Put down the placards, join the debate

6th July 2012 at 01:00
To remain relevant, unions must leave their militant days behind, writes Anthony Seldon

Have teaching unions had their day? Should they be replaced by completely new bodies representing the profession and its aspirations as they are today? Does the call for yet more strikes show the virility and relevance of the unions, or does it reveal them to be impotent and anachronistic, redolent more of the last century than of our own?

Many believe that the status of teaching is being damaged, not helped, by the way unions behave. Unable or unwilling to secure influence through conventional channels, they resort, with a couple of honourable exceptions, to wild rants at their annual conferences and withdrawing their labour, which is an admission of defeat. There are many like me who believe that unions played an important and necessary part in the 20th century but have lost their way this century. Above all, they seem to have forgotten the interests of the very people who brought teachers into the profession in the first place: children. In my book, any union that doesn't put the rights of pupils on at least an equal level with that of teachers has no moral authority.

The debate over the relevance of unions was one of many aired at the Festival of Education at Wellington College last month. The festival had more than 200 speakers, from education secretary Michael Gove to The Wire actor Dominic West, and already it has sparked the London Festival of Education, co-founded by TES. Both events speak to the fact that so much about education is currently up in the air. Despite 100 years and more of serious academic research, it seems we are as far as we ever were from agreement on almost all the core principles.

We are no closer than we were in 1912 to guaranteeing equality of opportunity in education. The gap is as wide as it has ever been. Independent schools are as dominant as ever across public life. Increasing numbers believe that independent schools are part of the unique British problem, rather than part of the solution. Can any moral case be made for their continued existence? The government is trying to address the problem by ferociously insisting on academic standards being raised across the state sector. Will this work, and what happens if it doesn't?

This is, perhaps, where the classroom unions could position themselves. They ought to be central to these debates, offering the thoughtful voice of the profession.

And there is more. Why do some schools manage to extract excellent behaviour from even the most disadvantaged pupils, while others do not, leaving teachers demoralised and children distressed? Can you teach good character, and is it possible to teach values and well-being? Are academies working, and why do some academies appear to be more successful than others? Are free schools the way forward? Should girls and boys be taught separately at certain ages? Are class sizes too big? And what exactly should young people be taught in class? What will replace local authorities if they disappear, or did they become redundant years ago?

What these friction points need is not the rancour offered up by the likes of the NASUWT and the NUT, but a considered contribution from them.

The list of areas of debate is, in fact, getting longer. We are witnessing the biggest shake-up in schooling since the advent of comprehensives. Perhaps certainty in education will always be more elusive than in other fields like medicine. Maybe theory and politics will always predominate, while settled fact is harder to prove. But that doesn't mean that one shouldn't try to seek truth. It has never been more important that we meet together and debate these issues passionately, but without rancour or animosity.

Long may festivals of education flourish to offer a forum for such debate. And hopefully, at some stage, the unions will make a polite contribution to their vibrant debates, too.

Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College. The London Festival of Education will take place at the University of London's Institute of Education on 17 November. To book, go to www.londonfestivalofeducation.com.

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