jimtoggleJim O’Neill brings a lifetime experience of education and says the true problems facing teachers are not the ones John Swinney is setting out to solve.


Last week, I urged the party not to lose sight of the governance of Scotland by the SNP, and to challenge them on their record of failure. Almost immediately, John Swinney published his blueprint for change to improve Scottish education.

I started teaching in 1974 and was almost immediately thrust into industrial action. I became a full-time official and was one of the leaders of the dispute in the 1980s. Every Education Minister from Frank McElhone, the first I met, to John Swinney has wanted to put their own stamp on Scottish education. From Munn and Dunning in the 1970s to Curriculum for Excellence now, teachers have faced change year on year on year.

Following the 2015 OECD Report in Scottish Education, which said that “Learners are enthusiastic and motivated, teachers are engaged and professional and system leaders are highly committed”, John Swinney has brought forth plans to

  • close the attainment gap,
  • ensure we have a curriculum which delivers for our children and teachers, and
  • empower our teachers, schools and communities to deliver for children and young people.

What a damning condemnation of nine years of SNP education ministers. If all this needs to be done, then what have they been doing while in government? And how have they alienated teachers so much that we are facing the first national industrial action since the 1980s?

A recent report has identified Scottish teachers as the most hard-working in Europe with the greatest amount of contact time. They and school leaders have quite enough to do without taking responsibility for issues currently handled by local authorities. If they are being asked to do these things, and we are not sure what yet, what will they have to stop doing to accommodate the new duties? There is only so much time in a day.

Further, schools have just gone through a massive change with the Curriculum for Excellence. Indeed the workload associated with this is what has driven teachers to the brink of industrial action. Is Swinney saying that this was all a mistake and a new curriculum is required? What a joke! The current changes must be allowed to bed in and then be evaluated before any change is proposed. But that has never been the way of the politicians. It must have been their memory of rotten teachers that drove them into politics. I didn’t know there were that many rotten teachers in Scotland.

Scottish education is facing a number of major problems, and they are not the problems identified by Swinney.

The first is a serious shortage of teachers. I have never understood how the planners get teacher requirement numbers so wrong so consistently. After all they have 5 years’ advance knowledge of the number of children in primary schools and therefore the number of teachers needed. They have an even longer lead in time for Secondary schools – 12 years. When I was writing my own union’s submission on teacher numbers in the 1980s and 1990s, I made this point consistently. Yet the planners used an arcane algebraic model which consistently got it wrong.

This is compounded by the second problem, an ageing profession which will create an even more urgent requirement for teachers. Short term proposals to retrain people in other jobs have never worked and they undervalue teachers’ professional commitment.

The third big problem is the cut in educational funding which flows from the disastrous Council Tax freeze and the failure to adequately fund it by central government. There are many tales of teachers self-funding equipment needed in classrooms and the failure to replace retiring teachers.

I have to say that I have heard enough of austerity cuts and lack of affordability. So I finish with a slogan we used regularly in the 70s, both as students, fighting Thatcher the Milk Snatcher, and those who would not pay us properly:

If you think education is expensive, think of the costs of ignorance.

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5 thoughts on “Let the teachers teach

  1. Why, if teachers are doing such a fine job, and children are well motivated to learn, is there ANY attainment gap?
    What functions that local authorities currently do, are teachers unwilling to take on?
    Why was Mr O’Neil fighting “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher” at all. Scottish education has always been a Scottish responsibility.
    As a matter of interest, my secondary class at Cumnock Academy in the 60’s was 46 strong, and composed of children from a dozen or more different primaries.
    Teachers then had a limited interest in the few they pushed, classes were often “boisterous” with the belt used repeatedly—-It was an above average class, but not the highest, but it was my view that the very few teachers who didn’t “belt” were those who taught their subject best, and kept the interest of their class.

      1. Of course, Jim. And as a child of my time, I was involved in industrial action which had nothing to do with my working circumstances. Many Scots were—we seem to have been cannon fodder for many Union Bosses making their way up the Union ladder. First out—Last in.
        Scotland, as a result, lost industry and also gained an unwelcome reputation for militancy which has cost us investment since.
        I am listening, right now on Radio 4, to proposed teacher strikes down south, also Junior Doctors voting against a new contract.
        That hasnt impacted here. Would you wish “solidarity” to be extended to Scottish schools and hospitals?
        How about French workers/farmers/fishermen etc—should we go out for them?

  2. He clearly doesn’t bring anything which resembles a personal education to anything he writes.
    The problem lets still refer to them as Labour because as yet they have still to actually define themselves have is that the SNP doesn’t have a record of failure in Government they have an outstanding record in Government which isn’t and never is going to be 100% perfect. And because it can never be 100% perfect the opposition are left nit picking irrelevance and making up crises where there are none and calling it failure.

    Nope sorry it aint washing with the electorate yet its still a wonder to me why the thingy party keep picking at scabs unsuccessfully in order to make themselves bleed.

    I have never seen or even heard of any body of anything try so hard to dismantle and destroy itself so completely.

    Jim seriously give it up you’re only looking like a fool.

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