Miss Duncan, Miss Allan, Mrs Randall and Mr Hollywood. Names etched on my memory – they were four of my primary school teachers. There are others too especially in secondary school who if I close my eyes, I can still see them and hear their voices. I know I was lucky. I loved my school experience – well most of it. It opened a world to me of learning and imagination, of escape and possibility. The people who took me on that journey were individuals who through their professionalism and dedication sowed in me a hunger and desire to know and to discover. I have always had the fullest admiration for those who teach. A good teacher opens a door of possibility and lets you enter a world of potential. Rolled up in one person, a good teacher is an inspirer, dramatist, communicator, creator, listener, carer and so much more. But it was only later in life as I began to teach and train adults that I really appreciated just how hard the work of a teacher is. So, I am always so proud of the fact that my eldest daughter is a primary school teacher – I can think of few roles more rewarding and fulfilling yet challenging at the same time.
I’ve been reflecting on education and teaching a lot in the last week partly because I have been involved in discussions on learning and training but also because this coming Monday we will be celebrating the International Day of Education, which is a celebration of the role of education across the world.
It is a day which amongst other things, is a reminder of how critical education is in tackling so many of the injustices and needs of our world. As the United Nations has stated:
‘Today, 258 million children and youth still do not attend school; 617 million children and adolescents cannot read and do basic math; less than 40% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa complete lower secondary school and some four million children and youth refugees are out of school. Their right to education is being violated and it is unacceptable.’
Education and learning are critical for the future of society, and that includes for the future of social care in Scotland. This past week we have seen in an Audit Scotland report some substantial critique of the lack of leadership and focus on social care and its necessary skills. Given that social care is a major contributor to the whole Scottish economy, if we are not getting training and learning right for this sector, then we are impacting the whole of our economy. But even more important than that we need to continually make sure that in our learning cultures around social care that we are reflective of the changing realities of care around us.
Two things have struck me this week.
The first is that having spent the last few weeks highlighting the very real challenges that the social care workforce has been facing because of Omicron someone asked me, ‘Then why do the work of care?’. Now before I get accused of rose-tinted glass wearing, I am not denying and would strongly argue that we need to substantially improve the reward and remuneration, the terms and conditions of those who work in social care. We are slowly getting there although at times I think our national and governmental response has been more focussed on headlines than addressing the baseline issues of sustainability, structure and process which affect the social care system in Scotland. We cannot have fair work conditions, a workforce valued and respected, professional and recognised, if we have systems in place which make their organisations and employment unsustainable, forced to sacrifice quality on the basis of cost, and to continually be treated as outsiders in partnership and collaboration. There is no point in having a better paid carer if the organisation that employs them has gone to the wall. The social care system in Scotland is in a perilous state and will only be changed by the sort of radical transformation which requires partnership, mutual respect and collaboration. The best teachers inspire not by instruction but invitation, by authenticity rather than acting, by offering possibility rather than predictability. Such change is not just systemic – for instance creating a National Care Service – it is profoundly attitudinal and cultural. Have we in Scotland the ground in which to sow a change that involves and includes, that respects diversity and difference, nurtures choice and capacity? I sometimes fear we do not because too often I witness partisanship and defensiveness, a desire to keep things as they are, to hold onto power-base and predicability.
The way we support and care for others is changing all the time, I very much hope that when we talk of skills in relation to social care in the months and years ahead, that firstly we will value the existing professionalism of those working in care, and secondly that we will give equal attention to the softer skills of affectiveness and compassion, communication and relationship, as we often do to functional and transactional activities and abilities.
We also need to ensure that the potential of a career in social care is talked up. And that change has to start early – we need to start inspiring the children now at primary school to consider care as a career of choice and as of huge societal value. That is up to all of us who are adults to be the enablers of that inspiration. My answer to the question I was asked is what I have heard so often – that there are few jobs in life, despite the challenges, that enable you to support someone else to change their life, to achieve their potential, and to live to their fullest until the end of their days. For many it is the best job in the world and surely that is worthy of all focus and attention, of our value as a society and respect as a community?
As we seek to inspire the young with the attractiveness of social care, can I suggest you look at sharing with the children you know the fantastic ‘ When I grow Up I want to be a Carer.’ written by Jenni Mack. It is superb!
The second main reflection about teachers and education that I have had this week is personal and that is that I probably am learning more now than at any other stage in my life. In other words education and learning, knowledge and insight did not stop when I left school or university – it just took on a different form. Now I hope that that is stating the obvious, but I suspect as a society it probably is not. There is a terrible presumption about older age in particular which suggests that learning and teaching have sell by dates. What nonsense – and I am thankful that increasingly I read of people in their eighties and nineties graduating with degrees or going back to school to learn a new subject or discover a new skill. We learn until we die and it is a fundamental part of our society that we should enable such learning into later age, and value the contribution that the gaining of such knowledge offers to our society. Education is too important and liberating for it to be the preserve of children and the youthful.
I conclude with one of my favourite children’s writers, Allan Ahlberg who write the poem ‘The Supply Teacher’. I said at the start that I enjoyed most of my school experience except perhaps one supply teacher who put the fear of the divine into me every day she appeared. If nothing else she made me appreciate the brilliance of those who had become my routine, and for me all teachers in school, care home and community, open our hearts to the essence of what it means to be in relationship with one another, in care and compassion. The best teachers, wherever they are, and whatever job they do, help us to reach our potential and flourish.
The Supply Teacher
Here’s the rule for what to do
If ever your teacher has the flu
Or for some other reason takes to her bed
And a different teacher comes instead
When the visiting teacher hangs up her hat
Writes the date on the board, does this or that
Always remember, you have to say this,
OUR teacher never does that, Miss!
When you want to change places or wander about
Or feel like getting the guinea pig out
Never forget, the message is this,
OUR teacher always lets us, Miss!
Then, when your teacher returns next day
And complains about the paint or clay
Remember these words, you just say this:
That OTHER teacher told us to, Miss!