An open letter to Nicola Sturgeon (from a teacher desperate to love his job again).

A departure from book business today:

Ms Sturgeon.

I voted ’Yes’ in the Scottish referendum. I’ve voted SNP (as well as Labour, Lib-Dem and Greens) I’ll probably vote SNP again. I’ve even been a member.

I’ve admired you as one of the most socially-conscious (and shrewd) politicians of modern times for several years. I’ve also been a Secondary school teacher for almost sixteen years and I implore you, in the strongest possible terms; utilise the resources, the well of skills and experts you have at your disposal, and please, please save our education system from the disaster that is CFE.

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In last six years I’ve witnessed, and been unwilling party to, an unprecedented decline in the organisation and standard of Scottish education. Simply, the system as it stands is not fit for purpose. It is demoralising, hobbling and utterly failing the children in our care; as well as lowering attainment and widening social inequality in our pupils.

 

For my own subject, Biology, the vast changes made to date have resulted in a course that is unreasonably difficult, lacking opportunity for practical activities, far too prescriptive, overly concerned with inconsequential minutiae and extremely content-heavy. In its present form the Nat 5 Biology course is a joyless, intimidating and gruelling experience for those who choose to study it. Success in the course is also only achievable for the very best of our pupils, leaving students who would have formerly attainted at a Standard Grade 3 or even a 2, with little hope of passing, and in many cases, unable to even sit the final exam.

In implementing CFE, Teachers were put to the task of designing and writing courses for the new Nat 4 and Nat 5 qualifications with no clear guidance on standards, or assessment structure. This resulted in every department in every school in Scotland designing their own versions of this course. The pupils’ experience of Biology Nat 5 in Scotland will be vastly different in standard depending on where they attend school and the course-writing skills of their teachers.

The powers that be, not happy with furnishing teachers with an ill-conceived structure and content, have further compounded this basic failure by changing that content and structure continually for the last five years. This means teachers haven’t taught the same material two years running yet.

This affects pupil experience in a drastic way. We simply don’t have the experience of the courses to suitably prepare our kids. On many occasions the course guidelines have been changed at the mid-way point of the year, severely hobbling the teachers’ ability to advise the pupils, and the pupils’ ability to pass the criteria demanded.

With Standard Grade, each pupil had an opportunity to sit exams at two levels, a chance to have a good day and attain a higher grade than they’d perhaps demonstrated throughout the year. With National 5, a large portion of our kids simply aren’t permitted to sit the final exam, dropping instead to the coursework-based Nat 4.

In an ideal world the National 4 qualification would be recognised as well-earned. The kids do indeed have to work to gain this award. The skills and knowledge needed to pass national 4 Biology are comparable to a good general grade pass under the old system. Despite this, as National 4 is currently unexamined, employers fail to recognise this achievement, and frankly so do the pupils’ themselves. National 4 is essentially the equivalent of a Grade 3 in Standard grade, but isn’t valued at all. Indeed, some of the kids pigeon-holed into Nat 4 would’ve been permitted, not just a general exam under the old scheme, but also a go at credit. Some may have stretched themselves and attained a grade 2. Now they don’t even sit the exam. Instead, they are in effect categorised as not academic and sat to one side as the certificate kids get taught how to pass the exam. This elitist approach is counter to any good teacher’s desire to provide the best opportunity for our children to succeed. I didn’t become a teacher to tell a portion of my kids hey aren’t good enough to sit an exam.

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Teaching in schools is a special privilege and a role that I’ve felt honoured to perform for most of my adult life. I love my job. I love being a good teacher and giving the kids the best chance I can provide for them to reach their potential and move onto the next phase of their lives with the academic and social skills I’ve assisted them in developing. Most teachers feel this way. At least they tell themselves they do because that’s the way they’ve felt in the past. Until CFE.

Today, right now in schools across Scotland, teachers are losing morale on a scale I’ve never seen and didn’t think could happen.

