Stop hiding behind middle-class mums

25th March 2005 at 00:00
As the unions' sabres begin to rattle for the conference season and the politicians try to think of ever more catchy phrases to hook that floating voter, spare a thought for the classroom fodder they will afflict.

For all the posturing and bravado from both sides of the divide nobody seems to have any real thought for the children at the centre of the debate. So here are a few tips for those who might forget what the fight is about.

If the teaching union leaders look up from fighting each other and the heads' associations over workforce remodelling they will see the Education Secretary chortling in the corner, relieved that they are so intent on scoring points off each other that they have forgotten her. All the unions need to recognise something every marriage counsellor knows: whenever a relationship is in trouble, lack of money is usually the root cause.

As a primary school governor I welcome the opportunity to give teachers at least two-and-half hours a week non-contact time. And I cannot believe that any head would choose to deny staff this right: less stressed teachers means more relaxed children, lower supply costs and a happier school.

But how? The cheapest option is to use unqualified staff to fill the planning, preparation and assessment time gaps. However, we have lost two teaching assistant posts this year in the budget. And as we already use an instructor for all our music, we do not believe any more of our timetable should be given over to unqualified staff.

We will bring in the reforms in September even if it means setting a deficit budget because we know it is the right thing to do. But we, and thousands of other primaries across the country, will have to make sacrifices. So instead of bickering with each other, like a married couple squabbling over the mortgage arrears, turn your energies to getting us more money.

Maybe we in education could try to bring an end to some of the more extravagant waste of money. Should schools really be spending up to pound;120 million a year on exams and tests? Is the pound;300m spent on Excellence in Cities an investment worth making? And what about possibly the biggest waste of all - the pound;5 billion spent on academies?

This programme is key to the Government's agenda of offering the parent choice. Choice is apparently what everyone wants.

But just as there has been lots of talk of the Conservatives hiding behind patients in the parallel health debate, maybe it's time for Health Secretary John Reid to tell his education colleagues to come out from behind middle-class mums' skirts.

We know that not all parents want academies - they told us so in Gateshead, Doncaster and Walthamstow. Schools handed more money than any of their neighbours, cherry-picking pupils and remaining outside any recognised accountability, is not a recipe that sits well with many.

Some of the mums championed by Labour may like the idea of little Felix avoiding the estate kids without having to travel for miles, but others see it as a further assault on a cohesive society. Yet the successful campaigns mounted by parents against academies in London, Yorkshire and the North-east remained mainly local affairs attracting sparse media interest.

Perhaps if those unions who also oppose academies had added their national weight to garner greater publicity, the parent-loving Blairites would have been forced to take more notice.

If the teaching unions really want to make an impact on government policy, they should try to reach these parents - those who would have welcomed the Tomlinson diploma because it would have accorded their vocationally-able children the same value that society gives to the more academic elite.

Maybe the voices of these parents can break the spell that the four-wheel drivers have cast over ministers.

Every delegate preparing for Gateshead or Brighton should be demanding their union executives put down their cudgels for long enough to build a new relationship with the unheeded parents. Get enough of them and the Government will follow like lambs - for as long as an election looms.

Alison Shepherd is the chair of governors at a north-east London primary school

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