Presidential Address, SSTA Congress 2017 #SSTA17


Presidential Address, SSTA Congress 2017
Crieff Hydro, Friday 19 May 2017

Welcome once again to our annual Congress.  One of the great pleasures for me at Congress is the way in which the Association comes together from all over the country.  It’s our opportunity to collaborate and find ways of moving Scottish education forward, and we are fortunate in having guests from a number of professional associations and other educational organisations here with us today.  As my term of presidential office draws to a close, once again I’d like to thank my employer North Ayrshire Council and my school Kilwinning Academy for their support in this leadership role, the General Secretary Seamus Searson and all of the Association staff for their help, and of course my wife Louisa and our family for their encouragement and support.

Sometimes you hear people say, “The apple never falls far from the tree.”  That’s certainly true in my case; both my grandfathers were a secondary teachers in Glasgow, one was Laurie Gardner, the other Alf Duncan, both totally committed to their students, both passionate about what they did.  I’ll tell you a bit more about Grandpa Alf Duncan later because his story is part of the SSTA story.

One of the first things you see when you enter the SSTA offices is a certificate from the Lord Lyon King of Arms granting the Association the right to use the heraldic arms, the Association crest.

That same certificate also contains the aims of our Association:

  • To advance education in Scotland
  • To safeguard and promote the interests of Scottish secondary teachers in all matters, especially those which affect salaries and conditions of service.

When Congress meets, it does so to reflect on those aims: to advance education, and to safeguard and promote Secondary teachers’ professional interests.  Our debates today and tomorrow, and what we hear from our guests and discuss with them, are about moving forward and improving education for young people.  The expertise and energy of teachers is the beating heart of Scottish education.  Without a dynamic and specialist teaching profession nothing can be improved, the young workforce cannot be developed, it would be impossible to raise attainment.

Today I will speak about getting it right for every child, the need for time to do this, and the value of good leadership.

Education is a creative force which has never stood still and will never stand still.  Educators are getting it right for every child by being innovators, serving young people by keeping pace with the rapid societal and economic changes. This is a good thing, but it needs to be managed in a well-led sustainable way.  The world is changing: people’s social anchors are moving (think of the growth and influence of social media), climate change is happening (any news to the contrary is fake), and global populations are ageing.  Teaching is becoming harder.

Recent news headlines have told us stories of global fragmentation and destabilisation.  The world has grappled with the issue of those fleeing war and persecution.  In places education has come under attack and those responsible for bringing youngsters to a mature understanding of the world have been increasingly undervalued in the face of austerity.

The days of a job for life have gone.  Researchers predict that today’s young people may have as many as 12 to 15 jobs in a lifetime.  The Institute for Public Policy Research this month published the Scotland Skills 2030 report, stating that nearly half of Scottish jobs could be automated in less than 15 years.  The foundations of deep learning and the ability to transfer skills are more important now than ever before.

Our role as educators is to ensure young people have the competencies they need for life.  More than ever we work tirelessly to move them beyond the simple ability to pass an exam and to ensure that they have the right foundations for lifelong learning .

In spite of, or perhaps because of the austerity agenda, groups of teachers have worked together to seek stability, to foster equitable approaches to education for all, and to emphasise the need for an energetic expert workforce.  The voice of teachers, through the democratic processes of their unions, must rise above the din of political whim and spin to be heard clearly.  We must hold up a hand and count to three until we are heard.

One of my duties at the end of last year was to attend a brilliant conference on Refugee Education organised by Education International in Stockholm where a landmark museum caught my imagination and offered some interesting lessons.   Prior to catching my flight home I had a couple of hours to spare, and rather than the ABBA experience I decided to see the Vasa museum.  Now situated by the harbour, the Vasa was a warship built on the orders of the King of Sweden in the late 1620s.  The King of Sweden wanted the ship to symbolize his personal and national ambitions and commissioned a ship, the design of which was completely new.    Using money from private enterprise the King wanted the ship to have not one but two gun decks.  The King himself chose really big and heavy bronze cannons.

The result was a fantastic looking ship which was dangerously unstable and top heavy.  There was simply too much weight in the upper part of the hull and insufficient ballast.  None of the King’s subordinates had the courage to tell him that his design was flawed.  Rather than postponing, the ship set out on its maiden voyage on 10 August 1628.   Less than a mile from the dock it capsized under a slight gust of wind, taking with it around 40 people’s lives.  It lay at the bottom of the Baltic for another 333 years before being raised and brought back to dock to stand as a salutary and tragic lesson to all who desire to innovate without advice.

