Patrick Roach will have a busy time in his new job as general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union.
Beginning today, he is hitting the ground running at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic with the huge task of helping teachers to get through it.
“There are some really harsh realities that some of our members are facing at this present time,” says Roach, who has personally been handling a number of calls to the union’s hotline.
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He will also be in discussions at the highest level next week when he meets education secretary Gavin Williamson (via video call).
Roach will, of course, spell out the concerns of some of the union’s 280,000 members, but he is also concerned about how schools will get out of this crisis and wants to be part the dialogue.
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“What we wouldn’t want to be seeing is fairly arbitrary decisions like the decision to close schools,” he says. “I’m not saying it was the wrong decision, but there was no engagement with the workforce and I wouldn’t want to see that way of operating being repeated when it’s a case of the exit strategy.
“We have to get to a place where schools are able to reopen in an orderly and safe manner which is going to be sustainable – because there are potentially issues with schools reopening on a given day without any thought being given to, say, whether there are sufficient staff or whether hygiene standards can be maintained.”
Not only could there be a depleted workforce through illness and staff being in “quarantine” but some supply teaching agencies could potentially be about to “go to the wall” due to loss of business income from schools.
“What will that look like in terms of how we ensure there’s an adequate pool of supply teachers for schools to draw on,” Roach says.
Then he quickly qualifies himself.
“That’s not to say the NASUWT commends an infrastructure which is modelled upon privatised supply agencies making profit out of schools. That’s not what we’re saying, but that’s been the system which has existed up until now. If that collapses, what’s going to take its place?”
Tribute to an 'immense leader'
Despite the doom and gloom, Roach is in good spirits.
“We’re going to have to redefine sci-fi, aren’t we, because we’re living it? There are going to be some very interesting novels.”
During the interview via video link from his home, Roach appears to drink from what looks like a glass of cider, but Tes later learns it is peppermint tea. “I can see the headlines now,” he jokes. “I’d be high as a kite.”
Roach today takes over from predecessor Chris Keates, who has led the NASUWT for 16 years, and who some might say leaves under a cloud after trade union law was breached because she stayed in post longer than five years without standing for re-election.
Will he be a different style of leader?
“I’ll leave that for others to judge. But I would have to say that the NASUWT is indebted to the leadership that Chris Keates provided. She has been a pretty immense leader and her legacy stands before her.”
Teacher mental health and wellbeing
Roach had been set to formally step up from his post of deputy general secretary (which he had held for 10 years) to take over his new role at the union’s annual conference.
One of the top issues set to be debated was teachers’ mental health and wellbeing, an issue which has been “dogging the profession year after year”, he says.
“So much of that is to do with the way teachers are being managed and led in schools, and the extent to which teachers’ agency is respected, and how much their voice is being listened to. If you are denied your voice in the workplace, particularly when you see yourself as a professional, that has a profound impact on your morale and job satisfaction.”
Workload, pensions, pay and behaviour were among other key issues set for debate.
“We are where we are with coronavirus, but all of those issues that have been identified by our membership will be taken forward by our national executive in the year ahead.”
Roach denies that the union has lost its clout, for example through The Trade Union Act 2016, which introduced a new threshold for the amount of votes needed in ballots for strike action.
“We will influence where we can and take action where we must,” he says.
“But not all of our work is about industrial disputes. Quite a lot of it is constructive engagement with employers and talking the talk with them, persuading them with the power of argument, and that often averts the need for any disputes.”
'My parents taught me hard graft'
Roach, 55, is a good communicator. He smiles a lot, and speaks clearly – as you would expect from a former university and FE lecturer (in politics and sociology).
The father-of-two has a slight “Brummy” accent, which he “thought he’d covered up”.
He grew up Walsall and the surrounding area, the youngest of two sons to immigrants from Jamaica. His dad was a bus conductor and part-time bus driver, while his mum was an NHS cleaner.
“They instilled in me the importance of education, respecting your teachers and the notion of sheer hard graft," he says.
Hard graft for Roach included retaking his A levels at FE college so he could get the grades for university (Leicester, where he read sociology).
The 'new normal' for schools
Roach would like to see improvements in the education system as a result of the school closures. This could include a reform of exams with a return to continuous assessment.
“What would happen if we found ourselves in this position next year or in two or three years’ time [with exams being cancelled]?" he asks.
“We should be planning for that now so children's education isn’t as severely disrupted as it has been this time.”
Roach, whose PhD is in education, also says the government must make sure disadvantaged children are given access to broadband and IT equipment, possibly through a voucher scheme. He says broadcasters, social media companies and internet service providers could be providing “a complementary offer” to the work of teachers.
And he also hopes that attitudes to teachers can change as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Over the last 10 years, there’s been an increasing recruitment and retention crisis in the profession which could have been averted by tackling issues of workload and low pay and all the factors which are demoralising teachers. And we have to get real about those issues now," he says.
“We are celebrating our teachers and recognising their worth today and we now need to build on that, and the government needs to learn lessons.
“This could be an opportunity to construct a new reality, a new normal in relation to what schools look like and how they operate and why they exist.
“Part of that new normal should include resolving the tension and competition between schools and [instilling] collaboration and cooperation between schools. If you’re going to defeat a virus it requires all elements of society working together.”
Roach has been deputy general secretary of the NASUWT for the last 10 years. He started working for the union as an education and equalities officer in 1998.