By Neil McLennan, Senior Lecturer in Education, University of Aberdeen

NEWS of children being charged for Easter holiday revision classes reveals a number of unresolved issues in Scottish education.

First, the hard push on revision in the close lead-up to exams tells us a few things. It was called “cramming” in my day, and the stress of it is well known to those who have done it. This is symptomatic of education’s drive for improved attainment and the pressure schools are under. That pressure is being transferred to staff and students. Whilst the Scottish school holiday pattern follows historic agricultural work patterns (and needs revised urgently for what helps with best learning) one might ask whether students should simply be enjoying their holidays?

Secondly, are we teaching students how to learn? It may well be that their own learning skills, and thus reliance, are not taught enough due to a content-heavy curriculum and especially with the “one-year dash” courses that we now have in Scotland. This area is ripe for further research both in terms of learning skills and curriculum structures. The latter is being looked at by parliament just now.

Thirdly, there is an interesting issue of teachers who engage in holiday work. Whilst many do this primarily to support their students, some also do it to top up their pay. The issue of public sector pay doesn’t need retold here. There is a moral dilemma as to whether teachers should be asked to take part in further unpaid teaching during their holidays. It shows their commitment to students; however it also shows the system deficit if this sort of “top-up” is needed in learning and also the system deficit if staff are put under pressure to do this for free because there is no budget to support their additional work.

The revision sessions reported in The Herald are perhaps a micro-example in one school, and small payments were asked for from the students. However, we would be wrong to think it does not happen elsewhere. How many home economics and design & technology classes ask students for small fees to cover materials? And on a grander scale, and still unresolved, the issue of music tuition rumbles on. Authorities are now being challenged that music tuition charges are in fact illegal.

Fourthly, charges reveal a number of pressures on the system. Education budgets have been cut. Whilst Pupil Equity Fund monies might fill that void, one might ask if it could be deployed to offer targeted revision to those most in need. I remember offering revision sessions in the evenings (free may I add), and often only seeing the kids who were doing well. The “worried well” some might say.

There is an issue with those students in need being supported in studies and also meaningful holiday activities. With community education budgets being slashed over the years, there is often little engaging activity for youngsters whose parents cannot take them on trips or send them to sports camps revision retreats during the holidays.

The last point highlights the key issue. There is a continued risk in Scotland that those in most need are regressing despite “closing the attainment gap” being the number one policy priority. With the neoliberalist approach of devolving autonomy for this to local leaders, and placing high stakes accountability against them, I feel sorry for leaders on the ground. Their efforts, such as trying to run staffed revision classes to improved results, leave them damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Hopefully the above highlights some systemic issues which, if resolved, might help to improve education for all.