Good practice is the unions' primary aim

Christine Blower

In the same week in which I read the TES editorial that took teaching unions to task about not owning the good practice agenda ("Union fights live: brutal, bloody and disappointing", 18 May), I had the good fortune to attend an instructive talk at the House of Commons given by Pasi Sahlberg, the last chief inspector appointed by the Finnish education department and author of Finnish Lessons: what can the world learn from educational change in Finland?

One of the interesting things about our colleagues in teaching and teacher trade unions in Finland is that they have experienced a very different history from us over the past 30 years.

In the 1970s, Finnish education, in particular pupil outcomes, was not the joy to behold that it is now. On the results of Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, Finland was in the doldrums. It was decided that something had to be done to improve its international standing. Finland's educationalists and politicians set out not to create "a world-class system" but to embark on a trajectory of improvement. This programme looked at several aspects (including abolishing private schools, but that's a discussion for another day), all of which included engagement with teachers through their union.

Finland has since become one of the very high-performing countries on Pisa outcomes. It has taken 30 years or so, but the standards are now consistently high. There is a critique of the Pisa tests, but for my purposes here, I recognise that they are widely accepted and quoted.

But why is what happened in Finland relevant to what teachers and their unions do (or do not do) in England and Wales, in particular in relation to good practice and school improvement? The answer is that although the charge is often made that teaching unions - the NUT in this case - know what we are against, we don't know or ever expound what we are for.

This has never been true. The NUT's explicit policy is that we are, like our colleagues in Finland, in favour of high-quality education for all. To achieve this, any country needs well-respected and trusted teachers, who have professional autonomy, high-quality initial teacher education and ongoing professional development. As Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, is often quoted as saying, the quality of a country's education system cannot exceed that of its teachers. It therefore goes without saying that in the NUT we are in favour of, and are committed to play our part in the training and support of, high-quality teachers.

A proof of this commitment is the attention that the NUT pays and the resources we devote to continuing professional development (CPD) for our members. Events range from the National Education Conference held at Stoke Rochford in July each year, to an enormous range of courses and conferences that are aimed at improving classroom practice. Our conference attracts high-calibre international speakers and is the forum in which NUT members can engage on issues about the curriculum and assessment. This is a space in which practising teachers come together to discuss and learn from each other as well as from the great and the good of the education world.

Courses and campaigns

A glance through the NUT's CPD offering will reveal an array of excellent courses that give practical support and brilliant ideas for the classroom. The NUT's weekend course for new teachers provides excellent advice, guidance and support, with behaviour management strategies from practitioners who are rated highly by Ofsted.

The NUT does oppose some things. We oppose the blanket use of synthetic phonics and testing at 5. We do this on the basis of evidence and the promotion of our campaign Reading for Pleasure. We are supported in this by a plethora of children's authors. Not only has the union produced an excellent publication for Reading for Pleasure but we have organised a series of conferences at which this approach to reading is explained and discussed. These events have been over-subscribed and warmly welcomed.

I haven't even mentioned the bursaries the union has offered to members to fund action research or the programmes we run in conjunction with the University of Cumbria. And there's more - the excellent courses that equip teachers with the skills and knowledge to bring the global perspective to their classrooms. Our Show Racism the Red Card campaign provides teachers with materials and strategies to deal with racism in their classrooms and playgrounds, an aspect of initial teacher education that new teachers often feel has been lacking. The NUT contributes much on good practice.

In addition to all this, our local union learning reps are actively seeking out and signposting learning opportunities for members. The NUT can justifiably claim to be a community of learning. But as is often said of journalism, the truth, or in this case partial understanding of what the NUT does, should never stand in the way of a good story.

It is, however, the case that children's learning conditions are our members' working conditions. In the NUT, we want both to be of high quality.

Thirty years of collaboration with the teaching union in Finland rather than years of denigration have led to a successful education system where primary teaching is a highly sought-after career. The NUT wants that for England and Wales. It stands, alas, in stark contrast to what we often hear about so many teachers here wanting to leave the profession.

Michael Fullan, who has an international reputation in the area of education reform, is clear that it is trust in the profession, not performance-related pay, that will produce system-wide improvement.

The NUT wants to own the good practice agenda - our members own it in their classrooms every day. Let's hear more about this aspect of what unions do in this august journal.

Christine Blower is general secretary of the NUT.

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Christine Blower

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