Colleagues, guests, friends and delegates from deepest, darkest Fife. I take great pleasure in welcoming you all to the 74th Congress of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association.
I find myself being captain of our great ship in a year through which we have sailed some pretty turbulent seas. It gives me great pleasure however, to be at the helm as our Association enters its 75th year of ensuring the voice of secondary teachers in Scotland is heard. And I can assure you that any meeting I’m at, my voice is certainly heard. The ship analogy is pertinent. It would not be the first time I’ve answered to the appellation “Foghorn” not only that but it’s usually accompanied with “Leghorn”. I must admit I do share many features with the rooster of Loony Toons fame. I bluster and criticise, am arrogant and conceited and I am not very smart. Or that’s what my Heidy has said anyway!
Anyhoo. My first year as President has been very interesting indeed. I have attended many types of meetings and enjoyed the company of many hiheidyins that the garden variety common teacher rarely has the chance to. Not only do I have the pleasure of regular-ish meetings with the esteemed minister for education but I’ve also had the chance to meet many other VIPs from the educational milieu, including many colleagues from our sister unions in Ireland, England, Europe and from across the world. I enjoy regular meetings with luminaries such as Ken Muir, Janet Brown and various different colleagues from Education Scotland (they never send the same person twice as then there maybe be a danger they’d come up with some consistency) Although in all seriousness, having the chance to parley with so many makers and players in education has allowed me to learn a great deal about the workings of the system and how to better convey the views of our members within it.
At this juncture I’d better take the opportunity to ensure all delegates here today that at every single meeting I attend, the general secretary, Mr Seamus Searson does his utmost to ensure that I’m not allowed to speak too much, just in case. Most people that know me know I like the occasional nonsensical rant that generally ends up with lots of people being condemned to firing squads. Conversely however, I can say that on every single occasion Seamus represents this Association, he does so to a singularly high degree. I witness regularly this man’s ability to infuse his arguments with clarity, wit, intelligence and charm. That is when people are listening to him, mostly they’re trying to figure out if he’s Irish, Scottish or English, what with his name, accent, home location and country of work. All that aside, be very satisfied that Seamus is doing an excellent job as our general secretary!
Be assured colleagues, what with being President, District secretary of Fife and a member of Council with the GTCs, I have had to work quite hard and have had quite a stressful time over the past few months, for as I previously alluded, we are sailing some pretty choppy waters.
Colleagues you will no doubt have noticed that our battle cry this year, emblazoned on the podium, is a re- working of the three R’s. Retention-Recruitment-Restoration. These three words will be of critical importance as we enter our 75th year. As such most of the Association’s coming work will revolve around these issues. I shall expand-
It is not an exaggeration to say that as teachers you play a crucial role in the creation of an environment in which the children of Scotland can strive to achieve their full potential.
As teachers we play an incalculably important role in the lives of our young people. Not only do we provide the building blocks for our pupil’s need for academic stimulation and achievement but also the guidance gathered from our life experiences that can help youngsters become full and active members of our society. (However, we will all be aware that the teenager who listens to their teachers’ pearls of wisdom is a rare beast, actions must speak louder than words if we are to truly guide our youngsters down a wise path) For me full and active participation in our society is of equal if not more importance than academic achievement. Surely our job as teachers is to help produce young people who can fully contribute socially, as well as intellectually, all that they have to offer to their communities. In order to do this colleagues, we need our working conditions to be conducive to the upkeep of our sanity.
The first objective of any school must be to keep the experience and expertise that it already has. Nothing can be built on nothing. Teachers are continually put in unacceptably stressful conditions. Workload continues to increase unabated. The Scottish Government and at their behest, SQA and Education Scotland seem to have no cognisance of just how much a teacher can cope with. Since the early to mid-2000’s and the move up the gears to a new way of delivering education in Scotland, the degree of change in our National Curriculum has been unmanageable. Since the introduction of the National Qualifications, teachers’ workload has risen and risen. Never ending changes and re-writes just make matters worse. The Government’s refusal to listen to reason and slow the pace of change is inscrutable. How valued can a teacher feel, when as the professional at the chalk face, your opinion isn’t even asked for but instead you are told how these things should work by an “International” expert! Come on Mr Swinney, listen to us when we say “slow down!”