The current conditions for teachers are so gruelling that we are beginning to hate, to dread, stress over and now depart a role we loved so much but are growing to hate the manner in which we have to perform it. It’s not easy to demotivate teachers in this way, we’re virtually pre-programmed to toil on in hard times and make the best of our working conditions, because we need to perform at our best for the children in our care. We’re good at making do. Still, CFE has succeeded in making us feel as though we’re failing our pupils continuously.

No-one likes to feel like they’re failing, not at home and not at work. That feeling is especially crushing for teachers who have so many young people depending on their guidance. Knowing that you are not being permitted to do your job to the best of your ability is devastating to a teacher’s morale.

This isn’t a bleat from a teacher about pay, workload or lack of development time to write and rewrite courses continuously. It’s a simple fact. Teachers are demoralised, stressed and being ground down because we know that we are not doing the best that we can for the kids in our care.

We are being prevented by a sub-standard curriculum and never-ending bureaucracy from educating our kids properly. We are failing these kids. That is why we are growing to hate the job and the system that is forcing us to work so much less skilfully and effectively than we should be.

This is why teachers are leaving the profession. This is why prospective young teachers are taking one look at the profession and deciding against it, and why schools are struggling to fill key vacancies as evidenced by Trinity High’s recent attempt to recruit parent helpers. 

Recruiting a slew of young teachers trained for five weeks in the summer will not even begin to fix this. The issues with recruitment and retention of teachers stems from the fact that we are not empowered to do our jobs effectively.

Nicola, you must turn your face from the never-ending cycle of sound-bites, argument and counter-argument and endless campaigning, and begin to address the logistic and practical mess that CFE has become.

I implore you, recruit actual, practicing teachers, rather than educationalists to provide solutions for the current issues. Get them in a room and use their insight and expertise to fix the massive problems with CFE and give the children of Scotland an opportunity to enjoy and benefit from an education that will engage them in an inclusive way.

The disparity between the opportunities being offered to children from differing backgrounds, affluence, and academic ability is a disgrace. We must have more equality in the system. We absolutely require a school system that makes its children feel valued and provided for. That empowers its teachers to do the job to the standard we know is required and is not currently being attained.

What we require, right now, is a genuine, honest to God, fit for purpose education that all children can access. Head teachers, Principal teachers and classroom teachers (and many others across local authorities) are working very hard to try to make the best of CFE, but we need help. A lot of it.

Simply give us the means to do the best we can for our children. We don’t mind working hard for those kids. We generally thrive on that pressure. That teachers are losing heart, motivation and morale should scream loudly to your government how futile our efforts seem to us and how concerned we are that our education system is utterly broken.  

Let us do our jobs properly. Let us love being teachers again.

Mr Wilson

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Further reading.

http://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/schools-facing-major-crisis-as-teachers-reach-breaking-point-1-4559526

All views are my own and do not represent the views of fife Council or Dunfermline High School.

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40 thoughts on “An open letter to Nicola Sturgeon (from a teacher desperate to love his job again).

  1. Mark, I wholly agree with all that you say about CfE here – especially with regard to the non-examinable National 4. I would, though, not discount concerns about pay and workload as “bleating”. As teachers we are skilled professionals carrying out a demanding job. Money worries and added pressure do not help us in that.

    • Couldn’t agree more Andrew. I used the word ‘bleating’ deliberately as I heard a radio interview recently where an English MP described the concerns raised over conditions and remuneration across public services as bleating.
      Also, whilst pay and conditions is a massive issue, this particular post was highlighting the effect of these changes on the pupils, rather than decrying working conditions which is a whole other issue.

  2. Right across the UK, the constant chopping and changing of Qualifications and frameworks has meant there is no continuity or consistency any more. Employers haven’t a clue what the qualifications mean and the biggest losers are the students.

