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Andrea Bradley: Education reform group must recognise 'absolutely essential role of teacher voice'

Photography by Andrew Perry

Andrea Bradley: Education reform group must recognise 'absolutely essential role of teacher voice'

Scotland’s teachers secured one of the best public sector pay deals in the country. But general secretary of teaching union EIS, Andrea Bradley, is not totally happy with the outcome.

While she says the deal struck in early March was “the best that could be achieved without further sustained industrial action,” Bradley argues it “represents yet another real terms pay cut” because it’s below inflation.

The deal, which will see most teachers receive a 14.6 per cent increase by January next year, came after months of negotiations with Cosla and the Scottish Government on one side and the unions – EIS is not the only one, just the largest – on the other. For a while, it felt like the negotiation committee had reached stalemate. The unions repeatedly knocked back offers of smaller rises and ultimately decided to start striking in December last year, with a series of rolling strikes continuing through January and February. Further strikes were scheduled for March and April, but these – to the relief of everyone involved – were called off when the government tabled a fresh offer.

Bradley says that “at no point did we believe that the Scottish Government couldn’t afford more” and the dispute could have been resolved much sooner if the additional cash had been put on the table. And while she’s more sympathetic of Cosla’s position – “budgets are tight,” she says – she claims the body also failed to “pull out all the stops”.

What has been very regrettable about Curriculum for Excellence has been that really since its inception... we have seen a decline in staffing resource

That balance between national and local government is nothing the EIS hadn’t seen before, though. “What we’ve seen for a long number of years is push and pull around who controls education, who has responsibility for resourcing which aspect of it,” Bradley says. “But in the meantime, children and young people, their families, and the teachers and other school staff who support them are the casualties of that. They are the collateral damage of that perennial struggle that there seems to be between national and local government over the control and the funding of education.”

There’s some concern that this struggle is continuing even as huge educational reforms are being planned, which may limit involvement from those working on the frontline of education. Those plans include scrapping the Scottish Qualifications Authority and splitting up Education Scotland into two agencies, one with responsibility for policy and the other for inspections.

Bradley says: “The EIS has resolved to be as influential on education reform as we can possibly be. To be honest, we have had to push to be as involved as we are now. We did have some invitations from some of those who are leading that work in the early stages, but we have had to push to get into some of the other spaces, and it was with some reluctance, I would say, on the part of Scottish Government that we were then given a space at the table.

“To our mind, that’s indicative of the culture we have to change. We have to have a new set of governance arrangements for the new agencies that wholly recognise the absolutely essential role of teacher voice in decision making. We are not going to get it right on curriculum, learning, teaching, assessment, qualifications, unless we have teacher voice at the heart of deliberations.”

Bradley has worked in education for almost three decades. She started out as an English teacher in Inverclyde in 1995 and was involved in the EIS from the beginning. That was partially the influence of her parents, both of whom were trade unionists. She continued teaching until 2014, when she took the plunge and joined the EIS staff.

She admits it was a difficult shift, exchanging the buzz of a classroom to the quieter EIS offices. “That’s not to say that life in the EIS is slow and quiet and not much happens – but initially that was a challenging cultural change,” she adds. But she also thinks she brings some of what she learnt from teaching teenagers into the union. “The bottom line is adults like to have fun as well. Teachers and EIS activists like to do things that are creative and fun and a bit light hearted, albeit they’ve got an important underlying purpose and message within them.”

To the SNP government, if I were a teacher marking that as a project, then I would say ‘this is not finished

She became general secretary last summer – the first woman to hold the role in the union’s 175-year history and taking over from Larry Flanagan, who had been in post for ten years. She had little time to think about the big shoes Flanagan was leaving behind before being thrust into pay negotiations.

Now those negotiations have concluded, what is next for the EIS? Bradley summarises plans for “quite a holistic campaign” around teacher welfare, covering working conditions, workloads and, crucially, staff numbers.

“Curriculum for Excellence is a very, very bold curriculum. It’s internationally renowned for being so. And it is right that Scotland would have such ambitions for its young people.

“But what has been very regrettable about Curriculum for Excellence has been that, really since its inception, since its arrival in classrooms, we have seen a decline in staffing resource. And rather than a decline in staffing resource, what we needed to deliver Curriculum for Excellence well was an exponential increase in the number of teachers and other support staff.”

