`We need to reset the relationship'

1st August 2014 at 01:00
Nick Clegg on teaching unions, Gove and waving a magic wand

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has used an exclusive interview with TES to call for the government to bring an end to its "acrimonious" relationship with teachers by tackling the profession's increasing workload.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Mr Clegg claimed that the departure of controversial former education secretary Michael Gove marked an opportunity to "turn the page" in the increasingly tense relationship between the Department for Education and the teaching unions.

The Liberal Democrat leader said he was keen to tackle the "extraordinarily" long working hours that teachers faced by reducing unnecessary red tape and paperwork, and for the first time signalled official government support for plans to establish a College of Teaching to raise the status of the profession.

But the key to raising the public esteem in which teachers were held, Mr Clegg said, was for ministers to engage in constructive debate with teaching unions about how to improve the quality of life of those at the chalkface.

Last month, thousands of schools were closed as teachers in the NUT joined unions representing support staff for a one-day strike, the latest phase in its campaign of action over pay, pensions and working conditions. Although Mr Clegg was quick to quash speculation that the strike had prompted Mr Gove's replacement by fellow Conservative MP Nicky Morgan, he said it was vital for both parties to work to end the dispute.

"It's an opportunity to turn a page on the somewhat acrimonious relationship that existed between the government - and the Department for Education in particular - and a number of teachers," he said. "We need to reset the relationship. Not, I should stress, by summarily abandoning all government policy or reforms, but first and foremost by ensuring that, where there is debate and discussion between the teaching profession and government, it is conducted in a spirit and tone of mutual respect. And that we seek out every opportunity to celebrate, and not always seek to denigrate, the fantastic work that teachers do."

`There will be disagreements'

Since the coalition came to power, discourse in the education sector has become increasingly rancorous. The unions have been characterised by Mr Gove as "enemies of promise", "Trots" and "the Blob". He, in turn, has been accused of "undermining everything [teachers] stand for" and was even described at an NUT conference as an "evil entity".

The conflict had left many teachers feeling "browbeaten and that they are not properly valued," Mr Clegg said, adding that the ongoing industrial strife reflected badly on both sides.

"[Striking] is highly disruptive to parents," he said. "I just happen to believe that it doesn't actually help the teaching profession.It's not the best way, to put it mildly, to elicit sympathy from millions of working parents. I think it does need to be avoided wherever possible. There will be disagreements between this government and the trade unions, whether Michael Gove is there or not."

According to the Teaching and Learning International Survey (Talis) published in June, the typical teacher in an English school clocks up 51 working hours per week, seven hours longer than the international average. Teaching time, the report says, adds up to less than 20 hours per week, with the rest of the time being spent on tasks such as paperwork, lesson planning and attending meetings.

Mr Clegg said he was "increasingly concerned" by the trend. "Teachers are getting up very early in the morning and working until very late at night, and feeling very stressed and tired.I've met too many teachers now who feel somewhat beleaguered by the amount of administrative form-filling, some of which they don't feel makes much sense, or is repetitive or somehow seeking to second-guess their professional judgement.

"I can't wave a magic wand for every single one but I can signal, as deputy prime minister, that firstly it's a problem we recognise and we're not going to duck, and secondly we want to engage with the trade unions in good faith to try and take steps to reduce it."

Although Mr Clegg refused to get drawn into personal criticism of Mr Gove - "It's an open secret that Michael Gove and I did not agree on a number of important substantive issues," he said - he was more outspoken when it came to Dominic Cummings, the controversial former special adviser to Mr Gove who has been a vociferous critic of the Liberal Democrats.

"I think his impact on education policy is far, far less than he himself clearly thinks [it is]," Mr Clegg said. "I just don't think he's particularly important or relevant, but he clearly has a sort of vituperative, wild-eyed way of talking about people he disagrees with which is insulting, disrespectful and unhelpful."

One of the policies that caused most tension between the coalition partners was the pound;1 billion project to provide all infants with free school meals. The move was derided by Mr Cummings as a "bad gimmick" based on "junk" funding calculations that, he warned, would lead to "implementation chaos" for primary schools without adequate kitchen facilities.

But Mr Clegg told TES the policy had been "very well researched" and would cause problems for only a "tiny" minority of schools. "Because it's good for education reasons, it's good for nutritional reasons, it's good for social reasons and it saves families money, I think it's important we press ahead with this. The naysayers on the Right of British politics will always dislike a big, bold, progressive policy like this."

The Lib Dems would also stick to their guns on policies that came into conflict with the official government stance, Mr Clegg added, such as making qualified teacher status and the national curriculum mandatory in all schools, including academies. "I take it as a given that my children should be taught by qualified teachers and that there should be a core body of knowledge," he said. "I think it's right, for instance, that all our children should be taught about the beauty of Shakespeare."

But, despite being outmuscled by the Tories on these issues, Mr Clegg insisted his party had successfully blocked attempts to bring back O-level-style exams and "introduce profit-making into schools".

The next step in raising the status of teaching, he said, was to establish a College of Teaching. "Michael Gove in the past said that we have no objection to it, but I think we should move from a passive acceptance that the time has come for a royal college to actively supporting it. That might mean some temporary help in terms of the arrangements, the organisation and the costs of establishing it."

The Prince's Teaching Institute is currently drawing up detailed proposals; an announcement is expected in the autumn.

Mr Clegg said he was pleased with his party's work in education since 2010, not least in introducing the pupil premium - "one of the great legacy policies of this government" - and when he "personally intervened" to protect schools from budget cuts in autumn 2010. "The fact that we're travelling as a country through this period of enormous economic turbulence and significant fiscal retrenchment and we've done it without de-escalating the schools budget is something I'm extremely proud of," he said.

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