People, these changes lead to never ending changes to course content, assessment provisions, inspection regimes, course development, ever increasing demands of PRD and ever changing models for tracking and monitoring. The sum of this is that teachers are leaving the profession.
And then colleagues, there is one of the central issues producing stress for teachers right now. This issue is severely affecting retention, and through anecdotal horror stories from within schools, recruitment too. In my opinion behaviour and relationships in our schools has reached an all-time low. The causes of this ever burgeoning issue are manifold but for me, chief amongst them is deprivation. Colleagues we should, as human beings, be ashamed of the levels of poverty that exist in this country. We all see it every day, a lot of us grew up with it lurking over us. The burden of this poverty can be an intolerable weight for children to manage. Some of our pupils are growing up in environments where what happens at school is literally the last thing that is important in their lives. Just the stress of not being able to eat decent food, keep warm and find clothes to wear that aren’t filthy or in rags would cripple most adults let alone a child. Parents in this environment are no better equipped to deal with this pressure. A huge number cannot cope with the demands our education system places on their offspring. Communities living with poverty do not engage with schools. How then do we resolve the issues their kids experience when under our tutelage? In the community where I myself work, people are beset with issues with drugs, alcohol and violence. This, of course, diffuses into the school, which is a microcosm of that community. Every day, at work I see the consequences. Pupils are extreme in their disrespect for staff and each other, there are severe issues with drugs, and many pupils are unable to control their violence. Staff are unable to cope, learning and teaching is way from being top of the agenda. Now I know that where I work is not how it is everywhere. My school is in an area with multiple deprivation indicators but, this is an issue which is effecting more and more schools. Even in schools with kids from mixed social backgrounds, issues can spread and effect everyone within that environment when certain behaviours are accepted and unchallenged. The consequences of poverty are exacerbated by never ending cycles of budget cuts, support services such as Specialised Pupil Support, i.e. behaviour, sense impairment and English as a second language are virtually non-existent. PSA numbers are decreasing across the country. Specialised schools are a thing of the past. The latter is often justified in the name of Inclusion. Now, no one can philosophically challenge the merits of Inclusion. As an idea in a fair and democratic society, it is absolutely right. My issue with Inclusion is firmly in the context of underfunded schools, facing ever deeper cuts, serving our poorer catchment areas. Colleagues, our comrades south of the border in the National Union of Teachers commissioned the education faculty at no less a university than the University of Cambridge to research “The Cost of Inclusion” in mainstream schools. Their conclusions are many, and have, as you would absolutely expect, found positives for children who are “Included” but many of their findings also show how Inclusion in the context of poorly funded schools, in poverty affected communities, has a negative effect. For instance: “In disadvantaged areas where a school may have over half its pupils classified as ‘special needs’ … strategies which may work in more stable situations do not apply. Here the critical ‘balance’ shifts so as to make effective teaching nigh on impossible. It is only with exceptional dedication and resilience that teachers cope with the turbulence and unpredictability of day-to-day life. It is in these circumstances that lack of resources and insufficient expertise hit hardest.” This is exactly the situation in my school! Another quote:
“Provision of appropriate resources could go a long way to meeting needs but in almost all primary and secondary schools increasing demands are not matched by resources, in terms of staffing as well as classroom materials and equipment.”
Colleagues, the report also points out, in detail how the lack of proper and extensive CPD leads to teachers being unable to cope with the demands of the pupils or with the accompanying workload.
It goes on to lay out the effects on the kids themselves. They feel marginalised by poor academic performance in a system which is not designed to meet their needs, this in turn results in frustration and poor behaviour. The parents don’t receive the help they need to properly understand their child’s condition, we don’t receive the training we need in order to understand and mitigate it either! Exclusion statistics show that a disproportionate number of excluded children have SEN requirements.