  3. There is a lot wrong with the English education system, but one thing I think they have right is a single qualification (GCSE) that all students take which is graded from A-G (or 9-1 now). I think reform along these lines would be a relatively easy fix at National level. Let everyone sit the same exam, but extending the range of grades available so previously ‘failing’ candidates were given some credit for their achievement.

    It wouldn’t make all the problems you describe go away, but it would mean teachers not having to separate N5 sheep from N4 goats and the syllabuses could stay largely as the are.

  4. Hi Mr Wilson. The passion commitment and intelligence of you and your colleagues is demonstrated so well in your post
    I live in the SE of England and I guess if anything the problems regarding ensuring our children get a worthwhile , practical and proper education are even worse, with subjects like music , cookery geography , history etc all on a potential hit list of ” not required on the curriculum 😐
    It’s absolutely disgusting but the funding of Central government is being eroded …. erradicated in so many areas …
    I guess We can only hope that our UK National Leaders are removed ASAP and enable our life’s functions to be re- kindled and a humane society that values our education system as a basic necessisity and indeed our Health services … and care facilities for the infirm, or have their special needs provided to enable them to function in the seemingly heartless society of which we are now part of I hope things come to a head sooner than later and progress can be made … and we can at last return to a society and culture of which we we can be proud
    Regards
    Roy

  5. What’s missing from this post is any mention of the BGE. In my school biology results have improved to levels we have never achieved before. There is no question of young people being ‘dropped to N4’ – because there is a strong BGE which prepares young people for progression at their level which is planned appropriately. The vision of CFE was to raise the the bar through S1-3 to improve attainment in the senior phase – not start ‘learning’ when NQs came in to play in S4. In many schools in Scotland we’ve achieved this because CFE gave us the flexibility to adapt our practice in the BGE. CFE isn’t always to blame – its interpretation often is.

    • I’m glad someone is having a positive enough experience of the National qualifications to defend them Lyndsey.
      Also missing from this post is service to the hundreds of hours spent unpaid by teachers constantly redeveloping substandard courses.

      • Except Lyndsey isn’t talking about National qualifications – she’s talking about where CfE is embedded in a good BGE course. Your whole argument confuses CfE and National Qualifications – the two are not the same. Problems with the latter do not necessarily mean a problem with the former – as Lyndsey clearly demonstrates. Teach CfE BGE stage well…

    • Could teachers and educationalists please stop using all these acronyms! As a parent I find myself spending more and more time working out what things mean! What is BGE?

  6. I could have written this myself (but that my subject is different)
    I’ve taught since the late 1990s, have achieved great results in the past, have written courses, marked and set at the highest level, been an innovator of change , but now want to leave teaching in my 40s. Leave it to the young things in their 20s.
    Behaviour has deteriorated, ability to read and write and concentrate for more than ten minutes (without discussing feelings) has slipped, pupil morale is low, and the division between certification pupils (N5) and non very pupils is sharp (N4). Attendance decreases amongst N4 pupils and some we move down to National 3 as they don’t attend regularly to complete the necessary Added Balue Unit (or project!) that you must have to pass N4.
    Employers don’t recognise N3 or N4, kids stop coming in, the gulf widens…….
    I hate it.
    Promotion prospects in my subject were slashed by facultisation, two thirds of promoted posts went overnight leaving the bright young things as Faculty Heads but poor people/life skills ….no one person is now the champion and driver of high standards, curricular development and internal verification for a named subject. Sure, put PE, home economics and technical education together as one faculty; that’ll work.
    And don’t even think about a work-life balance or professional respect if you work part time in the secondary sector, you’re just there to fill an annoying awkward timetable space.
    I know I’m a good and committed teacher but the curriculum, management of subject staff and content and Pay/conditions are… awful.
    With any hope, I’ll be out of it in a year.

