a move away from external assessment at S4. Another unintended consequence will be a reduction in their motivation and engagement with learning.

Internally assessed qualifications, no matter how rigorously applied, simply do not have the reputation or the guarantee of quality common to all Scottish externally assessed and marked qualifications. Leaving aside the obvious question of what is to be removed from the working time agreement to allow time for these internal assessments, we must have guarantees of national standards rigorously applied to ensure that no teacher faces pressure to massage the results from either a pushy parent on the school board, from a head teacher under pressure from HMIe, or from a misguided local authority concerned solely with league tables.

Is it any wonder teachers have little confidence in those charged with guiding the future of their profession?

Let me suggest a few solutions to our current quandary, lest anyone out there fear that teaching unions have no interest in solutions.

Invite teachers to get involved in educational developments. Second the best teachers (nominated by their colleagues) to write outcomes and experiences and develop new exam structures. Use young teachers to cover their classes for the period of the secondment, giving these newly qualified teachers some much needed employment and some experience to take with them to the next job. This would have the additional benefit of saving money, teachers' salaries being much smaller than those of �experts'.

By all means continue to train new teachers but, after their probation year, try a novel approach to the problem of too many teachers and not enough jobs. Employ them to work in their chosen profession instead of paying them jobseekers' allowance. Use their training and growing expertise to enhance the education of the next generation of Scots, to reduce the number of hours our ageing profession has to work (down to somewhere near the hours we're paid to work will do nicely) and allow them to gain the experience so vital to the continued success of Scottish education, to our young people and to our future.

This would have the added benefit of enabling older, experienced teachers to continue working for longer, passing on their skills to a new generation. It would enhance learning and teaching in the classroom and encourage people to get involved in extra curricular activities, not because they're forced to but because they want to enhance the learning opportunities of their pupils.

Easter schools, if they're necessary at all, could be staffed by young unemployed teachers. A new approach to a topic might be just what a pupil needs to make sense of it. Properly organised, with the temporary teacher in school for a few days to liaise with the class teacher, this could be beneficial to everyone involved.

All of these solutions require extra funding, a resource in very short supply this year, and even shorter next. There is, however, a radical solution which requires no additional funding, would be universally welcomed by teachers and has the benefit of being very simple. Teachers spend at least 20% of their working time dealing with administration, largely �annex E' tasks theoretically removed from our remit in the McCrone agreement. We are quality improved, professionally reviewed and developed, required to grade pupil potential achievement, given multiple forms to complete and required to replicate all of this administration at regular intervals throughout the year. In addition, there are regular reviews of initiatives and CPD opportunities before we can begin to tackle the �day job' of teaching pupils and marking their work. A government initiative which rigorously examined all of this paper work, decided what was actually useful and essential and removed all duplication and unnecessary form filling would save money, reduce our workload and earn the respect of the whole profession.

Additional savings could be made by asking teachers what needs reviewed and what works well. The GTCS is a professional regulatory body with a reputation envied across Europe, which works exceptionally well. The current system of a council, comprising elected and nominated members, regulates the profession fairly and honestly. The current proposals will, if implemented, replace this body with a nominated management board the members of which will be subject to allegations of cronyism or, at the very least, lack of impartiality. Why are we wasting money attempting to restructure it into an organisation which will be less representative, less effective and less democratic? For once the answer is not additional funding! Scottish teachers wholly fund the Council and, under the new proposals will continue to do so. Is it too much to expect that we who pay the piper should call the tune?

If you're listening to this and thinking that teachers do nothing but complain, let me ask you a question. If your child needed some extra revision, essential for their chosen career, was a reluctant learner in need of support or was planning a potentially life enhancing trip somewhere, would you prefer them to be with an enthusiastic, experienced practitioner who had volunteered or with an exhausted conscript? I know which I'd choose for my child!