What did I take from this? Four things.

Firstly, beware of politicians.  When it comes to education, we the educators are the ballast, we are the real experts, not politicians.  Because the SSTA is non-political, not aligned with any party, we are free to comment on the policies of every and any political party.  If the politicians don’t hear from the experts they court disaster.  Politicians have a duty to listen, we have a duty to make our voices heard.  With a General Election only days away, our votes will matter. Take a close look at the education section of each party’s manifesto and ask yourself: What are the educational aims of this party? How will they affect me and the youngsters I teach?  Is this about education or political ideology?  Two weeks ago I heard one of the Government’s Senior International Advisers, Andy Hargreaves, speaking.  He didn’t mince his words, stating, “England is now a policy vacuum. No character, no focus, no sense of what England’s citizens, its young people should become. Just markets, academies, grammar schools. Choice, fracturing, segregation. More of the inequalities that separate each of us from all the others around us. More intersecting identities less interacting identities.”  What do we want for education in Scotland?  Certainly not a business-driven model, defunded and starved of resources, putting profit before pupils.

Secondly, the captain of the Vasa knew it wasn’t seaworthy; in fact as part of a test of seaworthiness he had the crew run back and forth across the deck to show one of the King’s Vice-Admirals that the boat was unsafe.  The test was stopped early because they feared the ship might capsize right there and then on the harbourside!  The Vice-Admiral had no desire to tell the King that his pet project was quite literally full of holes.  Institutional factors can prevent good decisions from being made and sometimes it is important to be prepared to re-evaluate a high profile project.  We are waiting for an announcement on the Governance Review.  When the Government’s ideas appear, we need to be ready to ask,

  • Will this result in a reduction in teachers’ autonomy?
  • What effect will it have on workload?
  • Is there a possibility that teacher unions may be edged out in policy development?
  • Will those responsible for running education have a high level of expertise and understanding? and
  • Will it benefit teaching and learning?

Thirdly, it is vitally important to test new ideas carefully before rolling them out on a grand scale.  How many false starts have we experienced because no small-scale testing has been carried out?  With all the changes that have been taking place in National 5 exams, how certain can we be that they are ready to roll?  Or is there a risk that they may roll too far…?!

Fourthly, it’s ok to fail sometimes, and we need to learn from mistakes.  There needs to be an expectation that things will go wrong sometimes, but if mistakes are likely to have life-changing (or even life-ending) consequences, and perhaps be remembered for centuries, it’s probably safer to try and get it right from the get-go.  And sometimes it is better to turn back than to get lost!

So the tragedy of the Vasa teaches us:

  • Listening to experts is important
  • Institutional factors can prevent good decisions from being made
  • Test new ideas carefully
  • Learn from mistakes, try and get it right before you set off.

Getting education right for every child means you need to recruit, retain and reward the right people to be teachers.  Professional learning has to be given priority, not as an evening or weekend activity when teachers are tired and may have other responsibilities, but as part of their working week.

In 2001 we saw some very positive steps in this direction: the McCrone report, TP21, introduced a new career structure (including Chartered Teacher), improved conditions of service, restored pay, and introduced opportunities for better professional development and support, and new negotiating arrangements.   In doing so it paved the way for A Curriculum for Excellence, conceived in 2004 and implemented from 2010 onwards.  At first teachers expressed concern about the vagueness of the new curriculum, and many teachers expressed concern about the lack of clarity in terms of classroom expectations and assessment of pupils’ progress and attainment.  However, most teachers also believed that the principles underlying the new curriculum were valuable.  Who could disagree with the idea of a nation of confident learners, responsible citizens, effective contributors and successful learners?  But one of the problems with ACfE, or CfE as it later became known, was that secondary teachers had absolutely no idea of what the final assessment would look like for school leavers.

By 2011 Chartered Teacher was no longer on offer, despite the fact that it had been seen internationally as an excellent opportunity to raise teacher status, to enhance teaching and learning, and to support young people in achieving their potential.  Following a drastic and ill-considered cut to supply teachers’ pay there was a real teacher shortage making CPD more inaccessible, pension costs were increasing, the pay restoration of McCrone was effectively being undone, and support staff were being cut left, right and centre.

