History of a kind will be made at the end of this month when, for the first time 19 years, the NASUWT teaching union will welcome a serving Conservative education secretary to its conference.
In recent years the platform has been graced by a cardboard cut-out of Michael Gove (I guess it made a good dart-board – see above), an ironic comment on the fact that Tory secretaries of state have refused to attend ever since Gillian Shepherd was, they say, booed and hissed by union delegates in 1997 (the last of any flavour was Ed Balls in 2010).
I can see that such conferences constitute a daunting audience to a minister, given that unions are invariably opposed to the policies that they are “driving forward” (a common ministerial phrase). Mind you, Gillian Shepherd could give as good as she got. Sharing a table with her at an educational dinner (with fellow heads), I once remarked mildly that a more child-centred approach might help to raise standards in schools. She replied airily, “I’ve been hearing rubbish like that for years …” Attempts at further discussion on the topic fell flat.
It’s reported that NASUWT is in shock: I guess the usual invitation was sent expecting the customary rebuttal. Nicky Morgan may arrive in combative mood, and she may expect to be challenged: but she’s accepted the invitation. Good for her!
This is important. We’ve experienced too much over the years of governments refusing to talk to unions that disagree: not just Tory or coalition governments, either. I recall a discussion about promoting student voice with Lord Adonis when he was a Labour schools minister. When I mentioned involving the NAHT heads' union, he responded curtly, “We’re not talking to them at the moment.” The union had taken its bat home.
I served for some 11 years on the council of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), back in the years when it was still called the Secondary Heads’ Association. There were stormy meetings when delegates felt the executive should be doing battle with the Blair government, instead of conciliating.
The response was both candid and chilling: “Governments are petulant: if you disagree too strongly, they slam the door on you.” The closed door has been the experience of several unions over the years, with a number of successive governments.
It shouldn’t be like that. Looking beyond education, Jeremy Hunt has behaved disgracefully in his dispute with the junior doctors, and continues to do so. Refusal to talk: unilateral imposition of a contract; arrant lies from the government side; these do nothing to build confidence in policymakers.
Should the BMA have done a better job for the people it represents? Possibly. Me, I’d advocate the medieval method for electing a pope: lock the parties in a room and steadily reduce their food and drink until they come up with an agreement.
So what might the NASUWT expect from the education secretary? They should probably not hope for too much. Usually when secretaries of state appear (they’re pretty regular at ASCL), they bring a present: a concession; agreement to the association’s current demands; sometimes something more dramatic, a rabbit out of the hat.
That’s window-dressing. As are the flowery compliments about the quality of schools, teachers and their leadership that form the preamble to the ministerial kicking that generally follows.
Even if there is anger at NASUWT about various current policies, they should give Nicky Morgan a courteous hearing: but she’ll need to be good. I was at the ASCL conference in 2005 which was infamously reported as booing and hissing Labour’s hapless education secretary Ruth Kelly. Actually, no one booed or hissed: but we did mutter and grumble, because she parroted incoherent rubbish at us for 20 minutes.
It takes two to tango, as they say, and it certainly takes both sides to listen, negotiate and build consensus. Full marks to Nicky Morgan for accepting the NASUWT’s invitation: I hope she and they use the opportunity positively.
Here’s an unworthy thought: you don’t think she’s seizing the opportunity in order to push her line on Brexit, do you?
Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal