Editorial - It's a profession, so why belong to a trade union?

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
With conference season in full swing, it's time for teachers to put placards behind them

It's Easter - that joyous time of year when trade unionists take to conference platforms to advertise how divided they are over the Social Partnership, the Sats boycott and the next pay claim. Fraternal feelings can usually be restored, however, when members contemplate that cuckoo, the General Teaching Council. What's it for, why should unions be ejected from its council and how dare it park its tanks - well grass trimmers - on their lawn (page 11)?

One question that almost certainly isn't troubling delegates in Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham this season is the role of unions in teaching. But could it be that in the 21st century trade unionism has far less to contribute to the profession than the much-maligned GTC?

Clearly, most teachers do not join teaching unions to liberate Palestine or free Colombians from narco-capitalism. Socialist Workers do, but almost all of them still live at home with their mums and dads. The vast majority of teachers sign up for the eminently sensible reason that union membership provides a degree of protection from litigious parents, demanding managers and imaginatively mendacious pupils. And at this protection business, the unions are rather good.

Moreover, they have evolved. The dungaree-clad, swivel-eyed firebrands of conference legend have been replaced by articulate and competent leaders who out-glam even the coiffed and manicured pickets outside Heathrow and who generally prefer the subtle art of obduracy to the blunt instrument of militancy.

But do trade unions best represent the interests of the profession as a whole as opposed to the interests of their individual members? The honest answer has to be no, for two reasons. The first is obvious: there are three main teaching unions when one would do. This not only makes it relatively easy for Government to divide and rule, but also squanders energies in petty rivalries, needless turf wars and embarrassing bickering about who has the biggest membership. The most effective and respected professions speak with one voice.

The second reason is ideological. Should a profession belong to a movement largely comprised of trades? Historically, both trades and professions were heavily regulated; trades had regulation thrust on them while professions were middle-class enough to devise their own. That distinction has now been blurred and indeed that guardian of uber professionals, the British Medical Association, describes itself as an independent trade union. However, no one would expect it to send expressions of fraternal support to Bob Crow. It is too grand to strike but nonetheless gets its way by mixing strategic obstinacy with artful superiority.

Teachers could learn a lot from stubborn doctors. The most useful weapon any profession has is the carefully constructed conceit that only it knows what it is talking about. Class solidarity will not advance the status of teaching, professional snobbery will. So tear up the placards, extinguish the braziers and mothball the duffle coats - you have nothing to lose but your trainers.

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

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