Issues go beyond pure staff numbers. Bradley says there is an “unhealthy pressure” on schools regarding bureaucracy and teachers are “drowning in paperwork”. “We thought that we were going to see the dawn of a new day a few years back when John Swinney was Cabinet Secretary for Education. He said that teachers, in looking at the reams of paper that they have around them, should make a judgement as to whether what they were being asked to do was going to contribute meaningfully to the quality of the learning experience for children and young people. And if the answer was no, then they weren’t to do it.

“Teachers were getting pretty excited about the prospect of being able to do that. That coincided with the rollout of the empowerment agenda, and a sense of teachers having more agency, more ability to decide key priorities relative to learning, teaching and assessment. I think that the pandemic has derailed a lot of the thinking around that.”

Reminded of the infamous quote from Nicola Sturgeon in 2015 that education was her “priority” and she wanted to be “judged” on it, I ask Bradley what grade she would give Sturgeon’s efforts now the former first minister has left office.

After a brief pause, she says: “I don’t think I would personalise it to Nicola Sturgeon, individually – but to the SNP government, if I were a teacher marking that as a project, then I would say ‘this is not finished’.”

She points to the failure to reduce class sizes, continued high workloads, poor teacher wellbeing, and surveys indicating not many would recommend teaching as a career. “Those indicators should be really alarming, I think, to the Scottish Government and anybody who’s got an interest in education,” Bradley says.

Teachers were reporting increased incidence of violent behaviour, distressed behaviour and abusive behaviour by students

Asked what she makes of the gap between the government’s rhetoric and its actions, Bradley highlights additional support needs provision as one example. “We’ve got fabulous legislation, world leading legislation, but we do not have the resource inputs to deliver on the promises of that legislation for the more than a third of children who have additional support needs.

“And you have a huge overlap in the number of children who have additional support needs and the number of children who are living in poverty. Key to reducing the poverty-related achievement gap is to do something around additional support needs funding.”

Tackling poverty is another major interest of Bradley’s and it is something she is keen to take forward in her other role as chair of the Women’s Committee of the Scottish Trades Union Congress. When she got the top job at the EIS, she did wonder “how able I would be to carry out both roles simultaneously”. But she praises the support she has received from both organisations – helped by the fact they share several goals. The Women’s Committee’s Food for Thought campaign, for example, is calling for the rollout of free school meals.

“Child poverty doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s because mums and dads are living in poverty and we know the significant correlation between women’s poverty and the poverty of their children. The reason why the Women’s Committee is campaigning so strongly around child poverty, and specifically free school meals provision, is because we see that as being a key way of alleviating some of that poverty and allowing children and families a modicum of dignity.”

Bradley is visibly more animated when discussing issues facing female teachers and the female workforce more generally – perhaps because these are issues she has had to battle herself. It is no surprise then, when asked whether there is one teacher who she felt really influenced her, that Bradley names another woman.

Mrs Duffy, a primary school teacher, “was funny, very kind and caring... She made everyone feel valued, everyone feel good, no matter who they were. I appreciated that for me, but also appreciated it for the other kids in the class who perhaps didn’t always get that kind of care and warmth because maybe they had behavioural difficulties. She was really good at supporting all the kids in the class.”

This childhood memory of disruptive pupils in her class being supported emphasises the importance Bradley puts on this approach, particularly now with growing concerns about violent and abusive behaviour in schools. She believes some of this is connected to the pandemic.

“Almost immediately on the return to school after the first lockdown, teachers were reporting increased incidence of violent behaviour, distressed behaviour and abusive behaviour by students. And interestingly, by very, very young pupils. That’s very uncommon, to have teachers of primary one and primary two reporting violent incidents, but there was an increase.

“Teachers’ reflections are that this is because for the youngest pupils, their early years education was disrupted by the closures due to Covid. And so those young people haven’t had the same grounding and socialisation, relationship-forming, sharing, communication, all of those skills that are taught so well within the play settings of early years.

“And secondary teachers are reporting that older children were struggling to be separated from devices, struggling to not have mobile phones constantly in their hands… More generally, young people were struggling to get back into the rhythms and expectations and patterns of school life. It’s almost like a new social contract for school is going to have to be navigated, negotiated and established, because I think that the experience of Covid has completely changed things.”

The solution, for Bradley, comes back to that question of staffing. “We argued for significantly greater staffing levels to support the Covid recovery effort. Sadly, that hasn’t really come to fruition. We saw from the most recent school census data that teacher numbers are at their lowest than they have been over quite a long number of years, and that’s very worrying. It would be worrying anyway, but it’s particularly worrying considering the social and educational context in which we are in, post-pandemic.” 

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