What a state our comprehensives are in

13th April 2001 at 01:00
We know it's spring. It's raining, the daffodils surprise with their sudden beauty - and it's teacher union conference time. As an ex-Sunday newspaper editor I know the media will be looking for something from the National Union of Teachers conference to make the front page over the quiet Easter weekend. On past form we won't be disappointed.

The union will want to make two killer points. It will insist that if Scotland can move to a 35-hour week then so should England and Wales. And it will voice profound unease over the plans for more "diversity" in secondary schools, and as the Prime Minister's press secretary Alasdair Campbell famously briefed, the end of the so-called bog-standard comprehensive. "Diverse" schools, the NUT will fear, will quickly be seen as better. Ambitious parents will want to live in their catchment areas; remaining comprehensives will be seen as relics of a failed system.

I have a lot of sympathy for the NUT case, but it might as well save its breath. The Government believes that the drive to boost standards and relegitimise secondary system requires comprehensives to be relegated to history. The NUT lost the argument years ago, and opposition through disruption and strike action will not be effective. The Government cannot budge without massive loss of face. Parents, pupils and the electorate will not support the union position, and many teachers will leave the profession rather than indulge in self-defeating collective action.

The teacher unions do not represent working classes confronting a capitalist employer, even though they sometimes use that rhetoric. They are not really unions at all, but large-scale professional associations. Their peers in accountancy, medicine and the law are guardians of the standards and structures of their profession. Techers should look for the same relationship, pitching dialogue with the Government as an exchange over professional standards.

The union leadership will reach for this language at conference, but the tone will be set by references to members being willing to take industrial action. The truth is that most teachers do not feel that degree of class solidarity, and are profoundly uneasy with its message. Teachers follow a vocation; they want protection from the state whittling away their wages and undermining their capacity to follow their calling. They want recognition as professionals whose voice should be heard and respected because everyone understands they want nothing less than the highest standards. Even to threaten industrial action is to proletarianise yourself in a world in which even the proletariat no longer thinks of itself in these terms.

Teachers' representatives urgently need to change the rhetoric and rethink their function. They need to campaign for high standards, becoming the teaching equivalent of the reformed British Medical Association. The best way to defend comprehensives would have been to urge that they were the best means to achieve high standards for all, and to have called for reforms to serve that end. A rearguard action to defend an institution discredited in the eyes of most of the media and a substantial part of the population against a popular government is doomed to failure. The NUT and other teaching unions should lick their wounds, think again and swear that they will never get themselves in the same position.

Will Hutton is chief executive of the Industrial Society, former editor in chief of the Observer and author of "The State We're In" Dig for victory: roadworks are often of more immediate interest to local people than schools.

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