  7. My daughter was let down by the system. Her chosen course prior to entry into A level was no longer available. The numbers were no longer of a level to justify offering some subjects. Why? It seems that teachers overestimated the number of pupils with sufficient grade to enter these subjects at A level. Despite protest by my daughter, some of her teachers and myself were met with a brick wall – the subject was no longer available! This resulted in my daughter rebelling againgst the authority by constant truanting (she was busy educating herself). I received numerous telephone calls from the school, head of year, head of department, year tutor, headmaster, deputy head. They threatened to expel her (I can’t recall the modern day equivalent) I told them all to fuck off, they had let her down! My daughter gained a high 2.1 from Cambridge. She educated herself in the end. If the top 5% have to access their own educational material, what can others do to help themselves? I despair! Perhaps the system is geared towards less able students? Admirable, but where are the results? The comprehensive education system has failed. It fails at both ends of the ability table. Unfortunately, teachers are caught up thus. I leave you to draw your own conclusion.

    • Hi Iain
      I am not a teacher, just a parent. BGE means Broad General Education and refers to S1 to S3 (i.e. before 4th year, when exams such as National 4 and National 5 (the old Standard Grade, and before that ‘O’grade.)
      This refers to Scotland.

      In England and Wales O levels are the corresponding grade to National 5s in 4th year. There’s no equivalent there to Highers in Scotland (sat in 5th and often 6th year too.)
      In England and Wales more academic pupils sit A levels in 6th year, which is equivalent to Advanced Higher in Scotland sat in 6th year, (formerly Sixth Year Studies in Scotland if my memory serves me right). I haven’t discussed baccalaureate here as I have already gone way beyond the scope of your original question in case it’s helpful to anyone.

  8. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you say here. As a primary school teacher I have been concerned about CfE and its impact on our pupils since the outset. No clear guidelines and every local authority doing their best to make sense of the Es and Os independently meant that there wasn’t no consistency across the nation. Teachers across Scotland are working unreasonable hours trying to create a curriculum that is meaningful and meets the needs of their children. We are at breaking point. I do not know one practising teacher who would not leave the profession if they could get a job with comparable salary. Although this is actually becoming less of a reason to stay as our wages are eroded year in year. We feel totally undervalued and stressed. Our job has a negative impact on our mental health and our family life. It was not always like this. Like you, I want to love my job again. I want the politicians to stop using education as a pawn in their political games and listen to us before it is too late!

    • Yes. The working conditions are the worst I can remember, no doubt about it, but when we’re working as busy fools, ineffectively like this, it’s the pupils who come off worst.
      Personally I don’t feel that I’ve offered very many children the best learning I can for years.

      • Hi Mark, just read this via your facebook link. Extremely eloquent and pertinent, I hope it gets widely read – especially regarding Nat 4 which I’ve been focusing on a lot given my newest S3 are lower ability than I’ve had the past 2 years.

        Personally I like in principle the idea that coursework components should count towards all final awards (something that was missing in Standard Grade) – after all in the real world people rarely have to sit in isolation recalling facts and solving problems on their own, but they do have to search for information / write reports / collaborate with others all the time – these might be harder to assess, but are arguably more important than exam skills, especially in an age of such easy access to information. And I’ve come across some pupils that work hard in class but simply break down in exam situations – in principle Nat 4 should be ideal for them.

        Unfortunately the communication about what Nat 4 means is really crap – employers are presented with this: https://www.sqa.org.uk/sqa/59032.html where there is no explanation of the nuances of the system and (as you mention) the challenges that are actually required to pass Nat 4 – instead they’ll just see the word ‘Not graded’ and assume it’s worthless! This trickles back down via parents into the classroom and demotivates the kids, when they should be encouraged to be proud about the N4-level things they can achieve, which might actually be more useful to them in the future than answering exam questions, especially if they go into vocational jobs.

        (Case in point: my senior N5 class, mainly resitters, who fall asleep having to drill boring equation questions as exam practice but came amazingly alive and proud of their work when I gave them a break to wire some plugs the other day.)