The Government’s solution? The Pupil Equity Fund. Mooted as the way to close the poverty induced “gap” between highest and poorest achieving. It does not nearly come close to even thinking about addressing the consequences of poverty in terms of attainment. Instead it is becoming a bureaucratic headache for our Heads and for teachers, who can expect to be harangued and harassed by HMIE over its effectiveness, or lack of. It has opened the door to Free Marketeering in our schools, with various “experts” and “interest groups” vying to secure a share of the money. Comrades, we are the experts! To do our job right we need proper funding in our schools, we need time to teach, we need resources and experts to cater for the complex and diverse issues our children can suffer. We as teachers need easily accessed and appropriate CPD. We need appropriate equipment to teach our specialist subjects. We need colleagues in school offices and PSA’s in class rooms and colleagues we need safe and secure facilities, owned and operated by organisations that are accountable to the electorate. No More PPP, ever!
There are direct links between poverty, attainment and behaviour. We need the Government to tackle these issues directly! We need resources to rebuilt communities: – people with jobs have dignity and self-respect. They raise children who are more able to engage at school, better engaged children respect teachers and their authority to teach- simples!
In the short term we need management teams and local authorities to develop the will to deal with the most disruptive pupils and with parents who simply won’t engage with the school. The levels of disruption in classrooms cannot be allowed to continue. We cannot continue to be lectured about the “right” to an education. Not when it takes away another’s right to an education or our right to deliver that education. With rights come responsibilities. You need to be responsible for your own behaviour. We create an illusion in our schools. The illusion of a society where you don’t have to answer for your actions. Actions have consequences. Our young people need to learn this. We are abrogating our responsibility to our charges when we allow them to think that they can behave in any manner they wish and that it won’t have negative effects for them, it will! Managers need to learn that they can’t just tell a pupil to apologise and that’s the situation “restored”. It’s not. Kids have to understand why what they did was wrong and why they shouldn’t do it. They should want NOT to do it! And if I hear “How did your behaviour effect the situation?” again, I may lose my mind! It’s not my fault that our schools are underfunded and don’t have the resources to support our highest tariff pupils. To help schools deal with this LA’s need to provide resources so we can create real alternatives to exclusion. That means qualified, trained and experienced staff. We need a national framework which sets out clear expectations of behaviour and how to manage it effectively and how to record it when it goes wrong. We need to end the culture of “No Consequences” and introduce a culture of respect! To some this may sound reactionary. It is not. It is about protecting the dignity of the majority of pupils and our members at their work – simples!
Colleagues, I mentioned having time to teach a moment ago. We are all aware of the ongoing problems the lack of fully staffed schools create. If a teacher is to be able to create inspirational, engaging and meaningful lessons, they require time. If your time is consumed by endlessly covering vacancies or long term absences so that you are down to the minimum non-contact time, this becomes impossible. If a pupil doesn’t have a regular teacher, with whom they can build positive, trusting relationships or are in the hall with a member of SMT and 200 other kids, they are not working in an environment where learning and teaching is as good as it can be. The lack of time for preparation, marking and collegiate creativity processes created by the lack of teachers in our schools generates stress. The OECD already identifies Scottish teachers as being amongst the teachers with the highest contact times. This needs to change now! In a job where stress lurks around every corner we must mitigate the causes where we can, always. Colleagues, we need more teachers!
Since the crash of 2008 the people of Britain have shouldered the cost of the deliberate actions of a tiny minority of reckless bankers, capitalists at their greediest! Prior to this teachers’ pay and conditions were moderately improving. Since that date however there has been a sustained ideologically motivated attack on not just teacher’s pay and conditions but on all those who choose to work for the betterment of society in the Public Service. Over the last decade and a half unpromoted teachers’ pay has fallen by approximately 16%. It is no wonder recruitment and retention are the vexing issues that they are.
