Education has moved centre stage politically over the past period in quite a dramatic manner. In one sense, this is welcome as it is right that such a key public service has a high profile. But it also has a serious downside in the fact that politicians across the spectrum seem keener to adopt adversarial approaches to every aspect of policy and implementation, rather than address the key issues in a way which supports schools, colleges, teachers and lecturers – and students.
For some, Scottish Government can do no wrong. For others, it can do nothing right. A manifest concern is that amid the politicking, the chance to coalesce around sensible and constructive support for our education system disappears beneath an avalanche of accusation and counter-claim.
The recent dust storm around PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results is a case in point. Yes, it is disappointing that there was a dip in performance in this set of statistics but has anyone bothered to look and see why?
If they did, they would find, for example, the group of students who were tested back in 2015 was the very same group which had borne the brunt of the assessment overload associated with the new national qualifications and would have been exam weary at the point when they were tested. Additionally, the tests were, for the first time, online assessments – a mode which Scottish students are unused to and for which there was no preparation. Looking and seeing would have also found that, inexplicably it would seem, that this same cohort of students went on to produce the second-best set of SQA qualification passes ever!
Instead, we had an echoing of the narrative of failure around Scottish education, which simply is not true. One political party even press released on the notion that 1 in 5 pupils left primary school unable to read or write. Untrue, and absolute nonsense! But if it gets a cheap headline, why not go for it?
In the midst of all this hot air, the EIS, as Scotland’s largest education union, must find a way of maintaining a perspective on issues, leveraging advantage where we can in terms of our members and our students, and challenging poor policy where it emerges. There’s no shortage of issues.
The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney’s, governance review, whilst still very short on specifics, will certainly be a key area after the local government elections. Some commentators see the review process as entirely hostile to the interests of local government workers. The EIS has a more nuanced view. Certainly, we wish to defend key red line issues such as national bargaining and the role of councils as employers but there are areas of governance, such as the support provided to schools, where change could be beneficial.
A major question will be what role CoSLA seeks to play after the May local elections. The lack of political coherence it has displayed over the past period significantly reduced its impact but it may reassert itself after the elections, even if there is dominance by a single party.
One battle ground involving teachers, CoSLA and Scottish Government will be over pay. The stated adherence to public sector pay policy, i.e., 1% increases, does nothing to address the developing problems around teacher recruitment and retention which is already seeing classes sent home, professional learning curtailed, and vacancies remaining unfilled. The EIS has been campaigning on workload pressures – and achieved some success with our secondary members’ action short of strike – but there are other deep issues to be addressed. Launching a recruitment campaign, as Scottish Government has done, will have a limited impact if students can see financially more rewarding opportunities elsewhere. The gaps in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) recruitment is a portent of where we are heading, if the issue of salaries are not addressed.
In further education, the EIS (FELA) won a significant pay victory last year, through a commitment to industrial action in support of its objectives. A year on, however, college bosses are seeking to renege on the agreement, where the welcome return to national collective bargaining is being undermined by a management which is woeful in its understanding of public sector ethos. Currently the EIS is balloting members on action to defend the deal.
Across the board, public sector unions will be challenged similarly to defend members’ conditions and living standards. Coordination of strategies and campaigns would be a welcome strengthening of our capacity to win these struggles.
Larry Flanagan is the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS)