Reactionary unions expose us to ridicule

John Blake

Before the last election in 2010, TES ran a series of articles about a future Conservative government's plans to allow teachers to run our own cooperative schools, free us from the impositions of central and local government, and respect our profession. Michael Gove's first White Paper was even entitled The Importance of Teaching. The message seemed clear: Gove loved teachers, he trusted us, he wanted our voices to be an essential part of the discussion of education.

Between then and now, it's fair to say the relationship between the teaching profession and the education secretary hasn't blossomed: the abiding image I have of Gove is turning on the news at Easter to find a cardboard cut-out of him being berated by the leader of a teaching union.

Now, if you've read this far you're probably settling down for a good, old-fashioned "teacher hates Michael Gove" rant, full of the vocational piety of the inner-city comprehensive teacher. Just what TES is made for, no?

Well, this isn't that. Instead, it is an attack on the profoundly conservative complacency of the majority of high-profile, so-called leaders of the teaching profession, who, with rare exceptions, have connived to rob reform-minded teachers up and down the country of the opportunity to engage constructively and proactively with the reforms currently sweeping through education.

Let's take Gove's widely publicised proposals for dealing with bad teachers. The greatest critics of bad teachers are other teachers, because we are the ones who have to pick up the pieces (and the additional work) when a colleague is failing. Middle managers, especially, face massive problems with unwieldy, drawn-out capability procedures that last most of a school year and consume vast amounts of time and energy, all of which must be diverted from the real business of teaching. Work has to be dumped on other members of the department, while focus on the pupils is lost.

In those circumstances, it is frankly embarrassing to hear an NUT branch secretary announce to the annual conference that "there are no bad teachers, just bad managers". It's even worse when that conference passes the motion she was speaking for by an overwhelming margin.

When that kind of nonsense is peddled as "the teachers' view", it is hardly surprising that we are not taken seriously. It is no good constantly reasserting that we are a profession that deserves to be listened to when we refuse to effectively police our own.

There is no shortage of other areas where the officially promulgated "teachers' view" begins at the reactionary and swiftly wanders off into the ridiculous, entirely at odds with the broad majority of teachers in the staffroom, who are capable of taking nuanced, sensible positions that acknowledge the need for change and improvement.

Accountability of schools is a crucial area of interaction between parents, government and teachers. There is an absolute need for parents to feel confidence in the quality of the education their child is receiving. Virtually no teacher I know contests that need; indeed, many are also parents who use the information provided by league tables and Ofsted to select schools for their own children. Yet teachers are portrayed as hostile to the whole notion of accountability, and this year's union conference season included moves to bar Ofsted from our classrooms, as though we should be embarrassed to display what we do.

Accountability is good

Of course, Ofsted could be better, but it is a positive thing to have a national benchmark against which to compare your practice, and teachers should have a national voice that accepts that. We should be capable of embracing accountability; let's show how good teachers really are, why we are worth our salaries and why we deserve a greater voice in education reform. When we reject accountability, we forfeit our place at the policy table.

None of this is to defend without reservation the education system as it was in 2010, nor the system Gove is building in its place: primary place planning is a mess, the financial architecture underpinning the academies programme is deeply flawed and the Daily Mail is not a cockpit for sensible discussion about examination reform. For all his attempts at a recent educational conference to lavish praise on the profession, Gove continues to display a dispiriting lack of intellectual curiosity about how much real innovation is going on in many schools right now.

But, ultimately, Gove is irrelevant to the real issue: for a generation or more, our profession's leaders have failed to demonstrate why teachers are deserving of greater freedom and greater responsibility. If we want our say we must justify ourselves, to government and parents, by our own clear, positive agenda, rooted in the reality of schools and the ever-changing society in which we live. We must be thirsty for education research, evidence and training. We must not be a profession held hostage by, at best, well-meaning wishful thinking and, at worst, harmful, stagnant dogma.

We can hardly complain that politicians treat us with contempt if we treat ourselves with contempt by allowing the few voices of reason that do exist on the national stage to be swamped by a loud-mouthed, narrow-minded clique, many of whom have long since left the classroom.

It is not enough for reform-minded teachers to sit around and complain that we are ignored while continuing to allow our national voice to be the preserve of reactionaries. When teachers in the US found themselves caught between high-handed, top-down government initiatives and a hidebound union establishment, they formed their own groups, such as Educators 4 Excellence, to demand real representation for classroom professionals. Is it time for us to do the same?

John Blake is a comprehensive school teacher in London.

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