          • Thanks Tim
            That’s a really useful perspective on N4. Our school works hard at Positive Destinations but as a parent, very helpful to hear discussion on this. The make up of Parent Councils, although open to all, tends to veer towards parents of N5 pupils.
            Cheers
            Andrew

  9. I completely agree. What was required in many of my child’s Nat 5s was so much more than I did for Higher, 30 years ago.
    The pressure never let up in maths with continually having assessments which had to be passed.
    Also, some of the exams, particularly in maths and science seem deliberately tricky, throwing examinees a curved ball in the first few questions, rather than leaving that to the end to separate the less able from the more able. Under exam conditions all this does is fluster less able students, making them waste precious time on a tough question and for many students, raising anxiety levels, already high, to a level where it’s actually difficult to concentrate and recall.
    It’s been awful to watch.

  10. Totally agree and from working in a primary school I see talented teachers who are spending more time fire fighting than teaching.
    Starting children earlier in nursery is not an answer either. Teachers in early years and primary are spending far too much valuabke teaching time parenting pupils. Visiting specialist spend more time travelling between schools than actually helping the children with difficulties helping nobody at all.
    The system is broken from start to finish

  11. Hi Mark, just read this via your facebook link. Extremely eloquent and pertinent, I hope it gets widely read – especially regarding Nat 4 which I’ve been focusing on a lot given my newest S3 are lower ability than I’ve had the past 2 years.

    Personally I like in principle the idea that coursework components should count towards all final awards (something that was missing in Standard Grade) – after all in the real world people rarely have to sit in isolation recalling facts and solving problems on their own, but they do have to search for information / write reports / collaborate with others all the time – these might be harder to assess, but are arguably more important than exam skills, especially in an age of such easy access to information. And I’ve come across some pupils that work hard in class but simply break down in exam situations – in principle Nat 4 should be ideal for them.

    Unfortunately the communication about what Nat 4 means is really crap – employers are presented with this: https://www.sqa.org.uk/sqa/59032.html where there is no explanation of the nuances of the system and (as you mention) the challenges that are actually required to pass Nat 4 – instead they’ll just see the word ‘Not graded’ and assume it’s worthless! This trickles back down via parents into the classroom and demotivates the kids, when they should be encouraged to be proud about the N4-level things they can achieve, which might actually be more useful to them in the future than answering exam questions, especially if they go into vocational jobs.

  12. I agree totally. I left , retiring two years early, as I saw the nonsense this was. I, a principal teacher Modern Languages and four fellow Principal Teachers Subject left that year taking with us years of knowledge and experience. It was clear that Ms Hislop did not have the faintest idea about what was trying to be achieved! I saw two years of chaos in my final years teaching, as did my colleagues, and decided enough was enough.

  13. A lot of parents have not got a clue what these new qualifications mean for their kids & the kids are loosing heart.So if teachers are getting demoralised where is Scottish Education going .

  14. Interesting analysis emotionally, but surprising that a scientist doesn’t use a single statistic in aid of the arguments but instead polemical and subjective words abound. Should be in the humanities….. ?

    I cannot recall a decade in which many ( but not all) teachers didn’t moan, despite job security, holidays and pensions. The system does not differentiate the best and most effective ones and reward them, except by promoted posts taking them away. Of 52,000 teachers only four were considered incompetent in a five year period and the good teachers have to put up with covering for the poorer ones.
    Teaching across a wide ability range in a single class is stressful for teachers- as described here- but the answer is streaming. Not a dumbed- down curriculum, but levels of curriculum in a competitive environment.

  15. Job satisfaction is closely linked to intrinsic motivation, documented in the well known book by Danny Pink “Drive” (autonomy, mastery and purpose – the intrinsic motivators). By too much top down management and with the excessive workload that results in many hours spent in evenings and weekends, it’s hardly a surprise you feel the way you do. Teachers are losing motivation because they have insufficient time to to their jobs properly and too much top down management. A system which relies on teachers volunteering their evenings and weekends for free to do coursework is not a good system. Employ adminstrators to do what necessary admin can be done by administrators and leave the teachers to focus on teaching.

