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.