Pragmatic partners;Leading Article;Opinion

9th April 1999 at 01:00
It's a mess, mess, mess. A threatened teachers' strike under a Labour government? What on earth is happening here? One of the mysteries about the education service in England is that it is seen quite differently by those inside it, and by those outside it. For example, Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead is thought by most outsiders to be doing an excellent job, despite his recent tabloid difficulties. But he is passionately loathed by many teachers - and not just because they don't like being inspected.

Like many other things in education, Chris Woodhead has become a symbol; grammar schools are symbols too, as are A-levels; "naming and shaming" is symbolic; and, above all, performance-related pay is symbolic.

It is tempting to dismiss symbols as unreal, but - as politicians know - they are powerful. And nowhere has this been more starkly revealed than during the Easter conferences.

The Government, we know, believes it has a "communications problem". Ministers have been bewildered at their inability to get across to teachers all the good things they have done over the past 18 months. They now realise that they have another communications problem: they have not been listening. They have been hearing, but not accepting, teachers' messages. Now, with the rumble of strikes and boycotts , they are having to listen. Ministers are beginning to understand that they must work with teachers as they are, and not as they would like them to be. Rightly or wrongly, teachers feel angry and betrayed by the Government they voted for. Working harder than ever, they feel humiliated by "naming and shaming"; irritated by the Government's apparent refusal to admit that some children are virtually unteachable; and, above all, enraged by the propaganda of the spin doctors.

Nearly two years after the election, the mainstream press is still being encouraged to denigrate state schools - in order to spotlight the Government's achievements in improving them. For example, the recent Excellence in Cities document was leaked to The Sunday Times, emphasising the fact that inner-city schools are shunned by middle-class parents. "Middle England" reads The Sunday Times, and that's who the message was for. But teachers read it too (more than one in four TES readers, for instance). They understood the ploy - and they reacted with anger. When the document was finally published, it turned out to contain many good ideas which teachers liked, but they had been under-played for political reasons. Is it any wonder that teachers feel cynical?

Of course, teachers know that some schools are letting down their pupils, just as they know that not all teachers are good teachers, but in the face of such relentless politically-motivated criticism they become defensive. What's more, they suspect that all this emphasis on performance-related pay is mainly to disguise the fact that the Government is unwilling to fund a proper pay rise for everyone.

So, resisting performance-related pay symbolises the last ditch, the last rag of autonomy for a beleaguered profession. To most parents - and, no doubt, to Tony Blair - it seems incredible that pupil progress can be rejected as an element in professional appraisal. But the Prime Minister's desire to confront the teachers could be disastrous. Mrs Thatcher defeated the miners - and where is the coal industry now? We can't close down schools the way we closed down pits.

One of the most sensible things David Blunkett said during a bruising week was that we are at the start, not the end, of the Green Paper consultations. Nigel de Gruchy and Estelle Morris - the most pragmatic union leader and the most open-minded education minister - look like they could do business. So let's start there, and build up some mutual understanding. If any partnership is to succeed, the partners must respect each other. In the light of the NUT's shenanigans, it may go against the grain; but this is the moment for the Government to show some respect.

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