Another Voice: Beware - spin-doctors are after the unions

WHILE Tariq Ali and I were writing our satire on the Government, Ugly Rumours, we picked up a very ugly rumour indeed.

It was that Tony Blair had told an eminent journalist, in an "off-the-record" briefing in Downing Street, that the Government is planning to "take on" the NUT and the NASUWT, in the same way that Margaret Thatcher took on the National Union of Mine Workers.

The Prime Minister was reported to have said that the teachers' unions are wrecking education and that their power has to be broken once and for all.

Oscar Wilde said that writing plays was "the art of lying": tell a whopper well enough and you can end up, paradoxically, telling the truth. Anyway, into our play went the rumour. "Teachers' unions, they are the enemy within, " whispers our surreally Blairish Prime Minister, Tony-Boy, in a mystical moment of revelation.

But, leaving Oscar's bizarre aesthetics aside, is the rumour true? The difficulty in knowing what New Labour's agenda is in any area of policy, is that the "spin culture" has become all pervasive. The spin doctors' aim is to discredit controversy; if you oppose a policy you are not argued with, you are spun. New Labour is developing a rhetoric not unlike George Orwell's Newspeak in 1984: to be "Old Labour" is to be guilty of "oldthink", of using "unwords".

The spin culture seems to use three basic techniques: being all things to everyone (witness Peter Mandelson's consummately disarming speech to the TUC); practising outright calumny, which was Frank Field's fate and will be Ken Livingstone's if he persists in campaigning to be London's Mayor; and playing soft cop, hard cop.

Education seems to be getting the third technique. The TES has pointed out how Government spokespersons can be tough on teachers to the Daily Mail, yet supportive of teachers to the Guardian. At the Labour party conference Blair went hard on the teaching profession, David Blunkett went soft.

This is ominous; spinners use "soft cop hard cop" as a holding operation,to obfuscate discussion while hard decisions are being made behind closed doors.

So, rather than ring Downing Street, Millbank or David Blunkett's press office and be spun into the darkness, I asked some teachers why New Labour would even contemplate breaking the teachers' unions - it would, after all,be a messy business.

I was shocked by the clarity and vehemence of their response; in the spirit of another play-writing aesthetic, "holding the mirror up to nature". I summarise what they said, to see if TES readers recognise it as true.

New Labour, say my informants, have big plans to change the whole structure of the school day and the school year. School holidays will be abolished to be replaced by three two-week breaks, to be staggered area by area. The school day will be longer.

These changes are designed to fit the demands of industry and business, not what may or may not be good for schoolchildren. Travel and leisure firms want their facilities to be used year round, not just for 12 weeks in the year: variations in holiday times between schools would suit them very nicely.

Employers have the daily problem of working mothers wanting to work part-time because their children are home half-way through the afternoon; and there's the annual problem of female absenteeism during the long summer holidays. The police would welcome the changes because they like to have the young tidied away in the schools: a vast proportion of crime is committed by truants and a lot more by bored pupils during school holidays.

The big barrier to this being done is the teacher unions - the frazzled, put-upon teachers. At the moment the Government is attempting to "divide and rule"; schools in the education action zones are trying out new strategies, bribed with hand-outs of cash which, understandably, heads are happy to receive. Soon the pressure will be on all schools to adopt the strategies that get results.

And the "newspeaking" of the profession speeds apace. "The whole thing - I quote a teacher - "is a conformist's paradise. Fast-track careerists learn to speak in awful acronym-studded prose that bears no relations to real life. " Teachers who protest at the changes in working conditions will be vilified (guilty of "oldteach?").

Spun with predictable calumny, a strike could easily be presented to the public as teachers wanting to preserve the perk of long summer weeks gardening or lazing on Greek islands. And if the unions are broken, New Labour's "third way" in education can begin: schools run in co-operation with businesses, with outside specialists going in to teach - de-unionised labour.

So, dear reader: is this a playwright's creativity run amok, or a true mirror?

"Ugly Rumours" is currently playing at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, north-west London.

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