Category Archives: Work

Curriculum for Excellence? Or Excrement?

My World of Work
“Smile and I’ll give you a job marking Advanced Higher papers” (Photo credit: Engage for Education)

I’m firmly in the latter camp. Teachers at parents’ evenings are routinely told not to discuss the new CfE qualifications because, frankly, they’re a damn mess and schools don’t know what to do with them. I was at a feedback meeting today as a member of the SSTA and heard even more comments about the state of these qualifications than my worst fears could have dredged up.

A post on the STV web page yesterday quoted Minister for Learning (which sounds like something from Harry Potter), Dr Alasdair Allan as saying:

“The Scottish Government, working closely with the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland, has provided an unprecedented level of support to help teachers and schools prepare for Curriculum for Excellence and the National Qualifications.

“Curriculum for Excellence has been designed to equip our young people with the skills they need to succeed both in Scotland and in the global workplace, with local authorities having the freedom to shape education to meet the needs of our pupils, whatever their background.”

I would like to say to Dr Allan – you’re talking shit, son. While one could argue that “unprecedented” levels of support were offered in so far as additional in-service days, these were needed because the whole thing is a complete shambles and teachers needed the time (and more) to patch this stupidly leaky chicken-wire ship. The SQA has been as much use as a chocolate fire-guard and Education Scotland has been a similarly cocoa-based teapot.

To sample some of the information I gleaned from other delegates:

  • Experienced teachers are being passed over in favour of inexperienced staff, some only just out of probation, for the creation of course materials. Whether this is cost-saving, or that newer teachers are seen as more “malleable” is anyone’s guess
  • The electronic marking system is a mess, with more errors than human marking. If it’s used, then an increase in inaccurate marking goes hand in hand with the similarly-times introduction of a new appeals system which makes it more difficult and costly to have a paper re-marked.
  • There is a great disparity in how subjects are being treated from authority to authority – it’s a postcode lottery. In one council, Technical Studies were allotted 20 hours to create resources for all three of their subjects. The sciences were given 20 hours each. This, I assume, is the “local authorities having the freedom to shape education” line. Which essentially means that employers won’t value the certificates awarded so much as where the pupil studied for them as it becomes public knowledge which authority pumps more time/funding into that employer’s preferred subjects.
  • National 4 awards aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on if you’re looking for work. One spokesman for a major company stated this, in front of pupils he was in to present to, and said that his company is not the only one with this viewpoint. As it’s assessed completely internally with no external exam or other moderation, it’s deemed worthless.
  • Due to the work commitment required to get through the N4 course, one teacher in admitted that seven of her pupils left school this year with nothing. I believe she meant across the board, not just in her subject but I could be wrong. In previous years, these pupils could have scraped an Int1 or a Foundation. Now? Nothing. National 4 isn’t a graded certification (A, B, C) – it’s pass/fail. Don’t do enough and you get nowt. But as I already said, it’s worth jack all to many employers anyway. Does this example and the one before sound like CfE is going to “equip our young people with the skills they need to succeed”? Sounds like the opposite to me.
  • To become an SQA approved marker in years gone by required a minimum of three years teaching experience in the subject to be marked. This, along with extra marking tuition, allowed you to mark at the bottom rung (i.e. Foundation). With experience, you could mark more advanced papers. Now? Probationers can and do mark anything from Nat5 to Advanced Higher.
  • It seems that Computing Science wasn’t alone in having a dreadful N5 exam paper this year that looks like it was put together by a committee of amateurs who’ve a) never written an exam before and b) didn’t talk to one another before pasting everything together and trying to pass it off as acceptable. I scrawled more red ink over my copy than I do over a poor homework assignment. Chemistry, I believe, used an old Int2 paper for the multiple choice section, or at least huge parts of it – virtually a photocopy.
  • Arrangements for subjects lack any depth in their descriptions. For instance, I have to teach about “processors”. What about them? That they exist? What they do? How they work? What sub-components they have? How they work? I don’t know. When posed with this question, the senior assessor – the person responsible for setting the exam – stated (in front of an audience of approximately 250 Computing teachers) “We’re not teaching facts, we’re teaching Curriculum for Excellence”. So tell me… how do you examine CfE without testing pupil’s ability to recall factual evidence? Isn’t that what an exam is? If you let pupils choose how deeply to study a subject, then how do you know they’re going to discover the facts that are required to pass an exam? It’s a complete crap-shoot. Or just a complete load of crap. Either/or. If that’s the attitude, then teachers are unnecessary. Just give children a photocopy of the arrangements and tell them to go and research all the topics on the internet.

That’s just the foul, mouldy icing on the rotten cake. I have about 40-50 other such notes relating to weaknesses in CfE, problems with its roll-out, failures by the SQA/ES to deal with it and so on.

