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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