From The Editor - Unions, stop living up to your enemies' spin

22nd March 2013 at 00:00

No one could accuse our two main teaching unions of acting in haste. More than a year after the other unions and the government signed a deal over pensions, the NUT and the NASUWT announced this week that they would strike. In the interim, the horse hasn't only bolted it has won a couple of races, retired and been turned into a burger.

They, naturally, don't see it like that. Their patience has run out, exhausted by Michael Gove's "relentless attack on the profession" and his refusal to engage with their "reasonable demands". Strikes are the inevitable result.

There is, however, an alternative script. It goes something like this: the pensions deal extracted from the government after a couple of walkouts and protracted negotiation was the best possible while the economy tanked. Unwilling to take responsibility for it but realising there was no appetite for strikes, the two teaching unions refused to sign and resorted to "action short of a strike".

Nobody knew exactly what that meant, least of all their members. Even more confusingly, their grievances expanded to Victor Meldrew proportions: pensions, pay, workload, the weather, the rugby... Consequently, when polled only 9 per cent of teachers thought the action was having an impact and only a couple of dozen schools reported serious problems. It was the most ineffectual campaign since John Major's Back to Basics.

Knowing this but under pressure from militants to "do something" the two unions have finally resorted to strikes, at some point, somewhere. The details are hazy because the appetite for action is uncertain.

There is no clear objective, no winnable target, no confidence that their members will respond, no evidence of public support, no exit strategy. There is just wind, anger and blah. The government, sniffing weakness, is spoiling for a fight to "break the destructive power of (Chris) Keates and (Christine) Blower". Astonishingly, they seem prepared to oblige. "Please step on this landmine," say ministers. "We will and you'll be sorry," say the unions.

In the middle is a bewildered profession that is fed up with politicians telling it what to do but that realises the world has moved on. It prefers professional development to walkouts and practical guidance to pointless grandstanding. Unsurprisingly, non-striking unions have reported a surge in membership.

Last week Tony Blair accused teaching unions of obstructing "necessary educational change" (see page 10). That's unfair. John Bangs, former head of education at the NUT, rightly countered that the most successful education systems engage and work with teaching unions. Far bigger impediments to "necessary educational change" are arguably a culture that doesn't afford teachers respect and a press that wilfully misrepresents their achievements.

Unfortunately, the two unions appear intent on conforming to the caricatures sketched by their opponents. Take their latest bugbear, performance-related pay. In the US, unions didn't reject it out of hand. They signed up to it on the condition that they had a say in its implementation. "We're militant in the fact that we want to control our own profession," explained one union. It's a shame that the chances of hearing something similar on this side of the Atlantic are close to zero.

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