By Bill Heaney
Veteran secondary school teacher Christine Grahame asked First Minister Nicola Sturgeon what the Scottish Government’s response is to the recent survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), which found that at least 50 per cent of teachers said their well-being was poor or very poor.
Ms Sturgeon waffled a bit about “the exceptional efforts in helping to ensure that young people and children have been supported through this challenging time”.
She added: “We take the health and well-being of teachers very seriously. Although local authorities have a key role to play in supporting staff—teachers are employed by local authorities—the Scottish Government has invested more than £2 million in teacher well-being in the past year, with a package of support having been developed with the education recovery group. The Government has also committed to reducing class contact time by 90 minutes per week to give teachers more time to plan and to ease their overall workload.”
Ms Sturgeon’s information was different from mine. While out delivering Christmas cards I was met by some dismayed teachers from West Dunbartonshire schools.
Scunnered they said they were about the way they were being treated by education department officers who were “sitting at home dreaming up tasks for teachers that were well nigh impossible to achieve” especially during the pandemic.
However Ms Sturgeon told MSPs: “Of course, we continue to make good progress on recruitment, with teacher numbers increasing this year for the sixth year in a row. I am pleased to say that the ratio of pupils to teachers is now at its lowest level since 2009.”
Christine Grahame faithfully followed the SNP line laid down by her boss: “As a former secondary teacher—albeit that it was a wee while ago—and with teachers past and current in the family, I am aware of the dedication to the job and the stresses that go with it.
“With the priority to keep schools open and, as I understand it, to reintroduce exams in 2022, can more support be given to the profession, which is key to Scotland’s future?”
Ms Sturgeon introduced a rare element of humour to the proceedings.
She said: “As I know how much Christine Grahame works to keep me on my toes in her current role, I have always considered myself lucky not to have been a pupil in one of her classrooms when she was a teacher.
“She is probably thinking that she is not old enough to have been one of my teachers—I am not sure whether she is correct there. [Laughter.] I can feel an unusual unity of sympathy for me right now across the chamber, so I will swiftly move on.”
More seriously the FM commented: “We will continue to do everything that we can to support teachers as we try to get education back to normal. I said the other day, and I will repeat, that our priority is to keep schools open and not to have further disruption to children’s education.
“However, I recognise how difficult that is for teachers. Our main way of supporting teachers now is to recruit more of them into classrooms and, as I said, to reduce class contact time so that their overall workload is eased.
“Christine Grahame, pictured right, raises an important point, which allows me to recognise again how vital the contribution of teachers has been during the pandemic.”
Tory Sue Webber interjected: “The added workload from meeting the needs of children with additional support needs was in the top three causes of stress, according to the survey. Since 2010, the number of ASN teachers has fallen by nearly a fifth, while the number of children who require additional support has increased by almost 70,000. Does the First Minister agree that the need for ASN teachers has been overlooked and must urgently be addressed?”
However, Ms Sturgeon conceded: “Some changes to definitions have taken place, which means that the figures need to be treated with a degree of caution, but it is important to recognise the overall point. The overall numbers of teachers are rising.
“Although teachers who focus specifically on additional support needs are vital, to support children with additional needs is a job and a responsibility for all teachers. Our investment in recruitment and the rise in the numbers of teachers are important for the support of children with additional needs as well as for pupils generally.”