Dr Allan – simply not good enough. Must try harder. Go to the bottom of the class and show me some real work next time, not something you rushed off on the bus on the way in this morning.

Making it even harder to find teachers

Carry On Teacher
Image via Wikipedia

Or more specifically, making it harder to find teaching jobs.

I’m coming to the end of my probationary year through in Edinburgh and intend to move through to Glasgow in the summer to be with Gillian and the kids. Therefore I’ve been looking for a job in the area. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive, I know teaching jobs aren’t that easy to find at the moment. However, it seems that Glasgow Council are making it more difficult – and their methods seem purposeless.

Only one job for a Computing teacher has come up in Glasgow and I didn’t get an interview. Given the number of candidates (and I’m sure many were far more experienced than me) this isn’t a huge surprise and I’m not that downhearted about it.

What’s really getting my goat is that I inquired about being put onto the supply list for occasional work up until I can find a permanent position. “Sorry,” I was told, “Glasgow are only putting their own probationers onto their supply list”.

So, basically, to get a job in Glasgow you have to be working in Glasgow already. Let’s not take into account the fact that some of those probationers might be moving elsewhere and that some who studied in Glasgow (like me) took advantage of the “go anywhere” scheme promoted by the GTCS to fill vacancies elsewhere on the understanding we could head “home” afterwards.

The plot thickens, though, when I heard that only the best graded probationers in Glasgow would go onto their supply list. Now I’ve only heard this from one person, but it is a probationer who is within the system so I’ve no reason to doubt what they’re saying. I wasn’t aware that probationers were graded beyond “suitable”, “suitable with some extra time required” and “for the love of all that’s holy, don’t let them in a classroom again”.

So it seems that Glasgow have decided – somehow – to grade all their probationers. This applies to Primary, secondary and all subject specialities therein. It’s unrelated to any other council so there’s nothing for them to regulate against. Hence their “grading” must be completely arbitrary. Given that it’s the first time they’ve done it, it’s also unproven.

Right, so they grade all their teachers. They only allow the “top” ones onto the supply list. This assumes the aforementioned top ones don’t get permanent employment in Glasgow or elsewhere. Or that they’re not moving out of the area, perhaps as they themselves were on the “go anywhere” scheme.

Throwing in some random figures, let’s say there are 100 teachers. The top 20 get permanent posts, so you’re left with 80 who are OK ro good (or crap). 15 of these go elsewhere or drop out of teaching. Glasgow needs 100 new entries on the supply register so where does it get the space-fillers? The first 35 to apply from elsewhere, or from further down their graded list. Not the best, the first. Which means they’re not necessarily going to fill the register with anyone decent.

In addition, when a school seeks a supply teacher the local authority don’t say “here – you’re having this person”. They send out a list of potentials. The department head will then put out the feelers and seek references, official or otherwise. What “grade” they got is irrelevant.

In fact, I would expect that grading teachers would cause them to be more likely to end up skipping the supply list because – assuming a probationer is told how they’re doing grade-wise – it could be used as a “selling point” in interviews.

From what I’ve been able to find out, it’s only Glasgow that are doing this. None of the surrounding councils are bothering. Why? I have no idea. But I simply cannot figure out any actual reason for doing so that doesn’t revolve around generating paperwork and giving some council monkeys a job.

If the GTCS – the governing body for teachers in Scotland – doesn’t see fit to grade new teachers, why on earth do Glasgow Council think that they have the needs, or indeed the skills, to do so themselves?

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Scratch-ing an itch

Scratch logo
Image via Wikipedia

Sorry for the awful pun. It had to be done.

For those who don’t know, Scratch is a programming language geared primarily at younger children. We use it with our S2 classes (around 12-13 years old) although I am aware of many primary schools who also introduce it to children at a younger age.

Frankly, after a bit of struggling to begin with, I’ve found it to be a great language. Sure it doesn’t have a solution to every problem and yes, you often have to fiddle around a lot to get it to do precisely what you want but for the level it’s aimed it, it’s a fantastic tool.

The best thing is the layout. It’s bright, clear and gives very fast results. The colour-coding of different data types makes it easy for children to spot how the programs are put together. There’s no typing necessary (other than the occasional number) as the programs are built using jigsaw pieces with code on. The pieces change shape dynamically as code is formed into loops and the like. All very pretty.

Over the holidays I spent an hour or two with Little Miss (aged 10) who was very impressed with the simplicity. She managed to create a couple of short animations on her netbook. I went into full-on geek mode and created the attached Ghostbusters game (no copyright theft intended – it just seemed like a nice name).

Use the mouse to point your gun in the right direction and the space bar to fire. There are seven levels, on each of which you have ten bullets and have to hit the ghost five times. Clear a level using exactly five bullets and you get a bonus.

