All the Prime Minister's teachers

20th November 1998 at 00:00
In the recent furore over suggestions of a gay Cabinet cabal and amid suggestions of a northern or Scottish mafia, the largest group in Blair's New Labour has gone largely unnoticed by the media.

Former schoolteachers and university and college lecturers make up a staggering one quarter of Labour MPs - easily the biggest professional group. The parliamentary Labour party is no longer the home of manual workers. The working class have been replaced by those who worked in class.

The Department for Education and Employment has seemingly become almost out of bounds to those without teaching experience. Five out of seven ministers know what it is like to stand by a blackboard. David Blunkett was a lecturer in industrial relations at Barnsley College. Estelle Morris was a secondary teacher in Coventry. Even David Blunkett's special adviser,Sophie Linden, is married to a teacher.

Although some may say it is a case of those who can teach, those who can't preach, teachers who complain that those making education policy know nothing about the day-to-day realities of the classroom are wide of the mark. This is in stark contrast to life under previous Conservative administrations when ministers and advisers with a teaching background were treated with suspicion.

Under New Labour the reach of the profession extends well beyond Sanctuary Buildings. The promotion of Steven Byers to the Treasury gives a former polytechnic lecturer a firm grip on the nation's purse strings. While his stint as school standards minister had him flexing his tough guy pectorals - enthusiastically "naming and shaming" failing schools - his new job has put him in charge of a Pounds 19 billion bonanza for education.

Nine members of Tony Blair's first Cabinet were from the education world - including David Blunkett, Robin Cook (adult education), Mo Mowlam (university lecturer) and Gordon Brown (ditto). John Major's final Cabinet included only three. Indeed, wags who joke that Blair's famous statement of his priorities, "Education, education and education" was designed largely to keep his colleagues happy might well be stating the simple truth.

According to Professor Colin Mellors, pro-vice chancellor at Bradford University and a leading political analyst, teachers' representation is "extremely high". Education, he says, has always been well represented, but has had an added fillip this time.

"This gives the teaching profession a channel of opportunity for influencing Parliament. Politicians who have taught recently bring knowledge about key education matters. This has to be a good thing for teachers."

However, the approach of ministers after the election seemed designed to appease its critics in the press rather than encourage teachers. Despite their backgrounds, Blunkett and Byers's naming and shaming policy, plus fast-track dismissal for incompetent teachers and increased Government control of the curriculum were all designed to show that Labour would be tough on teachers.

Recent signs have been more encouraging. A Green Paper is promised, next month, to make teaching more attractive to graduates (despite the performance pay strings the aim is to put more money into experienced teachers' pockets) and naming and shaming is being stood down in favour of "naming and acclaiming".

A typical New Labour tactic is at work here. You could call it double spin. Ministers have, simultaneously, been trying to inspire teachers while appeasing their right-wing critics.

A good example of this could be seen at Labour conference, when encouragement from David Blunkett came fast on the heels of criticism from the Prime Minister. Far from being a split in Labour's ranks this was part of the strategy - the two speeches were aimed at different audiences.

But this tactic cannot work forever. Ministers are finding difficulty in keeping these messages separate. Teachers do read the Daily Mail and they don't like what they read. Ministers' efforts to improve morale in schools are being damaged by their own alternative propaganda.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, described it as "a twin-track approach targeted at securing maximum party advantage", but which was more likely to cause dismay and cynicism in the classroom.

The teacher recruitment crisis and the increasing awareness among the media of Labour's spinning means that the Government may soon have to come down off the fence. Which way it will jump is by no means certain.

While ex-teachers may wish to encourage the profession, there are some in New Labour who seem to see it as a barrier to raising standards. Philip Gould, one the Prime Minister's confidants, claims in his new book, The Unfinished Revolution, that Tony Blair intends to "refocus Labour's education policy away from vested interests and towards standards". It would certainly be fair to say that Labour's sympathies have shifted away from those providing education towards those experiencing it.

But Richard Margrave, press officer at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and an adviser to Jack Straw when he was shadow education secretary remains largely unconcerned. He believes that despite ex-teachers-turned-politicians having to work within political constraints - particularly treasury constraints- this Government is more in tune with teachers than politicians in the past.

In the post-Nolan age, contacts with this network of former teachers are increasingly important for unions' attempt to influence policy. "The ATL used to rely on paid contacts. Now we use the network," says Margrave.

Aside from the chance to exert pressure on policy makers, this gives unions the chance to table PQs and Early Day motions through friendly MPs and gives them greater access to information.

But unions cannot take this network for granted. There is a danger that, once in government, politicians and their advisers become absorbed in their brief, "go native" and lose touch with the world outside.

Equally, teachers need to work hard if they are to retain the goodwill of their erstwhile colleagues in Westminster.

Professor Mellors believes that there are too many in education focussing on protecting their own turf: "I am not sure that the voice of education is as strong and well organised as it should be. They need to speak with a single message. Schools, FE and HE should work with each other."

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