John Swinney inherited a fragile relationship with Scotland's teachers

Written by Tom Freeman on 30 August 2016 in Inside Politics

As John Swinney publishes new guidance for teachers on managing their workload, Holyrood looks back at the game of power and responsibility in the Scottish Government's education strategy

John Swinney - Scottish Government

New guidelines released yesterday for Scotland’s teachers to manage a growing workload was met with a lukewarm response. It was designed to "reduce the burden of bureaucracy" on teachers, said Education Secretary John Swinney, but teaching unions said they'd heard it all before.

It perhaps shouldn't be a surprise that he is encountering a tough crowd. Complaints of workload and over assessment have been longstanding.

Angela Constance took over as Education Secretary in 2014 with a heavy inbox, but it could be said she left a bigger one for her successor. 


Secondary school teaching union to vote on industrial action

John Swinney in teacher workload pledge

Last year literacy and numeracy levels had shown signs of decline, the numbers of full-time college students had fallen in the wake of the merger of colleges into public bodies, and senior voices in the university sector were disgruntled at rumours of a plan to democratise higher education institutions.

Governance became the word on many lips, and not just in the university sector. 

With the colleges now public bodies, Constance found with great power came great responsibility. In November she replaced the entire board of Glasgow Clyde College after internal disputes had led to a Scottish Funding Council investigation. Suspended principal Susan Walsh was told she could return to work immediately. 

Then a former principal from the pre-merger era was dragged in front of MSPs over his exorbitant payoff in the merger process which had been flagged up by Audit Scotland. There was “a compelling moral argument” for the former principal to repay the extra cash, Public Audit Committee convener Paul Martin concluded.

And with this level of intervention needed in the college sector, plans to reform the governance of universities were met with terror by the higher education establishment. 

The bill, which was only a few pages long, led to concerns ministers might similarly intervene in the running of universities, thereby reclassifying them as ‘public bodies’. The fear was this could lead to them losing charitable status and the millions in funding that go with it.

“The bill does not seek to give ministers any new powers over the appointment of chairs or the appointment of members to committees,” Constance told Holyrood’s Education Committee.
In the end the government made some notable concessions designed to protect the independence and charitable status of universities. 

“We have listened closely to stakeholders and interested parties over the course of the bill’s passage and made a number of amendments, both to clarify the bill, and to make sure it has maximum impact in improving governance practice,” Constance told the chamber. 

Questions about why those stakeholders did not contribute more to the original drafting of the bill, and why it was so thin, may never be answered.

Trade unions celebrated though, as the reforms mean the future chair of a university’s court will be elected by staff and students, who both will be represented on the governing body.

But while Constance found her relationship with university principals strained, the relationship with school teachers was a more serious matter.

While attempts to protect teacher numbers from council budget cuts was welcomed, Constance’s attempts to talk tough on attainment misfired.

In a keynote speech to University of Glasgow’s Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change, she challenged teachers to do more to tackle literacy levels and the attainment gap. 

“Frankly, it’s not good enough that some children appear to be doing less well in basic skills the older they get,” she said.

“The survey [of literacy and numeracy] also found that, if we take away English teachers, fewer than 20 per cent of secondary teachers think that reading and writing is vital to their curriculum area.

“I’m astonished at this, frankly. And if it is the case, then we must change those attitudes and do more to support our schools and teachers to raise the quality of teaching in literacy across other curriculum areas.”

Teachers did not respond warmly.

The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association said it was “alarmed by the lack of respect for teachers’ professional judgement shown by Angela Constance”, while former president of Scotland’s biggest teaching trade union, the EIS, said she had declared “open season” on teachers.

In a speech to the union’s AGM, Tommy Castles said: “Pulling the levers in education and blaming teachers will not solve the deep endemic problems caused by poverty. Education cannot solve the problems on its own.”

Secondary teachers in West Dunbartonshire took part in a strike over cost-cutting by the council, the first EIS-led strike of Scottish teachers since the 1980s.

Then disquiet about levels of workload associated with new Curriculum for Excellence exams continued.

Both the EIS and the SSTA balloted members for industrial action over workload. 

By the time she was attending pre-election hustings in April, teachers were booing the Education Secretary.

One teacher told Holyrood: “I haven’t seen an education secretary treated with such hostility since the 1980s.”

The appointment of Deputy First Minister John Swinney, an experienced political operator, as Constance’s replacement after the election was designed to reinforce the Scottish Government’s commitment to education. 

And facing the spectre of industrial action in his first months in the job, Swinney spent much of his energy attempting to woo teachers back. 

He wrote to teaching unions asking them to put forward ideas on how to reduce workload, then brought them round a table with opposition parties to develop a consensual delivery plan. 

Based on recommendations by the OECD, the Curriculum for Excellence would be “simplified and streamlined”, he promised, and a panel of teachers was appointed to advise on this.

But while Swinney may have felt like he was building bridges, concerns over plans for standardised testing continued, and implications from a governance and funding review saw wounds reopen.

“Our review of governance will explore all options to ensure we create the right balance of autonomy and accountability in our education system,” said Swinney.

“It will consider the changes needed to empower our teachers and schools, seek to devolve decision-making and funding to schools and communities and support the development of school clusters and new educational regions.”

Part of this would mean £100m raised from council-tax reform would go straight to head teachers to distribute funds at a school level.

Councils promptly met with teachers and presented a united front of opposition. COSLA president David O’Neill said the proposals “smashes the link” between local taxation and accountability.
“No one votes for a head teacher, and nor should they,” he said. Unison called the plans “a threat to the existence of local government.” 

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said he had told government it would be “an absolute folly to look at any kind of structural reorganisation in education at a time of reduced resource, because it would simply be distracting attention from what is important, which is how you support teaching and learning.”

But wouldn’t teachers want more control over the money? “Across the board while the money is welcome we’re clear that should not lead to additional workload responsibilities for head teachers,” said Flanagan, adding, “the legal responsibility lies with the local authority.”

Ultimately, as Constance found out, the responsibility is Swinney’s. 




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