You can download Scratch from http://scratch.mit.edu/ for free. There are versions for Windows, Mac and more penguin-oriented operating systems.

My ghost-busting title is available as a single file here: Ghostbusters (ZIP file, 2.8Mb)

UPDATE: you can play the game online here!

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How to Destroy an Education System (by The Scottish Parliament, aged 11¾)

For those who are unaware, I am an NQT – “Newly Qualified Teacher“. Courtesy of the excellent system in Scotland, this means I get a fast track to full certification by being placed on a full year teaching experience on a wage slightly below that of a more experienced member of staff. I don’t get 100% “contact time” (that is, time in class with pupils) as this gives me time to generate lesson plans, practice with resources and equipment available to me, and explore other areas of the profession to help me become as good a teacher as possible.

I work in a system whereby the head of the department I am in is a certified and experienced teacher in that subject. Although I am contracted to a 35-hour week, I work significantly more hours than that. This is normal.

Believe it or not, if teachers wish to work to those exact contracted hours it is classed as industrial action and a ballot must be taken by a union before it can be done. Yes, seriously. It is industrial action to work within the limits of our agreed contract of employment. I believe we are the only profession for whom this is the case – please correct me if I’m wrong.

A few years ago, teachers agreed to a pay freeze due to financial issues. Shortly after that, inflation spiralled so that teachers are effectively worse off than they were when they agreed the freeze. Such is life. This kind of thing happens to people who sign onto tracker mortgages and the like. It’s a gamble, to some extent.

Teachers must also, as part of their employment agreement as public servants, pay into the pension pot. This isn’t the goldmine many people think it is, especially if a teacher doesn’t rise above being a regular member of staff. Senior staff, head teachers and so on may well see a nice return at the end of their career (and in most cases have flipping well earned it), but the rest of us will be lucky to get something half-decent. Again, do note – we can’t opt out of this to the best of my knowledge.

There’s a great scheme currently running called the Chartered Teacher Scheme. This enables teachers who are particularly invested in their profession to focus on certain topics and develop them. Think of it as a PhD for teachers (not accurate, but you get the idea). It brings them to the peak of their profession and encourages them to help improve other teachers in the process.

You may not be aware, but teachers teach teachers. A lot of the time when your kids aren’t in school, we are. Brushing up on techniques, covering new material, adjusting to new legislation and being taught by people such as these Chartered Teachers.

In the meantime, we’re also undergoing the single largest curricular change in Scottish education for decades with the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) which you may have heard of. This is a massive change to the way children are both taught and assessed. We have to adjust our ways of teaching, change how we record and present their educational records, develop new resources (absolutely none are provided by the people who’ve created this curriculum) and so forth.

What the Scottish Parliament is planning to do

1) To address a one-year budgetary framework, teachers are being asked to accept a two year pay freeze. Also permanent changes to their conditions of service. One of these is an increase in their pension contributions to at least 3.2% of their income. Remember, this is not a pension that can be opted out of. In addition, the return on this investment is lower than was promised years ago. Yes, that’s right – we’re being forced to pay more to receive less.

2) Supply teachers are being smacked in the face with a maximum 27.5 hour week for the first 8 days of any engagement – at Scale Point 1 on the pay scale (the lowest). Therefore any supply teacher who can’t get a nice long- or medium-term placement will never be paid at their deserved rate, and will never work a 35-hour week. Well, they will – they just won’t be paid beyond 27.5. A supply teacher at the top of the scale will suffer a 35% loss in earnings. And this isn’t taking into account the additional pension contributions mentioned previously. Expect this to cause a lot of people to drop out of the profession, particularly in rural areas where supply work is sparse as it is.

3) The Chartered Teacher Scheme is either being frozen or withdrawn completely, removing the best avenue for creating absolutely top-end teachers.

4) NQTs will be expected to work nearer 100% contact time, resulting in far less time to learn about being a teacher and generate good lesson plans. Essentially, it’s a way of getting cheap labour. NQTs are paid less than fully fledged staff and part of justifying that is that they work fewer hours (usually around 70%) while still devoting all of their non-contact time to self-improvement. The new legislation will mean they have to work virtually full time while still trying to find time for Continued Professional Development. Alternatively, those CPD sessions currently provided may be removed thus meaning that NQTs will be less effective in the medium term.

5) Sick pay will be reduced by 10% for each and every day of absence. This affects supply teachers, probationers (NQTs), those on maternity leave… you name it.

6) £81 million will be cut from the Teachers Pay Bill – a cut of 3.4%. In comparison, local authority grant settlements are being cut by 2.6%.

