Teaching staff, not experimental stats, needed

Experimental, according to my trusty Chambers dictionary, means trying out new styles and techniques. Well, it would appear that East Lothian Council are indeed trying out a technique – a torture technique – on local parents and teachers by issuing “experimental statistics” which give a misleading impression of how well our kids are doing in school.

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Schools have had to issue explanatory notes to calm the concerns of parents and carers. I’m genuinely astonished that East Lothian’s head of education thought it was okay to issue such flawed and inconsistent figures. They were presented to the council’s education committee last week. 

What’s the fuss about, exactly? Well, the figures appear to show how primary and secondary pupils at different levels are performing against the Curriculum for Excellence on reading, writing and so on. The figures vary wildly between schools with some recording 100% achievement and others very low scores. The problem is that different schools measure in different ways.

The real measure of success is of course the relationship between teacher, pupil and parent/carer. As long as all are communicating, all should know how well things are going. And then there’s the inspection regime, which is designed to flag up any school-wide issues.

With my School Council Chair hat on, I’ve written to the head of education pointing out parents’ concerns and asking how we can be involved in communicating such figures in future.

It comes as the pressure grows to gather more statistics. As a parent I find this clamour baffling, and I’ve yet to meet a teacher who thought that more assessing was how to close the attainment gap.

On top of the Government’s imposition of standardised assessments, due to start next autumn, there’s a review of school governance and there are the changes to the Council Tax, which Scottish Ministers say will raise an extra £100m. Councils will keep this additional revenue but their block grant from the Scottish Government will be reduced as a result. A separate Attainment Fund will be distributed directly to head teachers on the basis of how many pupils qualify for school meals, with the aim of helping pupils from less-well off backgrounds do just as well as the other kids in class.

It does look like Scottish Ministers want to shift responsibility for attainment to teachers, when in reality teachers know which kids need more support. If only they had more time and resources to provide that support. Pupil-teacher ratios are the highest they’ve been since the SNP came to power in 2007, and teacher workload remains a chronic problem.

Long ago I did think about training to become a teacher, following in the footsteps of my gran who for taught for decades at Ormiston Primary. She gave me a passion for learning, reading and writing and I’ve heard many positive comments from former pupils of hers over the years. But today? I doubt there’s anything anyone could do to persuade me to become a teacher. It’s a profession where being mentally shattered and burnt out is all too common, and I’m told the drop-out rate for new recruits is a real worry.

The current governance review intrigues me. Ministers seem to want to bypass elected councillors and local authority officials and give cash directly to head teachers but do those teachers actually want the responsibility? Wouldn’t they simply prefer for local government to be fully funded and for their school budget requests to Council HQ to be met? Too often I hear of teachers asking for staffing resources and equipment maintenance that either doesn’t come or is half of what is actually needed. And if we give head teachers budget powers, might they be tempted to encourage a bonus culture, pitting staff against each other rather than working as a team?

In Wales a similar “experiment” was tried and has since been scrapped. 

The First Minister has said education is her top priority. She’s also said “what matters is what works.” That used to be Tony Blair’s mantra.

It’s clear to me what works is giving teachers time to teach. And as the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition warned this week, investment in Additional Support Needs has suffered serious cuts, risking a “lost generation” of young people who didn’t get the support they needed in school. 

No “experimental” techniques are required if we want to improve our education system. We need political will to raise more money fairly and invest in staff, not statistics.

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