This Saturday I will be marching with teachers calling for a fair pay deal. Over the last 10 years, teachers have seen a 20% real terms cut to their pay as inflation has degraded the value of their wages. Now they have decided that enough is enough. They are demanding some of that lost value is returned to them.
Alongside many others, teachers are suffering from the decisions of reckless bankers and governments obsessed with a counter-productive agenda of cutting budgets. They did not cause the financial crisis or austerity, yet they are being made to pay for it. Funding cuts have hammered education. We cannot hope to deliver for every young person in Scotland on the cheap.
Recent revelations from the OECD show that Scottish teachers work amongst the longest hours for some of the lowest pay in comparable countries.
It should come as little surprise then that there are 3,500 fewer teachers in Scotland today than when the SNP entered government, given the huge budget cuts in that time. Now, many schools are struggling to recruit new staff and are losing experienced teachers deciding to leave the profession early. Those left are saddled with unmanageable workloads, making both retention and recruitment even harder.
The Scottish Government’s response to this recruitment crisis so far has been to promote fast-track schemes. Their aim is to get graduates through teacher training and into the classroom as quickly as possible.
This approach has caused no shortage of problems in England and it does not tackle the cause of the problem – budget cuts, overwhelming workload and a massive decline in pay. Fast-track schemes will only promote a conveyor belt culture of people dipping into teaching and then quickly burning out, only to be replaced by the next generation.
Nowhere is this tension clearer than in support for additional needs. One in four children and young people have identified additional needs, with many more going unidentified. Yet the number of specialist teachers has dropped by over 400 since 2010. There is now only one specialist additional needs teacher for every 55 pupils with additional needs, compared to a ratio of one teacher per 18 pupils in 2010.
Fast track schemes will only make this problem worse. There is simply not enough time during proper initial teacher education to properly cover all aspects of additional needs. Those needs range from mild dyslexia to behavioural problems to profound physical disabilities. The even more condensed offering of fast-track courses seen down south would make covering even the basics impossible.
With many experienced teachers leaving the profession due to stress, low morale and other factors, there are then fewer mentors for newly qualified and student teachers to learn from once they are in a school environment. All of these factors contribute to each other and in their totality, lead to the pretty serious staffing problems we now have, not to mention the experience of far, far too many young people with additional needs in particular, who simply don’t get the support they need.
The SNP have also asked us to judge them on their progress closing the attainment gap between those in the most and least deprived communities in Scotland. It’s a worthy aim and one the Greens support but it is hard to see how the SNP intend to achieve it.
Take the Pupil Equity Fund, for example. More funding for schools is a good thing. Yet this fund, which is meant to be targeted towards closing the attainment gap, is only partially offsetting cuts to core education budgets. Spending on education today remains lower than a decade ago. And because this is an annual fund with no long-term security, the five hundred or so staff recruited under it are overwhelmingly on temporary contracts. This level of instability is another contributing factor for those leaving the profession for more secure work elsewhere.
Pupils need a stable environment to thrive. Teachers who are overworked, stressed and lacking the support of other essential staff who have been cut are saying themselves that they are just not able to provide the top-quality education they want for their young people, despite their often heroic efforts.
The Scottish Greens take improving education seriously. Last week we launched Level the Playing Field: Education for All, our proposals for closing the attainment gap and improving the school experience for all pupils and staff. Core to our proposals are schools which are well-resourced and staffed by teachers and others earning the decent wages they deserve, not to mention efforts such as universal access to free school breakfast and lunches, during term times and holidays.
We don’t doubt the government’s sincerity on education but their approach isn’t working and it’s alienating teachers, support staff, parents and pupils. Our door is always open for cooperation and in the case of our paper last week, they’re more than welcome to copy our homework.