7) Within my area at least, a decision has been made to change from the existing Principle Teacher / Head of Department scheme to a “Faculty” one. This, basically, removes a fair number of senior staff and thus lowers the overall pay packet for teachers. It also means that the head of a Faculty could have no experience whatsoever in teaching the subjects they are overseeing. Do you honestly think it would make sense to have a Home Economics teacher overseeing Computing, Geography or P.E.? Of course it doesn’t.

This last point is a real bone of contention. The council have stated that there is no evidence that the current model is better. Or at least no financial evidence. In other words, they’re only bothered about the money, not about the effect on education. To turn their statement on its head, however, is to say that there’s also no evidence that their new Faculty model is of any educational benefit.

For some wonderful quotes from the … I shall be polite and say “individual” heading this motion, please read this article courtesy of the Edinburgh Evening News.

At a time when we’re undergoing such massive curricular changes, we need experienced staff in charge of departments in which they have a background. It’s simply plain common sense. Something obviously lacking from the council members trying to save a few bucks so they can continue to claim underwear from Marks & Spencer and five star hotel rooms should they get snowed in next December.

To sum up

Absolutely every single decision being made at both council and government level is to the detriment of the Scottish education system. I agree we’re in a time of dire financial straits. However, the only way we’re going to get out of it is to produce good, hard workers. Skilled individuals who can grab our businesses and industries and pull them back up on their feet.

How the hell these idiot politicians expect us to do that with paltry resources, disillusioned staff, chaotic organisation and change seemingly for the sake of it is beyond me.

Parents – who would you trust most to tell you what is best for your children’s ongoing education? Politicians who think with only their egos and their bank balances, or teachers who decided to do this job despite knowing they would be working in one of the most stressful careers currently going? That they would be paid for a 35-hour week despite regularly working in excess of 50 (sometimes far, far more), in a career where the words of one spiteful child can have them flung from a job until a court battle gets them reinstated? That they are fully aware that discipline in schools is nigh-on impossible to maintain due to nanny state regulations?

Would you trust someone who is part of the system, who was trained in it, works in it and believe in it? Or would you believe someone who’s job revolves around appearing to do something so they don’t get voted out for appearing ineffective? Someone who has decided to tackle a working environment in which they themselves have absolutely no prior professional experience?

Frankly, expecting these councillors and MPs to make these decisions makes as much sense as asking a schoolteacher to perform an appendectomy on your youngest.

We’re good, but we’re not that good. We wouldn’t have a clue what we were doing. But at least we’d have the balls to admit it.

 

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Catch-up post

Strathclyde University - Jordanhill Campus
Strathclyde University - Jordanhill Campus

I’m sure there are a few of you out there who don’t follow my goings-on via facebook and/or Twitter so I thought I might as well put a few words up here. This blog is rapidly becoming a film review site and I don’t want that!

Recent news – I applied for a PGDE (Primary) course at Strathclyde University and found out this week, after interview, that I hadn’t got on. I’m disappointed, but it’s not the end of the world. With over 800 people competing for barely 130 places I’m glad I at least got as far as an interview. I guess I’ll see how things stand close to term starting and I may ring to see if there have been any drop-outs. Or I try again next year.

What’s a real shame is that next year will be the last time the course will be running at the Jordanhill campus and I really liked it there. Far more convenient and lovely surroundings – much better (and cheaper) than traipsing into the city centre every day.

What else? Well, Gill and I are still doing remarkably well. I guess she’s just not got bored of me yet. The two kids are just amazing. I honestly didn’t realise how much I would enjoy taking on the responsibility of kids. OK, so I only see them all at weekends and holidays but I’m looking forward to July when – assuming I don’t arse things up like I have a habit of doing – I’ll be moving in with them.

In the meantime I’ve been helping redecorate, put together furniture and “tech” the house up a bit. We had been hoping to move to another place (and such a lovely place), but financially it’s just not viable at the moment. Instead we’re looking at extending the existing place and staying put for a few years. Nice location, though, and good for schools for the kids – and hopefully for me!

On the job front, things aren’t looking fantastic with precisely no full-time vacancies for Computing teachers being advertised. There’s always supply, and I have no issues with going back to IT if it’s going to pay the bills. Hell, the dive company that Gill is doing her SCUBA training with is after divemasters, so you never know – I could go that direction instead.

Work is going well. I’m lucky enough to have fantastic support at the school at which I’m doing my NQT year. Teaching isn’t as easy as you might have thought it was when you were the kid sat in the classroom staring out of the window. I’m definitely on the downhill slope towards the year end, and will be losing a fair few classes to exam leave in the very near future. Revision time!

As mentioned, though, the job situation sucks and it seems the Scottish government have decided that their money saving plans for next year are best focussed on destroying the education system as best they can while ensuring that the upper echelons of Holyrood get to keep their flash cars and velvet-upholstered toilet seats. But that will be another blog post.

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