From the Editor - Union fights live: brutal, bloody and disappointing

18th May 2012 at 01:00

In a Very British Coup, the 1980s political drama, a radical Labour prime minister is undermined by, among other things, an intransigent trade union leader who happens to be a CIA stooge. None of the current crop of general secretaries could be suspected of being agency plants. But after witnessing the recent antics of some of them, it's hard not to conclude that Michael Gove has been uncommonly fortunate in his opponents.

No one denies that teachers are facing unprecedented challenges. A government intent on forcing change through schools, a new Ofsted regime, a pay freeze and a pensions cut. Whatever one's views about any or all of those issues, most would agree that the times call for assured leadership. And what do anxious teachers get? The NUT boos moderates off stage at its conference for daring to suggest that the Earth is round, threatens strikes with the frequency that the Queen of Hearts lops off heads and generally makes the People's Front of Judea sound sensible.

It is, however, outclassed in sheer surrealism by the NASUWT. Its general secretary appeared on stage at its conference with a cardboard cut-out of an absent Mr Gove. Oh how we laughed. The union is seemingly unaware that politicians of all political stripes would rather appear on a Come Dine With Me hosted by Fred Goodwin than accept an invitation to one of its functions, such is its reputation for courtesy.

Not content with gratuitously offending our elected representatives, the NASUWT has also turned on its fellow unions in a campaign of downright nastiness and is now proceeding to gear up for an autumn of disruption. Over pensions? Job losses? Pay? They're in the mix, but what has really infuriated the union is lesson observations. The gravest threat to teaching as we know it appears to be the right of headteachers to wander into a class as and when, observe a lesson and give meaningful feedback to the teacher. Outrageous. What next? They might actually impart a tip or two.

One can imagine the nation's reaction. "Dear Parent, Sarah was sent home today because her teacher was 'observed' by her manager." Yep, that's going to wash with a public coping with the worst recession in decades.

It would be the stuff of Ealing comedies if it weren't so tragic. The profession deserves serious representation and all it gets is this nonsense. The debate over facilities money is a case in point (pages 30-34). Good employers should always give trade union officials reasonable time off. But it's hard to see why the taxpayer should fund full-time union activists. A mature profession should pay for its own representatives. A confident profession wouldn't need to beg.

It doesn't have to be this way. Nurses can pick a fight with the government over issues not dissimilar to those faced by teachers and still retain public support and respect. So why can't teachers? It's surely because teaching unions prefer to expend more energy attacking each other than they do attacking ministers, because they care less for the integrity of the profession than they do about political posturing, but above all because they lack the imagination to set the agenda and the authority to inform standards.

Inevitably, they are seen as the refuge of the bad teacher not the champion of the good. The profession deserves better.

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