If you are a graduate just leaving university and you’re considering your options, why would you choose teaching? Well, quite honestly there isn’t much to convince you! Fair enough, if you’re looking for even more debt, you can accrue another years’ worth of student loans to pay off over the next thirty years. You can try and scrape together the cost of accommodation, rents around Scotland are pretty reasonable- NOT! Thanks to the GTC and the providers of Initial Teacher Education, you can be expected to travel an hour and a half to get to school placements, no bother. You’ve just left uni, you’ve got a car and plenty of dosh to splash out on fuel. What? You’ve not got a car? Don’t worry our public transport is second to none! You don’t live in a city? Eh well, no public transport then….. That’s your problem! Once in school you have all the support networks you need, except, the teachers in the school are up to their eyebrows in their own workload and are stressed out of their minds, they’ve not got time to share their experience or support you. But you’ve got a mentor! Well you may but are they going to have the dedicated time in which to support you? Maybe, maybe not. What about support from your Uni tutors? Well they do the best they can but there aren’t enough to cover the whole country or the numbers of students adequately. It’s not good enough! Not by a long shot! If we want to encourage people into teaching, we need to make it easier for them, we need to pay their costs, we need to subsidise accommodation and transport- We need to pay them! They need proper support. That means we need time, in school, to nurture them, help them, develop their strengths and share our experience. Now you’d be forgiven at this juncture for thinking “Oh isn’t that what that TeachFirst mob are all about?” No its not! The best thing about our Teacher Training model is that we have exacting standards. The higher, the better! TeachFirst are about taking unqualified people, both in academic and in some cases personal terms and placing them directly in front of kids without prior experience or understanding of the basic philosophy of how to do it! This is wrong! Our students need the basis a PGDE gives them. This is attested to by the outrageous rates of attrition suffered by TeachFirst students. On top of this, in England it costs more taxpayers money to train a teacher using TeachFirst than funding a PGDE, with higher rates of TeachFirst students leaving the profession within 5 years! No way! The Government has made moves on introducing salaried PGDE courses in some subjects and geographical locations. It needs to be rolled out across the country, NOW!
Taking it back a bit, you’re a graduate again, you’re considering your options. Your pal has just got a job with a telecommunications company starting on 30K a year, rising every year thereafter. You’re other pal has gone into computer programming, he’s looking at earning twice what your other pal gets. You’re thinking about teaching, you’re looking at starting on 21K, after another year at uni mind, going up eventually to 35. Is it really that much of a prospect? The market place for many graduates is very competitive. It is still absolutely the case that with a degree your chances of earning a much higher than average income are very good. Why would you settle for £35000? Would you Mr. Swinney?
Colleagues, this isn’t only a conundrum for prospective teachers. I can personally attest that it is difficult to make my wage last till payday. If I didn’t have a degree in Ecology, I’d have to seriously think about another job. 35K! Five years at uni and fifteen years’ experience and, I can hardly pay my bills. For the stress, the workload and the constant updating of skills; the physical and mental drainage of doing the job. Is that all we are worth? Judging by the numbers fleeing the profession and the problems recruiting new blood, I’d say many people think it’s simply not enough!
Our employers’ solution is to offer an insulting and divisive 3% to everyone up to point 6 on the main grade and 2% to teachers on point 6. I think not! We need restoration! We need 10%! And the thing is, that only takes us to where we should have been!
Colleagues, I need to be clear here: It looks to me to be the case, that if we want this 10%, we‘re going to need to be prepared to fight for it!
Comrades, it would be wrong to contest, and we have always said this, that a teacher’s working conditions are a pupil’s learning conditions. If we are to ensure that every child in this country has the best possible opportunity to succeed then it is a teacher’s, and more importantly our governments, obligation to ensure they have the best of learning environments. It is essential therefore, that we do all that we can to persuade all those who do not value education as we do and our role within it, that being a teacher should be a job that only the best and most able amongst us aspire to.
We need the Scottish Government and Cosla to stop messing about and make a real effort to address the issues harassing our profession, only then will people be attracted to and want to remain working with our most precious resource, our children, in our classrooms.