Talking to teachers
Kezia Dugdale has been busy. Holyrood sits down with the shadow Education Secretary in between some frantic door-knocking leading up to the referendum on Scottish independence. She estimates she’s spoken to over 10,000 people since January.
“There’s no more gears to go up,” she says, “certainly not in our team. We’re already there. We’ll just have to see what happens.”
Although the debate has been binary, she says, she has mainly met people who are “fed up and angry” because of levels of child poverty, lack of opportunities and being told there’s a recovery but not feeling the benefits of it. Even her own family are divided by the debate. “Both my parents are teachers. One is an English teacher at a secondary school, and the other was a modern studies teacher. One is voting Yes and the other is voting No.”
Her father has come out of retirement to take up full-time supply. Although returning to the classroom gave him “a new lease of life”, Dugdale says he has been “screaming” about the pace of change in adopting the new National 4 and 5 exams. “My parents were there when the Standard Grades and Highers were introduced and my dad says it took ten years, and they’ve tried to introduce the new exams in two and a half. That of itself is ridiculous. I think the whole way it was done was badly mismanaged,” she says.
The core principles of the Curriculum for Excellence, reducing exams and interdisciplinary learning are “exciting”, believes Dugdale, but they are far from being realised. “The reason teachers are under so much strain and so much pressure is because I believe Mike Russell to be a very arrogant and dogmatic Education Secretary. He said this must be done, therefore, it must be done, regardless of the practicalities or nuance of how you can do it and do it well,” she says.
A review of the National 4s and 5s is already “too late”, argues Dugdale because the new Highers have already started. “Teachers are already going back and going, ‘right, what needs done? How can we make sure we’re in better shape for these prelims than we were this time last year?’ They’re doing their own evaluation, and when this report comes out how much use is it going to be? That’s not to say it shouldn’t be done, because the accountability and scrutiny is absolutely necessary, but the pace is just unbelievable.”
The pace of change has been driven by having a majority government in a parliamentary system not designed for one, she suggests. Both Dugdale and her Labour colleague Neil Bibby have been trying to get the Education Committee to review the new exams, she says, but the SNP convener Stewart Maxwell postponed the discussion until after the referendum. Dugdale suggests committee conveners should not come from governing parties in the future, as part of a number of reforms of the way the parliament operates. “If you’ve got a majority on almost every committee you have the ability to do things like park uncomfortable news or uncomfortable issues. The use of that majority power can come right down to things like who gets invited to give evidence,” she suggests.
Widening the number of people consulted is part of the solution, believes Dugdale, and she says the work the Labour education team has done on early years through their ‘Every Step’ campaign could be replicated throughout education. “What we’re trying to do is two things – have really hard policy conversations with the experts, but also have real quality conversations with the people at the end of that. This campaign started by going out and speaking to mums and dads, wherever we could find them. Supermarkets, Toys R Us, soft play centres and just getting those first-hand experiences of it, so I would seek to replicate that when it comes to schools – speaking to parents at the school gates and all the rest of it, but also having the hard policy conversations with the experts too.”
A recent visit to Dunfermline High School impressed Dugdale because pupils had been involved in the design of the school. “It’s quite funky, but one of the things the kids in the school collectively decided to do is to put the inclusion unit right bang in the centre of the school, so it wasn’t this thing where you got taken off and put aside, it was right bang in the centre, and the school embraced it and owned it.
"So there was something about the energy around that which was ‘yes, if you go to the inclusion unit there’s something else going on in your life which means you need a little bit extra support, but we’re proud to have you.’ I just felt the warmth and the ethos of the school was we want these kids to do just as well, if not better than everyone else, and we’re going to help them do that. You can do it in Dunfermline High because you had a blank bit of paper and you had the determination of the community who wanted to do that, but I think the ambition of that could be realised everywhere else.”
From re-engaging with staff to plans to devolve the powers of Skills Development Scotland to councils, Labour’s task of rebuilding trust throughout the sector is about power, she says. “I guess if you’re trying to rebuild anything, and relationships, power matters. You can’t just go to people and say, ‘give me all your great ideas about the future of education, thanks very much, see you later.’ But you also can’t go to them and say, ‘tell me all the reasons the SNP are crap so I can throw it at the government.’
"The relationship has got to be very different than that. It’s got to be co-operative and mutual and built over the long term. Care leavers are a good example. I’ve worked very closely with Who Cares? Scotland, Barnardos and Aberlour around the Children and Young People Bill. I would want to go back to them and go right, what’s next on that agenda? I think that’s how you build relationships. The whole Labour Party’s got to do that, in every sphere. Not with the purpose of just winning power, but because that’s who we are, that’s the nature of the Labour Party’s work. It’s community organising, working with people, seeking to effect change, realising change, then going on to do that with something bigger.”