James McEnaney talks to education secretary Jenny Gilruth in part two of an exclusive interview about rebuilding the government’s relationship with teachers.

Jenny Gilruth is under no illusions. The relationship between her former profession and the government she now represents has been strained close to breaking point and there are genuine concerns not just about the present situation, but also the future educational landscape.

“I think a number of things have happened,” she says. “First of all industrial action, I think, was really difficult for teachers. It was difficult for kids, but it was difficult for staff.”

She believes that the recent period of industrial action, in which Scotland saw the first national teacher pay strikes in a generation, was “quite a damaging period of time between the profession and government”. This means that the relationship  with existing teachers needs to be “mended”, but she also worries about people being pushed away from ever joining the profession in the first place.

“I think looking at that picture has put people off, potentially, applying to be teacher. And that worries me.

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“I'm very keen to work with our trade union partners on a joint campaign on this to try and encourage people into teaching. I think we need to look at how we can help support the next generation of teachers.”

But there are also factors driving people out of teaching careers right now, not least the fact that significant numbers of young educators seem unable to find secure employment.

I tell her about just one example recently raised with me – a bright, committed, enthusiastic young teacher, who successfully completed their probation year, and then performed extremely well during interviews. They are currently working in John Lewis which, unlike Scotland’s public sector school system, can offer them guaranteed work and a secure wage, and are unsure if they’ll ever return to the classroom.

It is at this point that a major frustration of her job becomes clear. The Scottish Government is, quite rightly, held accountable for teacher numbers at a national level, yet local authorities are the ones actually employing staff.

She is also concerned that local authority recruitment policies, and the wide variances that exist between them, are making life much more difficult for Scotland’s young teachers.

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“COSLA, local government, having 32 different approach to recruitment – that is part of the problem. I have raised some of them in the past in the chamber when I was a backbencher.”

She gives an example from her own time as a principal teacher to illustrate the way in which a council’s approach to hiring and managing its teaching workforce can have a negative impact on schools.

“I remember sitting doing interviews with the deputy head of the school across the road. We had some brilliant probationers that I wanted to give a job to, and I wasn't allowed to, because they went into a pool.

“There are talented young teachers that we will lose from the system and we will not recoup that talent.”

And then something unexpected happens: Jenny Gilruth surprises me.

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“Flip it to my perspective,” she says. “I've just invested five years in somebody's education. No tuition fees in Scotland, and a fully-funded post-grad if you do the post-grad qualification, and it's the government that pays your wages in probation.

"So you look at all that investment from the Scottish government and we ask for nothing at the end of it nothing? Nothing? That is what I want to speak to COSLA about, particularly in the context of the new deal - how we can look, potentially, at guaranteeing, for example, a certain number of years of employment.”

Such a policy would represent a major structural change to Scottish schooling and have enormous, multi-year implications. The idea is also clearly in the early stages of development. Gilruth quickly adds that it could be challenged and the government will need to take legal advice, but reiterates the point that “these are the kinds of things” she wants to explore.

Another is the recent decline in teacher numbers, which came, she says, despite the fact that the government is “providing a lot of extra money to have additional teachers in the system.” She doesn’t quite come out and say ‘where are my teachers?’ but the implication is very clear.

The Herald: An empty school classroom

Getting more out of the government’s investment in teachers seems to be a priority for her, and she again argues that to “ask for nothing back” for that money is “wrong”.

At this point I ask her to clarify exactly who she wants to ask more of, and wonder for a moment if she’s about to suggest that teachers who don’t stay in the profession having to pay back some of the money spent training them. Surely not, I think to myself, given the number of teachers desperate to stay but unable to find a job?

“Not from the teachers – from our local authorities, because it’s an investment in them.”

It’s not just greater job security for those starting their careers that she seems to want to deliver – during our conversation she also takes aim at an employment model, used by a number of councils, that sees teaching staff held in a central pool, permanently employed by the council but not permanently located in any one school.

“We know that this happens and I think we should talk openly about what that does to the quality of education, but what it does to the professional as well.”

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Even issues of workforce planning have drawn her attention. She talks about the fact that some councils seem able to make arrangements early in the year, while others “sit on things until June”. One consequence of this is that “we have teachers in a certain local authority in the west of Scotland who find out on the last day of term there’s no jobs.”

But there are also areas in which she believes that expectations need to be adjusted, for example around the likelihood of all teachers finding work “at the school down the road” or even in the immediate vicinity.

When I ask if teachers can expect to see a cut to their contact time as promised by the next election, she responds that they are “still committed to it, and still engaging with the SNCT on it” and goes on to argue that they need to find out what the national picture is – which is the sort of thing you’d have thought might have been done before the manifesto was printed instead of several years later.

It’s clear, however, that Gilruth is at least willing to take on an array of complicated issues in pursuit of better relationship with teachers and, as a result, a better education for pupils.

The Herald: The First Minister Humza Yousaf and Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth during a visit to Claypotts

I put it to her that, based on our conversation, a discussion about what it means to be a teacher, and what support should always be provided for that, feels like it could be on the table?

“About the role of the teacher? Undoubtedly yes. Absolutely.

“But let's bear in mind we've still got this juggernaut coming down the track of education reform.

“And you've just outlined some of the challenges facing the profession just now. I've got to deal with the reality in front of me because I can't do any of that unless they're on side, and right now, I think we're still on a journey, and we will be for some time yet.

“I would like us to get back to having conversations about pedagogy and about excellent learning and teaching. That's what makes the difference. That's what closes the gap.”

“And for a former teacher,” I ask, “that's what success would be at the end of all this? If you've got the conversation back to pedagogy and a bit away from politics?”

“Yep. Let’s start talking about it again because we’ve moved so far away from it and we used to have these conversations. So I would much rather we had that refocusing. Now that’s aspirational, given where we are just now politically, but…”

But you might as well be ambitious?