Exam guidance and procedures arrived late, and requests to delay starting new exams in 2013/14 were refused – unless you were at school in East Renfrewshire.  The consequence of this was that we had a workload spike, the sharp end of which has now been poking teachers hard for nearly 5 years.  The late and untested introduction of the new exams led to an ‘unintended and unsustainable workload’  for teachers and pupils.  The exam system didn’t quite capsize in harbour, but it was only because every secondary teacher in Scotland was bailing as hard as they could to keep things afloat.

GIRFEC is not the sole responsibility of classroom teachers, everybody involved in education must contribute and this includes the SQA.

One of John Swinney’s first acts as Cabinet Secretary for Education was a commitment to ‘declutter the curriculum and strip away anything that creates unnecessary workload for teachers’.  This was welcomed by teachers, but lacked the kind of bite to make workload reduction a reality in schools.  The Education Scotland Workload Review discovered that, when it came to developing policies to get workload under control, around half of employers were still dragging their heels.  Cracks were being papered over with education authorities struggling to carry out their function through lack of resources.

Austerity has pushed education authorities away from fully resourced education departments into an attitude of ‘how little can you get away with spending?’  The Pupil Equity Fund has been a welcome recognition that schools need more resources to close the attainment gap, but it has brought into sharp relief all the cuts of recent years and added workload to school leaders.  Funding calculations need to be a bit more sophisticated than the rather outdated approach of free school meal entitlement.  We don’t need a quick fix, we need to be able to make long term strategic plans for closing the attainment gap and ensuring youngsters are ready for the time of their lives.

Another quick fix, the rush job which the SQA has been committed to, in terms of removing unit assessments from National 5 and rethinking National 4, runs the risk of lacking anything like enough time for proper implementation and the institutional factor that too much is at stake to pause and reflect now.  And we hope that the new CfE benchmarks will bring some clarity, but in the short term these will add further to teachers’ workload.  Remember the old saying, haste makes waste!

So I ask the question, as teachers, are we surviving or thriving?  Do we have the time to plan, teach, assess, and evaluate, and thereby get it right for every child?  I think those who are not educators sometimes imagine that teachers are only really working when they are engaged in class contact.  The reality is that what happens in the classroom is only the tip of the iceberg.  Buoying up that visible tip is a much larger unseen structure, a mass invisible to most but which includes everything else that makes good quality learning and teaching possible: planning the experiences, preparing resources, arranging the learning environment, knowing the pupils, thinking about how to assess the outcomes, maintaining current subject knowledge, reporting on progress, evaluating the quality of the learning, and so on.  Getting it right for every child means that a standardised approach isn’t good enough, and a personalised approach takes longer.  Put another way, it’s the difference between fast food and a la carte.

A few months ago I heard some new ways of describing ways to get teachers to work for free: you can now include ‘added discretional value,’ ‘discretionary energy,’ and ‘functional flexibility’ on your buzzword bingo list.  Teachers go way beyond their contractual obligations to nurture youngsters and give their time freely to close the attainment gap but little of this work is truly recognised as ‘part of the job’.  How many of us here recently led Easter schools, offered supported study before and after school and at lunchtime, mentored pupils at risk of underachievement, offered before and after school clubs, led and participated in evening events such as discos, concerts and shows, organised and supervised extracurricular trips, engaged in more marking and preparation than time allowed, prepared for inspections, carried out all the development work to enable us to teach, and met with colleagues in our own time?  And how many of us talk of just surviving through to the end of term…?

Despite the stress and work pressure, teachers have the lowest absence rates of any local authority employees and yet how many of us find ourselves subject to draconian absence management policies? How many of us have been refused things like compassionate leave and time for moving house, weddings and funerals? In what way are teachers nurtured?  Developing the young workforce is a key government strategy, but are teachers’ employers setting a good example?

As teachers we want to do a good job, we want our pupils to succeed, we want to be happy where we work with minimal stress.  We want to close the attainment gap, we want to give everyone the best start in life.  The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment, reporting on international samples of 15 year olds’ performance in Maths, Science and reading every three years, was published in November.  In the PISA report 2015 Scotland’s performance had slipped, and this was seen as a big concern by some politicians who only looked at the unhelpful country rankings.  Now, it has been suggested that the PISA tower is leaning – there have been criticisms of its tests, criticism of how pupils to be tested are chosen in some countries, and criticisms of its use of statistical techniques to create country rankings.  Any educator will tell you that an over-reliance on standard tests narrows learning down to what can easily be measured.    But one of the unsung successes of the PISA report, and I think one which must surely be above criticism, was the way it highlighted the very positive and supportive relationships teachers in Scotland have with learners.

