A hollow ring to the chants of the union faithful

9th April 2010 at 01:00
An unseemly display of middle-aged militancy does not do the profession justice

Gatherings of true believers are difficult for outsiders to comprehend. The passions vented always seem in inverse proportion to the importance of the issues they are expended on. Take the Anglican Synod's perennial debate over female and gay ordination. A casual visitor with no prior knowledge would assume from all the fury that Christianity was about penises - excluding those who hadn't any, and those who had one but were over fond of them, from any senior position that involved wearing intricate garments. "You can only wear a full-length crimson dress with matching hat if you're straight and male" probably isn't the message church leaders intend to convey but ...

It's the same with teaching unions. Innocent observers might conclude from the recent conferences (pages 6-9) that the most important issue confronting education was that prospective teachers had to mime a Michael Jackson song to the satisfaction of pupils to get appointed. Or that what teachers up and down the land needed to do their job effectively was the nationalisation of any company that dares to make compulsory redundancies.

Of course, outsiders should always make allowances and accept that what the faithful want on these occasions isn't any challenge to their prejudices but confirmation of them. That way everyone feels better. So inside the conference halls, effective management becomes "bullying", any form of accountability "a bog of foul-smelling data" and moves to raise the retirement age "a death sentence". Idiosyncrasies should also be tolerated. Some general secretaries prefer to lock ministers in cupboards; others prefer to gaze adoringly at them and coo.

Even the most indulgent observer, however, would be bemused by this year's proceedings. Clearly, bankers deserve to be crucified and the capitalist system is on its last legs, but is that any excuse for hundreds of largely middle-aged and middle-class professionals to break into a spontaneous chant of "the workers united will never be defeated"? Were these teachers or had the sixth-form escaped for the weekend?

Surprisingly, delegates had little or no opportunity to discuss Ofsted, which is understandable when one considers how central the building of one million new council homes is to the education debate. Incredibly, the NUT so enjoyed debating the BNP that it did not get around to discussing the issue it is actually planning to take industrial action over - Sats.

No one in education can be in any doubt that the next few years will be tough. If there is no change of government, pay will be frozen, league tables will continue and academies will expand. If there is a change, ditto and some. The likely response of the main teaching unions to these certainties is a tad to the left of King Canute's courtiers. "Can't, shan't, won't and all out" may echo wonderfully at conference, but is it a wise reaction to any government democratically mandated by the electorate to implement its policies? The profession deserves better than the adolescent posturing on display in Birmingham and Liverpool. Still, it did make Anglican bishops look good.

Gerard Kelly, Editor E gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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