Earlier this week Education Secretary, John Swinney announced the Scottish Government would be offering a £20,000 bursary to what he terms as "career changers" who wish to re-train as STEM teachers. Great idea, just a shame he doesn't admit the idea was one the Scottish Conservatives had thought up last year. But hey, at least he is getting it right now, or is he? Let us look at this a bit closer.
Scotland has seen a dramatic fall in the number of teachers - there are 4,000 fewer than when the SNP came to government a decade ago. At the beginning of the school year in August, Scotland had 700 teacher vacancies, where are all the teachers?
Perhaps a decade of being subjected to an ongoing crisis in implementation of Curriculum for Excellence, National Qualifications that are still plagued by assessment criteria problems, a devastating drop in international ranking according to PISA scores (scores an SNP Councillor in Fife was heard to sneer over as to their relevance), a system whereby those from the most affluent backgrounds are 7x more likely to achieve 3 "A" Higher passes than those from the most deprived backgrounds, 152,000 college places that have been cut and where only 1 in every 10 children from a deprived area go to university as opposed to 1 in 5 in England. Welcome to SNP Scotland. Education is apparently their number one priority and the First Minister wants to be judged on her record on education. Lets leave that one there.
So what is this plan? Scotland has a shortage of teachers which is subject wide, however, in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) the shortage is even more acute - demand outstrips supply and couple this with the fact these sectors are growing and we have a problem. Unfortunately, due to a decade of part indifference - due to an absolute obsession about independence and the chaotic implementation of a curriculum that has become skills heavy and knowledge deficient and we do not have an attractive prospect.
Two months ago a school in a part of Fife that has suffered from multiple deprivation in parts of its community and where a focus on STEM subjects could provide avenues for youngsters to realise their full potential and go onto college and university, we instead saw the school lose its only Computing teacher and absolutely no plan on how to remedy this. See link - http://www.kathleenleslie.co.uk/2017/08/lochgelly-high-school-what-happens-next.html
Whilst in one of Edinburgh's leading State schools, Trinity Academy, an urgent appeal was put out by the head-teacher last month in a desperate attempt to recruit two Maths teachers - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/09/13/snp-attack-middle-class-edinburgh-school-forced-ask-parents/
I cannot help but wonder how in a country with a once globally renowned education system we seem to have slipped in international standing and failed to successfully recruit and retain teachers? Perhaps that could be linked to dissatisfaction at a government derived curriculum that was supposed to enhance creativity but has done the exact opposite? Or perhaps due to an inspectorate that is part of Education Scotland which is a government quango and an overwrought bureaucratic system that sees the only teaching regulator in Scotland (the GTCS) have experienced teachers from other parts of the UK jump through hoops before they can even begin to satisfy their requirements, and then quite often places them on "provisional registration" (meaning you are at the bottom of the pay scale).
This latest policy initiative by the SNP (yes, another one...) set out to "attract" these career changers into teaching with a bursary for their training year of £20,000 - to make up for any income shortfall. Given that a huge number of technology and IT related jobs are in the private sector one can only wonder how this £20k will match to their current earning potential. I also wonder if anyone has told them that the starting salary for a new teacher in Scotland is currently £22,416 - keeping in mind most "career changers" will have a mortgage and many will have young families to provide for.
Any moves to recruit more teachers and in particular subject shortage areas is very much welcomed. Indeed I wish it every success but I cannot help but feel this is just another SNP sop at claiming to have education as the number one priority. I would also like to see assurances that these new teaching positions will be permanent. Rare it is today to find a school in Scotland which does not rely on a pool of supply staff, many working week after week and month after month with absolutely no contract. Training new teachers is a commitment not only to ensuring the young people of Scotland have a teacher in front of the classroom but also a commitment to the "career changers" - they are the ones who are about to take a leap into the unknown. On the finer details we await.
In theory this does sound like a step forward to address the recruitment crisis due to a decade of mismanagement. In practice though to attract more teachers in STEM subjects and all other subject areas, other avenues of entry to the profession need to be looked at. Not so many years ago independent schools were not tied into having to have teaching staff who were GTCS registered. As Rod Grant, the head-teacher of Clifton Hall School, lambasted Scottish Ministers in 2015 when he told them the system here meant that Stephen Hawking wouldn't be allowed to teach Physics and that the regulator did not "care much for outsiders" - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/SNP/11679064/Scottish-teaching-regulator-doesnt-like-outsiders.html Being a specialist in a subject is something that government, local authorities and schools should welcome into the classroom particularly at Higher and Advanced Higher level. Academics can bring a wealth of knowledge and practice into the classroom, therefore, we should encourage more specialism, more choice for schools to engage with the wider knowledge community where appropriate.
Curriculum, regulation, inspection - should not all be simply proxy arms of the Scottish Government. There has to be independence of curriculum, independence of regulation and independence of inspection otherwise you have nothing more than something out of East European Socialism à la 1960s and failings can be swept aside as we march on with a "success story" - a story that has children leaving primary school without basic numeracy and literacy skills.
Secondly, STEM teachers are essential but extra recruitment of them must also come with a commitment to reinstate many of the 152,000 college places the SNP has cut. Not all young people want to or can afford to go to university (free tuition is only a small part of the huge outlay for four years at university) and a return to focus on more apprenticeships for young people has to also be part of any future education policy.
GIRFEC (that great buzzword/acronym of SNP education) is exactly that - getting it right for every child. Until we see a reversal of declining international scores, a reduction in the attainment gap, more college and vocational opportunities and a focus on reading, writing, spelling and numeracy, we are not getting it right. We live in a global world and Scotland's children need an education that puts them on par with our neighbours and competitors. More STEM teachers are good but the proof will be in the longer term.