Address to the 76th Congress of the SSTA
2 October 2021
During my time as President, we have experienced two lockdowns, two consecutive years of external exams cancellations, the Alternative Certification Model, an OECD review of the curriculum and assessment, a review of Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualification Authority and now the possibility of not even a two percent pay rise.
Certainly, plenty of material to write about in a speech!
Over the last 18 months, what teachers have endured and achieved as frontline workers, has been remarkable.
Remarkable, as teachers showed leadership when schools were in lockdown. Teachers also showed new levels of professionalism as they had to develop new skills when working from home and continued delivering beyond expectations, so that young people had some form of platform to learn.
Alternative Certification Model (ACM)
Other qualities that teachers demonstrated were also resilience and adaptability. Two qualities needed for delivering the Alternative Certification Model.
The effort required to develop, moderate, assess, mark, collate and present evidence for young people, raised the workload to new levels for Senior Leaders, Principal teachers, and classroom teachers alike. Not forgetting the stress and pressure on pupils to complete their qualifications.
The ACM was an exercise that should never be repeated for a multitude of reasons. Including the lack of consistency in implementation, the lengthy moderation process, and the extensive micro-management. The ACM was a workload generator for everyone involved.
If there is a system to replace final exams or even continuous formal assessments the ACM was not it. Even with an additional payment of £400 (which is tax deductible, may I add) for the trouble.
Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)
Also, during my time as President, we had the OECD review of the Curriculum for Excellence.
Nobody at government level questioned the principles underpinning CfE. The vision was clear at the start of this journey, but somehow, they could not see where the road was leading. The theory behind changing the curriculum for the 21st Century has not translated well in implementation, especially for the senior phase.
This is mainly because the changes to the curriculum was untried and untested. There were no safeguards or knowledge of what worked and what did not work before it was fully implemented at a national level. A lack of understanding on the impact of a wholesale change in the curriculum has led to inconsistencies in approach.
The learner journey varied from which school or local authority a child was being taught. Some schools stuck with the traditional model of 2, 2, 2 model (i.e., S1&2, S3&4, S5&6) Whereas other schools adopted the 3, 3 model (S1 to S3 and S4 to S6) as transition stages.
It seems that moving to a 3, 3 model was based on a belief system rather than having established facts, because it was never done before.
Another criticism of CfE is the structure of the National qualification courses.
According to our survey of members, National Qualifications level 3, 4 and 5 were predominately multicourse qualifications. Where the course content at each level did not match exactly in some subjects, and in other subjects, there was no match in content at all.
The SSTA survey also pointed out that many teachers were given the difficult task of teaching these multicourse qualifications concurrently in a single class. This has also extended into Higher classes, the gold standard, running alongside National 5 classes.
This scenario was not the case for Standard grades. Standard Grade Foundation, General and Credit courses were multilevel qualifications where each level covered the same content but expanded upon. A far cry from National qualifications. Also, Standard Grade was rolled out with course notes and questions for each subject. Unlike National qualifications where teachers had to adapt existing materials and, in many subjects, create new resources whilst teaching these new qualifications.
National qualifications also introduced unit assessments. A workload generator for pupils and staff due to the inherent flaws in implementation as the units were assessing pupils at level C, unlike the final exam, and the principle of multiple attempts until pupils passed was a logistical nightmare for those who failed or missed a unit assessment.
If we are to progress in terms of assessment, we should incorporate some form of teacher judgement that also has the minimum impact on workload and is fair and equitable to pupils.
But the criticisms of CfE especially at the senior phase, were made long before the OECD review. Any calls for a delay in the implementation of CfE were brushed aside by the strategic top-down management decision making.
The OECD were critical of a system that had politically inspired superfluous hype rather than effective and robust policies. A world filled with acronyms that were difficult to decipher and full of jargons. As it turns out, for CfE the labyrinth of expectations and outcomes (E&Os) supplemented with generic statements were open to interpretation offering solutions that created their own problems!
Lost by what I just said? So were the teachers!
The rollout for CfE was not building on knowledge and strengths of previous qualifications. It was a cultural and systematic change that wiped the slate clean from our strengths of the past, and to match the CfE principles that believed was better for the future. Something that our professional association has been concerned about at an early stage of its development.
If curriculum change was a battlefield, and tactics were deployed to win the battle, then we must move away from the top-down management style of Field Marshalls dictating strategies and procedures for the troops on the ground.
The battlefield has changed in the 21st Century. The strategy now will require specialist teams akin to the SAS delivering the appropriate changes for each specific subject in secondary schools, to prevent the mistakes that CfE introduced.
This is essential. After all, the specialist subject teachers should know what is best to teaching and assessing their own subject from BGE level to the Senior phase. Including, no interference from Field Marshalls behind their desks, dictating from the top.
Historically, there has been inherent lack of trust in teachers within the education system. To move forward appropriate mechanism for Teacher Agency, the capacity for teachers to act, not just at school level but also at National level. Teachers would be empowered to a greater extent to have control over changes in the curriculum and assessments, whilst maintaining a national standard.
A mechanism to promote teacher agency is to embrace subject specialists as the lead teachers. However, it seems in a new era of possibly future financial constraints is looming due to the pandemic and the opportunity to develop lead teacher as subject specialists is looking very limited.
There is also another caveat to consider. After the implementation of CfE, are teachers and pupils willing to go through another wholesale change in the curriculum? Well, if it goes the same way as before, surely, we will have to reconsider our options.
