Classroom crisis

As the new school year begins, many teachers are pessimistic and angry

Something is seriously wrong when one of Scotland’s most able, and normally upbeat, secondary headteachers states: “I cannot recall a time when teacher morale was so low.”

As a former head, still active in the educational world, I hear the rumblings and while this description of the reality in our secondary schools may have been at one end of the spectrum, it was not unique.

An Edinburgh secondary depute explained the roots of this demoralisation.  “There is a huge irony that in times of major educational reform, we are reduced in management and leadership numbers.  A major part of the job of school leaders is to boost morale, keep staff on board and, somehow, to also build capacity.

“It has been one of the most difficult years of my career (and my fellow Deputes say the same) – and I am working in a good school with excellent staff who are more than willing.  Yet, we have found it an extremely tough year.”

I started to pick up this unhappiness around Easter.  Thereafter, each time I communicated with colleagues I asked them about their own mood and the mood in their schools.  A remarkably consistent pattern emerged – although I would say this applies far more in secondary schools than in primaries.

Pessimism permeates the ranks.  One young teacher evaluated 2011-12 as “bad overall”, blaming budget cuts and huge curricular changes, for Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), with little time to implement them.

The same teacher put it thus: “There has been confusion and conflicting messages from various levels about National 4 and National 5,” referring to the qualifications which are to replace Standard Grades and Intermediate 1s and 2s. “Sometimes I have felt like I just want someone to explain clearly what is going on!”

An experienced principal teacher mentioned the strain of a substantially increasing folio-marking workload.

Larry Flanagan, newly appointed General Secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) and an active supporter of the principles of CfE, has moved to a critical position.

At the EIS’s recent AGM he described the Scottish Government’s “so-called deep audit” of schools’ levels of preparation for CfE as “lip-service …. to the notion of the teachers’ voice being central to the debate”.

Although a motion calling for the EIS to withdraw its support for CfE in secondaries was remitted and another, proposing a ballot on industrial action over CfE, was defeated, their presence on the agenda was testimony to a smouldering discontent.

Headteachers have also mentioned increasingly fraught relationships with local authorities.  One long-serving Lothians head was clear: “The worst events tend to involve meetings with council staff, too often lacking trust and partnership and achieving little.”  The EIS has also identified the “dead-hand of micro-management” in local authorities’ prescriptive approaches to CfE reporting.

 

In a general sense, staffing problems have arisen from budget cuts but increasingly local authorities have also moved to faculty systems.

 

Countless teachers see that move as rooted in cutting costs rather than in any educational rationale.  There are major concerns that expertise is being lost and that the role of the Principal Teacher as a mentor and guide to colleagues operating in the same intellectual discipline has been sacrificed for a technical line-management role.

 

Many staff who started fairly positive about the prospect of moving from traditional subject departments became increasingly sceptical.  Even among those who have attained new ‘faculty’ PT posts, there is a recognition of a flawed appointment system.  “The process of changing the staffing in the school has created a lot of ill-feeling amongst staff, partly because of the lack of communication and also the procedures not being in place before the process started so things have been continuously changing throughout the year.”

 

There have also been significant cuts in guidance, support for learning and behaviour support Principal Teachers posts.  In Edinburgh alone 130 such posts have been cut to 102.

 

One headteacher, despite being optimistic about much that has occurred over the last year, spoke of having to undermine the work of her school by implementing the budget cuts for this session. In particular, she was unhappy about the management restructuring process.  As she saw this it impacted directly on the service which can be provided to the increasing numbers of vulnerable learners.  “I have never felt so completely ineffectual or impotent as I have in implementing these changes in which I did not believe and without any leeway to use my imagination to soften the blow.”

 

Another headteacher bemoaned the difficulties in attracting and appointing high quality staff, the best way to improve a school, in a period of retrenchment and management restructuring.

 

There is substantial angst over pensions, and a perception that the Unions are less than committed and are continuing negotiations with limited information to members on progress and little sense of the likely outcome .

Against this background, the year ahead in Scotland’s secondary schools looks bleak.  Far-reaching, radical curricular reforms require a confident profession supportive of change, not a depressed and professionally insecure one.  The one-day strike over pensions last November may have been the first national industrial action since the 80s.  It may not be the last.

If the Scottish Government wishes to have teachers on-side, whether on educational issues or on larger-canvas constitutional matters, it cannot continually pass the buck back to Westminster on issues such as pensions, budgets and salaries.

Mike Russell’s intellectual qualifications have never been in question.  He may be judged however in 2012-13 on whether he possesses the pragmatic skills to keep Curriculum for Excellence on the rails and to keep the secondary teacher work-force working – and working happily.

The above article was first published in The Herald on 14 Augist 2012: http://www.heraldscotland.com/mobile/news/education/classroom-crisis.18575400?_=61073aef8092053306c85227a693c2e3e0844c91

 

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