We will be pleased to meet you, Ms Kelly

24th December 2004 at 00:00
The National Union of Teachers expects a fresh face at the top will help open a new dialogue with government writes Steve Sinnott

I welcome Ruth Kelly's appointment as Secretary of State for Education.

Both she and Derek Twigg, the new education minister, are fresh faces to education. I welcome also Stephen Twigg's promotion as the new minister for school standards. It is well-deserved, particularly because of his work on the primary strategy.

Irrespective of our disagreements with the Government on aspects of its five-year strategy, such as the development of academies, the outgoing ministers Charles Clarke and David Miliband made very real and substantial contributions to the development of education policy.

Mr Clarke's opposition to selection is well known. David Miliband started a long overdue debate about the role of social class in influencing pupil achievement. They were approaches which the National Union of Teachers welcomed.

Yet, while the public profile of ministers is, of course, important, it is policies that primarily affect schools and colleges. It is polices that we should all engage with.

For this reason I want the NUT's relationship with government to change.

The NUT is a flourishing union. Its membership is growing. Arguments about being in favour or out of favour with the Government are neither the point nor are they relevant, therefore.

I want to establish a positive working relationship which allows the views of the largest teachers' organisation in England and Wales to be heard, because it is children and young people who benefit when there is a healthy exchange of ideas. In Wales, where there is dialogue between the NUT and government, fundamental and positive changes are taking place to education with the union's full involvement. The NUT has much to contribute.

In November, it published, Bringing Down the Barriers. The document contains a set of proposals, drawn from evidence of what works nationally and internationally. The statement is predicated on the idea that teachers must feel able to contribute to the debate on how education can enhance the lives of children and young people in the global economy. It draws on the NUT's own commissioned research. Its purpose is to bring the union's positive ideas to the table; to contribute to the healthy exchange of ideas I am arguing for.

Bringing Down the Barriers has received an overwhelmingly positive reception. In his response David Bell, the chief inspector, gave robust reasons for the changes he proposes for inspection, while at the same time recognising the NUT's contribution to self-evaluation. Others have written, highlighting issues ranging from teacher training to the role of local authorities. One educational commentator wrote that the NUT's statement is "all the more powerful for the weight of evidence behind it".

I was encouraged by the fact that the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development evaluation of the effectiveness of industrialised countries' education systems, the Pisa 2003 report, contained further evidence that our proposals are right. The report's evaluation is based on the question: how well is each country doing by all its young people? The question is a premise based on equality. I wish England and Wales had been included in the report.

Had we known about the difficulties in gathering data, the NUT would have done all it could to encourage schools to return the information to OECD.

Nevertheless, the premise behind Pisa is the same as the one which underpins our own document.

It is only through the skills, professional judgement and involvement of teachers that equality of educational opportunity can be achieved. How to achieve this aim should be the basis for dialogue between us all.

It is certainly a dialogue which I want to foster with other teachers' organisations and support staff unions. I have always been committed to working closely with other trade unionists.

As general secretary that belief in professional unity has grown, not diminished, precisely because of the strained relationships between us in the last two years. A single organisation for teachers would enable teachers to engage with one voice with government.

Differences of opinion on aspects of policies should neither get in the way of respect for each other's positions, nor obstruct listening to and learning from each other. I want the current situation to change. Much more importantly, I know that that is the wish of the vast majority of teachers and support staff.

So, I look forward to meeting Ruth Kelly and her colleagues. Ministerial change will no doubt lead to different approaches to tackling issues in the education service. When change happens, there are always new opportunities for dialogue. I look forward to 2005.

Steve Sinnott is general secretary of the National Union of Teachers Bringing Down the Barriers is published on www.teachers.org.uk

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