Skip to main content

Altered state of the unions

David Hart says that unions' interests extend far beyond pay and conditions. Any current debate on teacher professionalism does not have to start with the Education Reform Act 1988, with its enormous impact on the teaching force in England and Wales, but with the Teachers' Pay and Conditions arrangements, imposed in 1987.

The introduction of a 195-day and a 1,265-hour year led to frenzied efforts to "carve up" the teaching year into "time slots" and leave a core of hours to meet contingencies. Many teachers are working up to 50 hours per week, and heads and deputies even more. This, in itself, is a tribute to their professionalism.

Alongside the debate about professionalism has to be set the strange dichotomy between the attitude of many local education authorities and that of the Government when it comes to consultations with unions on professional issues. Far too many LEAs have tried to "sideline" teacher unions by confining their role to conditions of service matters, leaving chief education officers free to consult unofficial groups on professional issues. By contrast, the Department for Education and, for that matter, other Government departments and quangos, consult the teacher unions on a range of professional subjects, from the national curriculum to school inspections. If we want teacher unions to engage in a debate about the future of the profession, wearing perhaps a professional association hat, then they must be treated as major contributors to professional consultations. To treat them as bodies whose interests are confined to conditions of service, as too many LEAs do, is reminiscent of old-fashioned attempts to divide and rule teachers' organisations, to the ultimate detriment of the service. It follows, therefore, that, although superficially it might appear that teacher unions are driven exclusively by a conditions of service agenda, nothing could be further from the truth. The role of teacher assessment, the validity of the end of key stage tests, the interference with teaching time, the threat of league tables and the struggle to win the argument over value added, are every bit as important to many teachers. Above all, teachers want to regain a reasonable level of professional control over the way in which the curriculum is delivered.

When Sir Ron Dearing undertook his lengthy consultations, to whom did he turn when it came to advice on the views of the profession? He relied, of course, on the teacher unions alongside the valuable view of the subject teacher bodies. Accordingly, teacher unions were able, while some balloted on industrial action and subsequently boycotted the testing and assessment arrangements, to participate to the full in professional issues. The two approaches were not incompatible.

Funding is the biggest political hot potato of all, and one which crosses the trade unionprofessional association divide to a significant degree. Lack of funding has, and will, lead to painful decisions which have a major effect on the future careers of teachers.

Primarysecondary funding disparities are real and the primary sector is particularly hard done by. Teachers' organisations have to participate in this professional debate. Likewise, they need to contribute to discussion on the development of the Common Funding Formula for grant-maintained schools, because it affects significantly the funding for the rest of the LEA sector. Last, but not least, they have to formulate a view about a possible move to a national funding formula.

Such a potential development has enormous implications for their members, ranging from the effective abolition of LEAs to total Treasury control over every school budget. No room for neutrality here: nor can there be any doubt that teacher unions should play their part in shaping that debate, lest the interests of members go by default.

Lastly, by way of illustration, we need to examine the changes in initial teacher education (ITE) and the way in which they raise both conditions of service and wider professional concerns. The full-blown school-centred approach, with responsibility placed firmly upon the schools in the relevant consortium, will lead to promotion opportunities, to job description changes and to the awarding of salary enhancements. All these are of interest to the teacher unions.

The revolution in the education system, brought about by the Government's reforms, has been met with varying degrees of opposition from teacher unions. Sometimes, they may have appeared to be "Luddite", afraid to accept even the least controversial changes. But that has not prevented them from accepting the need of schools to be accountable to a degree unheard of before the 1990s.

Their prime role, one of looking after their members' interest, may not have endeared them to the advocates of change but it has not lessened their interest in the professional and education consequences. Each organisation will place a greater or less emphasis upon its union role, depending upon its traditional stance and the views of its membership. However, this has not stood in the way of a genuine contribution to the pursuit of teacher professionalism.

David Hart is the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you