Teachers and school leaders from across the country will be gathering in Birmingham over Easter for the annual conference of NASUWT, the largest teachers' union in the UK.
Conference provides the opportunity for teachers to share their reflections on the challenges facing our public education system, and to set policy on issues that teachers and school leaders from across the country have balloted as their most pressing concerns.
This year’s conference meets in the wake of a raft of announcements from the government on academisation, funding and the future of the teaching profession, published in the White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere.
The irony of the title of the White Paper will not be lost on teachers and school leaders when they are witnessing every day the adverse impact of government policy which, rather than driving excellence in the system, makes it ever harder for schools to continue to deliver it.
Teacher recruitment and retention is in crisis, as a result of the unattractiveness of the profession created by years of pay cuts, excessive workload and job insecurity. Teachers feel denigrated, deprofessionalised and demoralised.
Teachers’ pay and conditions of service are inextricably linked to the provision of high-quality education, and the impact of government policy on children and young people is of profound concern.
The obsessive focus on structural change, the extensive freedoms and flexibilities given to schools, and the savage cuts to funding have all combined to strip children and young people of the entitlements that should be provided by a public education system.
Cornerstone of democracy
Public education is a cornerstone of a democratic society. It is an essential element of the rights of children and young people.
All children and young people have the entitlement to be taught by a qualified teacher. Specialist experienced teachers are leaving the profession. Graduates are deterred from entering it and schools are no longer required to employ qualified teachers.
All children and young people should have access to a broad-based, balanced national curriculum. Yet more and more of them face a narrow, rigid curriculum. They no longer have access to creative subjects such as music, art and drama and are unable to access high-quality vocational programmes of study.
All children and young people are entitled to be taught by people who are recognised and rewarded as highly skilled professionals, and who have working conditions that enable them to focus on teaching and learning. Teachers’ pay has been cut by 15 per cent since 2011. Starting salaries are now 30 per cent below other graduate professions. Excessive workload is blighting the working lives of teachers. They are crushed by the unnecessary bureaucratic burdens of planning, marking, target-setting and data-collection, which are not fit for purpose.
Picking up the pieces
A fundamental principle of a public education system is that it should be free at the point of use. And yet, for too many children, access to educational experiences that promote opportunity and achievement is now based on parents’ ability to pay.
Today, 3.7 million children in the UK are living in poverty. Poverty, housing, health, cultural and social opportunities all impact on educational progress and achievement. Schools are being left to pick up the pieces of flawed economic and social policies.
All barriers to achievement of children with special educational needs should be removed. And yet the barriers are now even higher, as specialist services are reduced or cut altogether, teacher expertise is lost and the curriculum on offer becomes more rigid and inflexible.
The determination of teachers and school leaders to continue to fight to deliver these entitlements for children and young people will be evident in the conference debates, but they will not be able to stem the rising tide of inequality and injustice while government continues to pursue its obsessive focus on structures rather than standards.
Chris Keates is general secretary of the Nasuwt union