Politicians are fond of OECD statistics.  One of the reasons we are about to experience big data collection in the form of standardised assessment is the OECD Scotland report.  But let me quote from the OECD’s 2014 Education at a Glance Indicators:

“A teacher of general subjects in upper secondary education has an average teaching load of 655 hours per year. Teaching time exceeds 800 hours in only six countries: Argentina, Australia, Chile, Mexico, the United States, and Scotland.”

When it comes to teaching time, at fifth-highest we are a world leader!  Not something to be proud of.

If the Cabinet Secretary for Education is serious about improving education, he needs to give teachers time to teach so that we can keep putting pupils first.  This is not about lengthy statements from Education Scotland or long improvement documents, it is about reducing the amount of teacher class-contact time to allow teachers to carry out the vital tasks that keep afloat the success of that learning time for every child.  The constant outflow of words from Education Scotland needs to be stiffly translated into time to enable every educator to work smartly, effectively and rightly for every child.  Teachers are looking for assistance, not advice.

Where in the past the dominie ruled the classroom with a belt and a stare, we have come to the realisation that it takes a whole village to educate a child.  This ‘Team Around the Child’ extends far beyond the school into the homes of the youngsters we teach, into health, into social services, into colleges, universities and employers.  Giving the team direction takes time and well trained leadership.  For example, the challenge of engaging parents is not new, but if we are to begin to ensure that they are able to have access to high quality clear information and time to understand issues then those who are paid members of the team also need time.  Building strong working relationships which enable valued family engagement is at the root of successful learning.  We need time to work with all the other people who want children to be successful learners.

Kai-Ming Cheng is Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Hong Kong, and can be considered an expert.  He says, “When teachers are surviving, they are not focused on student learning” – in other words teachers need an achievable workload.  I know a number of teachers who have reduced their paid hours to part-time to enable them to do a full-time job.  There is evidence that many over-burdened teachers are struggling to maintain good mental health.  Our currently-running industrial action has focused on taking control of workload by empowering teachers to say no.  Workload is strangling innovation!  To thrive, what we really need is the time to say ‘yes!’  We want collaborative classrooms, collaborative staffrooms, collaborative schools and collaborative communities.  We want to say yes to innovation, yes to getting it right for every child, yes to parental engagement, yes to personal development, yes to developing the young workforce, yes to bold new methods of assessment.  We want to thrive, give us the time!

In their book ‘Flip the System,’ which I strongly recommend, Jelmer Evers and Rene Kneyber conclude that teachers need time to collaborate , build trust, assess their peers, innovate and construct a new language of education.’  In 2015 the OECD found that ‘Research… suggests that there are positive associations between both self-efficacy and job satisfaction and student achievement’.  In other words, the more fulfilled teachers are by their achievement and the more opportunities they have to collaborate, the better the quality of youngsters’ learning experiences.  Teachers feed on their pupils’ success!  But if they are constantly overburdened with tasks they know they will struggle to complete, teachers experience stress which inevitably transmits to the learners they are working with.  Remember, teachers’ working conditions are youngsters’ learning conditions!   Acknowledging the professionalism of teachers means that there needs to be adequate time to prepare, reflect and collaborate, and Evers and Kneyber suggest that, ‘spending more than 19 hours in front of a class per week seriously hampers the capacity to place teachers in the lead’. We want to teach, and we want the time to do it!

Finally, we need to offer good opportunities for leadership.  Getting it right for every child requires time and the effective use of that most precious resource, time, requires good leadership.  Effective, nurturing, leadership must be about good pruning and weeding to allow a few central ideas to blossom rather than allowing a thousand ideas to bloom.  Sometimes it feels like there are rather too many great ideas in education to really comprehend them all.  And rather than handing young people cut flowers, as teachers we are just really trying to teach them to cultivate their own plants.

The ADES Charter 2016 states:  "There is a growing challenge across Scotland in the recruitment of high quality teachers and headteachers. ADES sees this as one of the most immediate challenges facing Scottish education where teacher shortages and declining numbers of applicants for headteacher posts pose a major risk to the system.”  Ignoring the opportunity to develop the professionalism envisaged by McCrone in 2001, education authorities throughout Scotland have been stripping out Principal Teacher Curriculum, Depute Head, and even Headteacher posts in primary and secondary schools to save money, removing important planks of leadership and weakening the middle.  You can’t steer a ship without someone at the helm!