Another consequence of the pandemic is the review of Education Scotland and the SQA.
An independent expert panel and advisory group has been set up to understand the needs of our schools, practitioners, and learners. The review will look at replacing the SQA and removing the inspection function from Education Scotland.
On face value, the expert panel have a broad range of well-respected academics and leaders, but it can be argued regarding this expert panel, that there is a lack of representation from teachers, but we recognise that our professional association’s voice can be heard through the Professional and Stakeholder Advisory Group. (PaSAG)
The review of the external agencies SQA and Education Scotland will equally affect all our members. Our contribution to the review, should in many respects go beyond as stakeholders but act as partners. Not only can our professional association impart the knowledge, expertise, and experience from members to the benefit of the pupils as well as the profession.
It will allow teachers to have a positive impact to shape Scottish Education for many years to come.
Looking back to the history of Scottish education, again, we have changed our external agencies and qualifications body before. The SQA were formally the Scottish Examination Board and Education Scotland were once called Learning and Teaching Scotland.
However, it should not have taken the pandemic again for the Scottish Government to enquire about the remit and function of our external agencies.
Once the Education review report is finalised and published, will it still answer some questions that our association will ask:
If the signposts outside each agency office is going to change, would that mean the décor inside will also change?
Will the new inspectorate be independent of Scottish government and scrutinise government policies as well as schools and local authorities?
Who will scrutinise the new inspectorate?
Will “How Good Is Our School 4” (HGIOS 4) be replaced with HGIOS 5?
Will Scottish Education change its main mantra from promoting administration excellence and swing towards pedagogical excellence?
If any external agency is to change, then a change in culture is required. One possibility is to readdress the balance between support and scrutiny of teachers.
For secondary teachers, scrutiny comes in many forms. From the school leadership, the local authority, the inspectorate and the SQA. Since the beginning of our first lockdown, there have been no inspections from any agency. Has the whole of Scottish Education collapsed? No, it has not. It shows the Scottish Education system is robust and effective under severe pressure and strain without the need of excessive scrutiny at different levels.
In terms of support, Education Scotland (and the former Learning Teaching Scotland) have had provided some excellent support materials for some subjects in the past. But the materials weren’t really updated and links to the Education Scotland website was difficult to navigate. For example, in my subject Physics there was a lack of support in resources through official external agencies during the pandemic. The support mechanism needs to be continuous and adaptable for a changing digital world and not an end point so that a box is ticked under the heading of “done” or “completed”.
Addressing the culture, will allow more support and it will help to shape the future to a more inclusive and equitable system for young people and teachers.
As Scottish Education is considering future changes in the curriculum, assessment, and the external agencies, we are still facing the consequences of a pandemic.
Our immediate priority should be educational recovery.
We need to ditch the peripheral and maintain the essential. Teachers need time to teach, and pupils need time to learn.
We need to maintain the mitigation measures and relax our controls on covid in a sensible and measured manner for the safety of all pupils and staff. This professional association supports the opportunity to vaccinate young people to keep this insidious virus at bay.
The immediate challenge is to deliver a quality educational experience for young people with the hope that we do not go through another lockdown and from what we have learned in the cancellations of final exams, we can give pupils a chance to attain fairly the qualifications they deserve.
Teachers need time to teach and a reduction in bureaucratic processes to cross the line by the end of this session. It is for this and many other reasons that our strapline is
“Teachers Leading Learning”
Teachers are leading the way to recovery. Our external agencies should appreciate what is happening in schools and classrooms under very challenging circumstances.
Experiences as President
My experiences as President have had many positives. I witnessed the true value of professionalism in teachers. Listening to teachers, how they helped pupils to learn and achieve their ambitions no matter the circumstances. How teachers supporting colleagues during a pandemic whether it was in front of a class or in front of a computer screen.
I was fortunate at the start of my Presidency to visit the OECD offices in Paris as a representative of the Trade Union Advisory Committee. (TUAC). I experienced at first hand, the issues that teachers faced around the globe and how to make a better future for young people.
Another privilege of being president is participating in a bilateral meeting of the SSTA Executive with the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills. These meetings give the opportunity for our professional association to express the views of secondary teachers. Our recent discussion in September, for example discussed the OECD review, national qualifications for 2022, teachers’ pay and career progression and developing a continuous working partnership with the Scottish Government. This open and direct communication from our Professional Association perspective is to improve the working life in the secondary sector. It is our aim to reduce workload, bureaucracy, and stress, and in turn allowing us to focus our attention on teaching and learning for the benefit of pupils.
I hope that sooner than later we can all meet face to face, shake hands and enjoy each other’s company. Ditching the computer screen and having personal contact is important. After all it is the system that we have adopted after reopening schools at the last lockdown.
There is so much more to discuss in Scottish Education, but just like a lesson that must be delivered within a specific time frame, there are things that we still must addressed.
The career structure: What will become of the Lead Teacher role?
The protracted pay negotiations: Will it be the same cycle of below inflation pay awards for several years followed by a bumper pay out 10 years from now?
Health and mental well-being; Will teachers be able to afford to retire at 60 before burnout?
Food for thought for the next President.
I would like to finish to say thank you for the support from all those around me. Especially my wife Sarah, my children Lucia and Alessia, my colleagues at Mearns Castle High School, too many to name and also my Local Authority, East Renfrewshire Council. I must also thank the backroom staff of the SSTA and all those in the Secretariat, the Executive and finally the General Secretary Seamus Searson.