  16. Fantastic read and echoes the sentiments of so many teaching colleagues I have spoken to. However, whilst I agree that CFE needs work it has to be said that it is far more suited as a primary curriculum. It seems that it does not cater for the needs of all children and likewise teachers in the secondary sector. I sincerely hope the Scottish government takes heed and starts listening to those who know what it takes to actually teach, and teach Well!

  17. I totally agree. I have felt for years that we are being made to apply primary teaching principles to a secondary setting forgetting that our customer needs are very different after P7.
    Teachers from France,Germany and Poland , who love Scotland and are familiar with the system here are frequently dismayed at the changes over the last few years . So much so they consider our system is now ” broken”, that our standards have fallen and that many very good pupils in s5 can not do the maths, science and foreign language work of equivalent s2 and s3 in France and Germany. I gave Standard Grade papers from ten years ago to a Higher class at the beginning of the year as a homework exercise. It did not go well. Yet we are told that Standards are rising.
    More able pupils often summarise CFE at the BGE stage as poster making and getting to choose what they want to learn without being equipped to know what they need to learn. ie “I don’t want the hard stuff”
    On the other hand our pupils can do wonderful Powerpoints and appear confident and happy to work in a group and perform to the class. They are however getting worse at recognising verbs from nouns, or the number 1,000 from 10,000.
    While it is true that pupils need to learn to work with others and be able to access information by the click of a button, they still need to be encouraged to learn things, by rote or whatever, but learn them nonetheless. Even at university level ,research and collating of information and data analysis is a minefield and experts get it wrong. How can young pupil do this if they do not have sound knowledge to guide them? They find facts, stick them in a jotter and think “job done” without knowing if it is accurate, realistic or remotely plausible. See Google translator for a myriad of such examples. No one can learn a foreign language or become skillful at playing an instrument by not slogging away at it. A skill needs to be practised and sometimes that can be, dare I say it, boring and repetitive? It should be worth it in the long term though . Many of my colleagues feel disapproved of if tried, tested and good albeit traditional approaches are sometimes employed. Does it ever seem as if the tail is wagging the dog?
    Judging from many of the comments above, I am not alone in my thinking. I have met 2 colleagues in the past 6 years from across Scotland who think that CFE is working. Most are getting out if they can or grinning(grimacing?) and bearing it. Most love teaching and have felt that what they do is important but not any longer unless you are discussing pupils feelings, or indulging in self reflection ad nauseum.
    Also, when the banking world and financial communities tell you that you are considered semi -professional you begin to see why things are not as good as they could be.

  18. Well, your Blog has reached Shetland if not Nicola! We discussed it at our last Party meeting! (Shetland Labour Party). Teachers the length of the country are scunnered with the new courses, new faculties, lack of opportunity for promotion and curriculum changes.

  19. Just got round to reading your full letter Mark and I believe it is the best letter I have read on the failings of CfE. Like you, I was an SNP member and though still desirous of Independence, I have lost all confidence in the Scottish Government’s education policies. Like you, I have made my feelings known to Ms Stugeon and Mr Swinney, whom I thought might have begun to redress the situation, but I’m sure you will get the standard establishment letter thanking you for your passionate views but telling you they have everything in hand and that the OECD report backs up their claim CfE is the correct path to follow. They have no intention of losing face, even though it is destroying our education system and drastically failing almost every Scottish child, bar those in the private sector who quite rightly pay lip service to the dictates of CfE and do their own thing. All you need now is a teacher or group of teachers from the primary sector to be willing to pop their head above the parapet and air their views for it tO cover every aspect of the CfE debacle. Tom Strang. TeeJay.

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