Every Easter the education sector holds its collective breath, waiting for the next politically driven diatribe to be launched from the teaching unions’ conferences. “It’s not our fault”, comes the cry from the unions, responsibility for our actions lies with the Secretary of State and his political meddling. True in part, but such tirades, and their underlying political bias, do nothing but damage to the perception of the teaching profession, its reputation and its morale.
It’s “us and them” shout the unions (at the micro level the head versus the teachers, at the macro, the Secretary of State versus everyone), “it’s all a plot to destroy state education”. Such attitudes only ever create division and further undermine the profession.
In the same way that teachers get ignored by their students if barely a single positive word crosses their lips, the unions are ignored if they aren’t seen to be constructive with reform and call the “last resort”. A series of strikes, starting this June, will have zero impact on standards or working conditions, alienate new teachers coming into the profession and do only more damage to the profession’s public perception.
All of us want a world-class education system; a system where teachers are respected, by parents, public and politicians. Teachers seen as the skilled, autonomous masters of their practice that they are, a system whose unions and professional bodies are worth listening to. We all want an evolving and improving education system, one that is rigorous and one that is based on transferring to pupils the knowledge required to be employable in a rapidly evolving jobs market. And, a system that nurtures our young people to be equipped with the skills to be able to make a difference in the global economy.
This is a profession, which on the whole is full of passionate, highly committed and skilled people, people who share the overall goal of enabling all of our young people to develop to their full potential. No teacher likes to see pupils not reaching that potential. I have never forgotten seeing pupils leave school aged sixteen, still unable to read or write. Where did we go wrong and who gave up on them? Teachers will often acknowledge that change is needed. Where pupil performance is still so dependent upon parental income we know we need more education equality, no teacher I know disputes that. The global education environment is changing fast and we need to keep up. In a recent interview for the ATL, Gove’s “most important man in British education” and head of PISA, Andreas Schleicher is quoted as saying, “Every education system in the industrial world is becoming better by national standards. Becoming better doesn’t guarantee you a place in the global economy if everyone else is moving faster.”
Quality teachers are what matter. We have the best cohorts of teachers entering the profession, we need more of those teachers and we need to retain more of those teachers. We need professional development pathways and incentives to stay in the profession and develop individual professional practice – incentives I hope a Royal College of Teaching can provide, as well as becoming an authoritative, respected, and representative teacher voice.
As last year’s LKMco report found, teachers mainly join unions for the individual support and protection they provide. However, we know that there are a significant number of teachers who do not feel their views are represented by their union or would prefer to source legal support elsewhere. As more and more teachers subscribe to Edapt for these core services it all begins to sound like unions may have no role to play. We know edapt only fits the bill for around 25% of teachers, but for many more teachers, the fundamentally conservative, change resistant behaviour of the unions continues to miss the boat. Continuing to fight the tide against things like work related email and text messages, a tide that turned in the last century for most professions, only shows unions’ lack of willingness to move with many in the profession. This needs to change to provide teachers with a respected union voice both inside and outside the profession.
Back at the bargaining table, education needs partners in innovation and reform, not obstacles to be negotiated around. Our teaching unions may well agree that as a political meddler, the Secretary of State’s remit should end at being the gatekeeper to the education budget, letting the teachers own the rest of the profession. To do this the profession needs professional associations and our teaching unions would do well to start by resurrecting themselves as such this Easter.
Schleicher says that the highest performing education systems tend to have the strongest unions and that “every education systems gets the union it deserves.” Similarly, if nothing changes, our teaching unions are likely to get the education system they deserve.