It is surely no coincidence that as opportunities for career progression have dwindled recruitment and retention have become more difficult.  There is plenty of evidence that almost all graduates are attracted by opportunities for career progression.  If teaching is perceived as offering only limited progression, or progression only for an elite few, then graduates will look elsewhere.  All teachers in every sector require a remarkable skillset and wide-ranging expertise to enable youngsters to succeed.  Although teaching might have been regarded as a lifelong career in the past, current teachers are now realising that their skills and expertise are transferable into other careers.  According to the recent teacher census there are about 730 unfilled teaching vacancies in Scotland.  The GTCS is investigating the loss from the registered teaching workforce of 861 teachers age 21-40.  This seems to be taking some education employers by surprise, and it seems hard to believe that offering headteachers more control will improve the situation. Pay and promotion opportunities are simply not keeping up.  In the battle for hearts and minds, Scotland’s teachers are warriors for learning.  Warriors need leaders.  Scotland’s future deserves a profession which will fight for them!

The flatter promotion structure which has drifted into place means that far fewer opportunities exist for skilled people to achieve promotion, and the steps to promotion are comparatively much larger now.  A few talented individuals may rise to the top helium-style, but for many other excellent practitioners the wind is taken out of their sails through lack of opportunity.  Where promotion turnover once refreshed and aerated schools, teachers move far less frequently.   Many teachers view senior leadership roles as having become over-demanding and at odds with work/life balance.

The SSTA is seeking to start the debate on how a few more rungs on the promotion ladder can be reintroduced, with the benefit that workload and leadership expertise will be more equitably shared and rewarded.  This is not about rewarding some teachers for narrow subject-specific knowledge.  It is about recruiting and retaining the right people and it is about getting the right spread of opportunities for properly paid, appropriately skilled and expertly knowledgeable leadership in place.  Then we can start making real progress on closing the attainment gap and developing a curriculum fit for Scotland’s future.

A jaded profession cannot sparkle.  The ship is wobbling.  If Scottish education is to retain its sheen it needs more than a bit of spit and polish, it’s time to enhance what we do.  We don’t need more rules and governance by top-heavy big guns.  Having asked the experts, teachers, what would make things work the way they should, it’s time for politicians to start listening.  We have had plenty of change in recent years, and what we really need now is time for reflection, time for consolidation, time to teach, time to lead, and the resources to do it well.

The SSTA continues to be the seasoned salt of Scottish education, playing a vital role in uniquely representing teachers in Scottish Secondary schools.  In 2019 we are looking forward to celebrating 75 years since the Association’s founding.  I am proud to say that, since this time last year, I have discovered that my grandfather, Alfred Duncan, was one of the early protagonists of the Association.  He was a teacher of Commerce first at Hillhead High then at Jordanhill College and was elected to be Glasgow Regional Secretary in 1945.   In the Merchants’ Hall, Edinburgh, on Saturday 24 November 1945 136 members attended a Special Meeting of Congress.  At that meeting my grandfather, as Glasgow Regional Secretary, opened the debate on whether the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association should secede from the EIS, that is, to become a Union in its own right and the rest is history.  My other grandpa Laurie was a member of the EIS all his life, but like the EIS and the SSTA today, Laurie and Alf got on pretty well most of the time!

I believe that the work of the Association is just as relevant and important now as it was when my grandfather spoke on behalf of Glasgow members in 1945.  One of the attractions of the SSTA to me has always been its nimbleness; we have a very focused approach and listen to our members carefully.  By focusing only on Secondary education we are able to support members by knowing each other well and by understanding the things which sometimes make our work difficult.   In my view no other association or group in Scotland gives secondary teachers a voice as effectively as the SSTA.

The people here in this room, the SSTA at large, we represent the activists who are working tirelessly to support our colleagues through casework and campaigns.  We are the ones organising and standing up for the rights of teachers and learners.  Our work has to be recognised and appreciated by employers, politicians, parents and young people.  When we go back to school next week, let’s take our shiny badges and wear them prominently with pride.  Make my grandpa the SSTA protagonist Alf Duncan proud, tell people, I am a member of the SSTA, I am an innovator, in my teaching I want to get it right for every child, I stand up for students and teachers in secondary education!  Give me the time!


For further information, please contact

Euan Duncan

Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association
West End House
14 West End Place
EH11 2ED