THE biggest failure regarding Scottish education in the last decade has been the attempt to turn it into a political football, according to the outgoing leader of Scotland’s biggest teaching union.

Speaking to the Sunday ­National, Larry Flanagan, general ­secretary of the EIS, said he was ­“absolutely ­appalled” when a LibDem MP ­recently appealed to the Tory ­education minister to “tell Scotland to get education right”.

And he said that when First ­Minister Nicola Sturgeon told voters to judge her on education he knew it was going to become a political football.

“I completely reject the narrative of failure that sometimes comes from politicians and one of the constant problems that education faces is that it is in the crosshairs of the binary political debate – which basically means anything positive about what the Scottish Government does is seen as endorsing independence and ­anything critical goes in the opposite direction,” said Flanagan.

“When Nicola Sturgeon said ‘judge me on education’, on the one hand you could say ‘that’s great, we have got a First Minister who is ­supporting it’. But I knew it was just going to become a political football because those who are opposed to her don’t want to judge her positively. That ­political divide has worked to the ­detriment of Scottish education.”

Flanagan said as a result of the ­kicking that politicians are ­continually giving education in Scotland, a narrative had developed that it is ­failing, which is completely untrue.

As an example, he referenced how Jamie Stone, LibDem MP for ­Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, had asked Tory education ­minister ­Nadhim Zahawi (below) “to share best practice with the Scottish ­Government” so the “scandal” of Scottish education could be “sorted out”.

The National: Education Secretary

“I was absolutely appalled because Scottish education is way ahead of the English system,” said Flanagan.

He added that although politicians keep referencing the Programme For International Student ­Assessment (PISA) results to try to portray ­Scottish attainment in a poor light, there is “little difference between the different jurisdictions in terms of attainment”.

Futhermore, it is seldom reported that Scotland is third in the PISA results for global competency, which is about children’s attitude to the world and issues like equality and immigration.

Flanagan said that showed the much criticised Curriculum for ­Excellence has been very successful in terms of the citizenship agenda and how young people view ­themselves and others.

“Most parents – and prior to ­Covid, HMI surveys indicated this – ­understand what the schools do on behalf of their children so this critique of Scottish education as somehow in decline drives me to despair,” said Flanagan.

Teachers are working “flat out” and often ­dealing with children in “really ­difficult circumstances” but Flanagan said that all they got from politicians was what a poor job they were doing.

“If you are attacking the education system you are attacking teachers. It really annoys me because it should not be difficult for politicians to mobilise behind the efforts schools are making.”

Flanagan pointed out that there wasn’t much difference in the ­various parties’ education policies so he didn’t see why they couldn’t coalesce around ensuring support was there for schools to deliver to children.

He had found the situation ­frustrating 10 years ago when he ­became EIS general secretary after decades of teaching and he said he found it frustrating now.

“If there is one thing I could change it would be to take the pointless ­political discourse out of what we are doing in schools,” said Flanagan. “Schools really are the heart of ­communities and we should build on that and make sure they are ­adequately resourced to deliver.”

However he warned there was a limit to what schools could do, ­adding that he was fed up hearing politicians adding to the list of what they should be tackling. While they have a role to play in tackling poverty, they are not the whole solution and to make any ­impact at all they have to be given proper ­resources.

“I would just like to see all of that being much more ­clearly articulated and then for the ­Scottish Parliament to make an agenda,” Flanagan said.

Local authorities also have “a big role” but although there is an issue around local authority funding and more cuts on the way, he said they had to start “letting go of the reins” and give more responsibility to teachers.

FOR instance, the Scottish Government has proposed to reduce teacher class contact time from 22 and a half hours to 21 to allow more time for preparation and marking.

“That is a really good proposal yet already there is a debate about who controls the one and a half hours,” Flanagan said. “We are saying it has got to be the teachers but Cosla [the Convention of Scottish Local ­Authorities] are saying it should be the school managers. But all that would do is generate more workload because it would just be another set of meetings about having meetings. You need to empower teachers and let them take control of education delivery.

“In Dundee just now we are about to have strike action because they are imposing faculties in a new management structure. They are an SNP council and they are supposed to have signed up to empowerment and we have demonstrated that staff don’t support these changes. But they are going ahead to impose them and this is the opposite of what should ­happen because in an empowered system you should listen to teachers. That is just one example but it is across all the ­local authorities.”

Flanagan said that although there had been improvements in ­education over the last decade with a much more unified focus on battling ­inequality and addressing the impact of poverty, some of the big challenges still remained.

“Now we have a new review body looking at qualifications again, so that tells you that what we have done in the last decade has not worked ­effectively.

“We did make some progress on pay but that is under threat, so the EIS has launched another campaign to try and maintain living ­standards while the workload is probably worse than it has ever been. So it would be wrong to suggest there are not still significant challenges in there,” said Flanagan.