Start talking to the enemy

11th January 2013 at 00:00

It's war. As we were winding down to the end of last term and looking forward to the season of peace and goodwill, Michael Gove announced he was putting the department on a war footing. He'll confront the unions over pay, strikes and sacking teachers. No more Mr Nice Guy (when was that?): he's getting tough.

Gove is a man in a hurry. But, climbing into the turret of his Panzer (sorry, Chieftain), he risks making himself look ridiculous.

Leading change is tough. The job of headship - my job - is about improving schools: they can always be better and we should never be satisfied. As chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw reminds us, we're talking about children's futures.

The flip side is that most workers dislike change. Even the best innovations push them out of their comfort zones, requiring them to think afresh and work harder while they get used to the new way of doing things. Of course they're resistant: it's human nature. Leaders must persuade and cajole, then lick their wounds after the encounters.

Secretaries of state, like heads, should accept the reality of that very human resistance to change. But in Gove's case, any contradiction of his plans is characterised as wilful obstruction.

Those who dislike the changes are not necessarily blocking progress or improvement for its own sake. When Gove and his cronies characterise their opponents as being against standards - as favouring lousy opportunities for children - it is offensive and silly.

However, I don't think the teaching unions have got it right. Their work-to-rule and strike plans are wrong-headed. Parents will neither support nor forgive them.

I suspect that union fears that the changes will usher in regional pay are unfounded. The outcome will actually resemble an arms race rather than a cut in pay, with the strongest schools increasing pay rates to attract the best teachers.

But Gove's pay plans aren't just about shortening incremental scales. He's the latest minister convinced that performance-related pay is the only way. So how do you measure performance? You can argue that on a production line you could pay workers for the number of widgets they produce in a day. Clear and fair.

But it isn't. What happens when something goes wrong further up the production line? Does everyone take a hit? If that rudimentary example is trickier than it first appears, how do you measure the complex set of interactions that constitute a teaching day? There is no simple solution.

Another battleground for Gove is the old chestnut about sacking poor teachers. People have employment rights and teachers are people, too. There's a human rights issue here but this government isn't keen on those.

It's not easy running a school: to run a whole education system must be hell. But you don't do it by behaving like Hitler. War? The unions cannot just be smashed: this isn't the 1980s.

Besides, in war the first casualty is truth, as Aeschylus wrote: we don't want to lose any more of that. So here's a New Year's resolution for Gove. Stop regarding anyone who doesn't agree with you as the enemy: start talking instead. The only way we'll move forward is by reason and compromise, and reason, surely, is at the heart of education.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headmaster of Newcastle's Royal Grammar School. The views expressed are personal.

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