Welcome to my Blog

I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Getting it right in schools

Reorganising education governance is simply a distraction from the real issues facing our schools as highlighted in UNISON Scotland’s survey of school staffs. That’s also the conclusion of a wide range of published responses to the Scottish Government’s governance consultation.


UNISON Scotland’s response to the consultation highlights the OECD report on Scottish education, which identifies successes and challenges in the Scottish education system and offers recommendations to drive continued improvement. The report points out that it’s time “for a bold approach that moves beyond system management in a new dynamic nearer to teacher and learning”. Instead we are seeing a continued focus on systems and governance.


Current education structures provide democratic accountability through local government. Parent councils and parent forums also exist to give parents a voice in their children’s schools. Local authorities also provide a balance allowing economies of scale for HR services, purchasing and specialist support. Where there are difficulties for head teachers accessing the support they need the issues are about staff shortages and budget cuts not the structures involved. Managing more bureaucracy under central direction is the last thing schools need.


If the government needs an example of this, then we give them one today in our publication ‘Hard Lessons’. In probably one of the biggest surveys of school support staff ever in Scotland, staff report heavier workloads, jobs cuts, lack of educational supplies, and dirtier schools. This is while pupil numbers and education support needs are increasing.


There are 6707 more pupils since 2010 in Scottish schools, but there 1841 less support staff and 1389 less teachers. This report confirms the enormous stress this puts on support staff.


54% of support staff say budgets have been cut, 40% carry out unpaid work to meet workloads, 60% say morale is low, and 80% say workloads are heavier. And services like school libraries are closing. Many report stress from the lack of training and support they receive for the tasks they are asked to carry out – like administering medicines or caring for pupils with challenging behaviour.


The report reveals a dedicated workforce committed to supporting children to reach their potential. Staff skip breaks and work late to meet their pupil’s needs. But they are exhausted, undervalued and under enormous pressure.


Any serious attempt to improve educational attainment has to start well before children get to school - that’s why early learning is so important. In UNISON Scotland’s submission to the Scottish Government’s ‘Blueprint 2020’ for early leaning and childcare, we place an emphasis on quality provision.


We need to make sure that we learn the lessons of the adult care sector where we now have a fragmented service, which is costly and hard for users to navigate, with varying quality of service and a race to the bottom for staff terms and conditions. The voucher schemes proposed in the consultation have a high risk of creating a service based on low paid and unqualified staff.  It risks creating a two tier system where those who can afford to pay more on top of the vouchers will have access to better nurseries than those on low incomes. Vouchers also add extra complexity and administrative costs to the system. Vouchers will do the opposite of closing the attainment gap.


The Scottish Government’s ambition to close the attainment gap is entirely right. However, simply moving the deck chairs didn’t work for the Titanic and it won’t work for schools. The focus should instead be on tackling the issues identified in today’s UNISON report and invest in preventative spending like early learning.

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