WATCH: 'The government has turned our classrooms into testing and exam factories' - Kevin Courtney

Ahead of the NUT-branch of the NEU conference this Easter weekend, Kevin Courtney stresses the importance of change on teacher pay, workload and funding

Kevin Courtney

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This Easter weekend, the NUT section of the NEU teaching union will be debating the issues that matter most to teachers and school staff. It is clear from our agenda that workload, funding and assessment are some of the main priorities that delegates feel are getting in the way of either their profession or children’s education.

Survey after survey demonstrates the unsustainable hours being worked by teachers. Teachers work evenings, weekend and during holiday periods and sacrifice time with their own families in order to keep up with the endless demands placed on them. 

Individualistic solutions like resilience or mindfulness training, which seek to place the onus on the individual to ‘toughen up’, are increasingly popular with senior leaders who, in the context of a ruthless accountability regime, see no alternative.

It is, however, the environment in which teachers work that needs to change, not teachers themselves. Until the government and Ofsted act to reduce the relentless pressures on teachers and introduce limits on working hours, the recruitment and retention crisis will remain.

A bold government statement on reasonable expected weekly working hours of teachers would be a positive start and give both teachers and school leaders a benchmark against which to measure their working hours.

The current assessment methods used in our schools are driving the joy out of learning and teaching. The government has turned our classrooms into exam factories with children from the age of 4 upwards being tested and measured within an inch of their life.

This obsession with data gathering is narrowing the curriculum and impacting on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Exam stress is overtaking children’s list of concerns above body image and social media. The answer from schools minister Nick Gibb is to test pupils more. Clearly, this is a man out of touch with the concerns of teachers and pupils

Many teachers fear that their pupils’ attitude to learning has been permanently damaged through this process. Of course, we need assessment in schools but it needs to be of a kind which does not produce damaging side-effects on a massive scale. Across the world, there are approaches to assessment being developed which allow a rigorous evaluation of school systems, combined with a supportive approach to students’ learning. There is much that the Department for Education could learn from these.

Funding is having a devastating impact on school and pupils. 2.5 billion has been lost from budgets since 2015 resulting in 91 per cent of schools facing real-terms budget cuts compared with 2015/16. This is simply unsustainable.

Our survey of members on funding will be released over the Easter weekend. It paints a bleak picture with the majority of respondents pessimistic about their schools budget prospects over the next three years.

It is absolutely incumbent upon the government that schools receive the funding they need. Parents will not stand for a situation whereby their children’s education is diminished due to a severe shortfall in funding. It is pointless pretending that real terms cuts to funding are not impacting on our schools and colleges when the evidence is there for all to see. With local elections around the corner, the government should pay heed to the fact that education funding played such a big part in the general election. The School Cuts coalition will be holding a weekend of action on the 21- 22 April to highlight our serious concerns.

Fair pay for teachers will also be discussed at conference. The real value of teacher pay has been cut by some 15 per cent since 2010, reducing the competitiveness of teacher pay and adding to the intensifying crisis in teacher recruitment and retention.  Changes to the teacher pay structure have made the situation worse – pay progression rates for teachers are falling and many teachers are denied an annual pay increase.  The impact of these attacks on teacher pay is clear – with government teacher recruitment targets missed year after year and teachers leaving the profession in record numbers, potential and serving teachers are turning away from the profession just when we need more teachers due to the increases in pupil numbers. 

So, much to debate and much to decide.

The NEU will be working in the months ahead to ensure that government listens to the voice of our members and starts making the changes we need in education, funding and employment. 

Kevin Courtney is the joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union. He tweets @cyclingkev

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