First Minister Nicola Sturgeon meets sixth-year pupils at Craigroyston Community High School in Edinburgh, ahead of the Scottish Government education summit on delivering excellence in education.
 Nicola Sturgeon wants to be judged on whether she can reduce the attainment gap between best-off and most deprived pupils © PA

Scotland could face widening industrial action from secondary schoolteachers as tensions over workloads threaten to undermine promises of action to improve attainment by poorer pupils.

The Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, the second-largest teachers’ union, said it would ballot members in September on industrial action over workloads. The Educational Institute of Scotland, the dominant union in the sector, had already announced last week it would “step up” industrial action — short of striking — over the issue. 

The union discontent gives new ammunition to critics of the Scottish National party’s nine-year government record on education, once an area in which Scotland saw itself as a world leader. Nicola Sturgeon, first minister and SNP leader, has said she wants to be judged on whether she can reduce the attainment gap between Scotland’s best-off and most deprived pupils.

However, the SNP’s reputation on education has been damaged by falls in standards in recent years and by signs the gap between wealthier and poorer pupils is widening. 

The proportion of pupils in the fourth year of primary school and the second year of secondary school who were performing “well” or “very well” at numeracy fell between 2013 and 2015, according to the latest Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, which tracks the performance of those year groups.

Numeracy attainment was steady since 2013 for pupils in the seventh year of primary school but, like the other age groups, was still lower than in 2011 — the year the SNP began its second term in government. 

Analysts say SNP leaders have not come up with any major policy shifts that are in themselves likely to reverse such trends. “There has been a lot of rhetorical freshness, but not much real change,” said Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh.

While Ms Sturgeon has promised changes to funding and the reintroduction of national standardised testing, many teachers complain they are overstretched. 

John Swinney, the cabinet secretary for education, this week released new “streamlined” curriculum guidance intended to reduce teacher workload and cut bureaucracy, but the SSTA said more urgent action was needed. 

Both unions have highlighted in particular the increased demands of classroom assessment for Scottish secondary school qualifications. “Should any teacher decide to keep their working week within the ‘working time agreement’, the reality is that they would be unable to develop the necessary resources for learning and teaching,” Euan Duncan, SSTA president, told the Press Association. 

Tensions have grown as the SNP tries to implement Scotland’s “Curriculum for Excellence”, a radical restructuring of education planned by previous Labour and Liberal Democrat administrations. 

Prof Paterson said teachers had cause for complaint about the proliferation of bureaucratic requirements imposed in recent years. But, he added, the SNP’s consensual approach had in the past blunted discontent within the sector. “All the evidence is that the government is willing to accommodate the concerns of teachers [on workloads],” he said. “I think the chances are that there will not be significant industrial action.” 

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