Poor substitute for democracy

12th May 2000 at 01:00
The GTC's Anthony Handley challenged unions to prove they are still relevant. Here Nigel de Gruchy responds.

I WAS intrigued by two articles in The TES (April 21), "Perils of failing pay test" by the General Teaching Council member elect, Anthony Handley, and the Analysis article on the state of the unions, "Can Tony Blair afford to ignore them?'"

Each, in its own way, showed the conflicting pressures the Government's pay plans have placed upon the teacher unions.

Anthony Handley raises an interesting democratic issue. Which channel is going genuinely to reflect the majority teacher view, the unions or the GTC? Since performance pay is outside the remit of the GTC there should be no doubt on this issue, but on some other subjects it could be an interesting question.

Most teachers are opposed to linking their pay to pupils' progress. The vital question is how far do you push that opposition to the whole package which also includes positive developments. Furthermore, would all-out opposition produce the desired result? Answers to these difficult questions can only be found by detailed discussion and participation in democratic procedures such as those exemplified by the teacher organisations. The GTC cannot resolve those problems even if one or more of its members have been elected on platforms which emphasised opposition to payment by results.

The Analysis article reveals other pressures upon the teacher unions. Various well-informed and well-placed people caution the unions against all-out opposition to government policies, including the pay plans. They say influence to protect the teacher interest is best secured by careful and selective argument, based on rational debate and not on megaphone diplomacy or industrial action.

Throughout the Green Paper debate the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has striven to achieve a balance between opposing that which is basically wrong with the Government's proposals, that is the link between pay and pupil progress, with the need to be realistic, retain the good parts and achieve the best for the profession.

I think Anthony Handley is right to point out that application to cross the threshold to receive the pound;2,000 reflects a desire to take what is on offer rather than indicating agreement in principle to payment by results.

But, in conceding that crucial point, he underlines the difficulties for any union wishing to organise industrial action to halt the whole business. He rightly recognises that the bribe will work. Furthermore, application is voluntary. If teachers wish to boycott the threshold, they can do so by making their own decisions.

Those who talked big about boycott now hae to grapple with reality or end up facing in two opposite directions, balloting for action to oppose while at the same time providing advice on how to get through.

The NASUWT has significantly altered many of the Government's proposals. Even the controversial pupil progress standard has been softened, having been shifted away from exclusive dependence upon public examination and national test results. There are seven other standards.

The removal of the requirement for a new contract was a highly significant concession secured just over a year ago.

While we have admittedly failed to move the Government on the retention of pupil progress, we have secured many other changes, which make Anthony Handley's accusations of the unions being "ineffective and almost irrelevant" to be both factually incorrect and unfair.

He may wonder what unions offer, "apart from some relatively expensive legal protection", but thousands of teachers who have received the support of the NASUWT in refusing to teach violent and disruptive pupils in schools up and down the land take a very different view.

The NASUWT is also proposing to reactivate its action over bureaucracy and excessive working time, which will be both effective and relevant.

I hope we can we persuade all our members, and perhaps other teachers, including those in Anthony Handley's own "utterly non-militant school", to support our proposed action and pile the pressure on the Government to make the necessary changes.

Campaigning on the basis of election to third-party organisations has its limitations. Anthony Handley (a member of the NASUWT as it happens) may claim some kind of mandate to oppose PRP on the GTC. But what of other teachers, for example those in the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, who take a different view about the acceptability of the Government's proposals? Some of those will also be on the GTC.

I think Anthony Handley should pursue the democratic channels that are open to teachers, to resolve differences, which take account of alternative views. Election of individuals to the GTC, with or without specific manifestos, is a poor substitute for democratic organisations, debating and discussing issues, and taking votes on policies to pursue at the end of the process.

Letters, 22,

Nigel de Gruchy is general secretary of the NASUWT 'The NASUWT

has significantly altered many of the Government's proposals' 'There is a much worse fate than isolation, and that is to appear so

ineffective as to be almost

irrelevant.

Teachers may wonder what unions offer them, apart, of course, from some relatively expensive legal protection'

Anthony Handley, TES, April 21


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