Sometimes it isn’t enough to be right.
This is a hard political truth, which has killed off the career of many idealist campaigners and politicians. The teaching profession has suffered from this in the past. I fear that we may suffer from it again in the light of the schools White Paper.
The government’s latest wave of education announcements has triggered a united sense of disbelief in teachers. We knew it was coming, but it doesn’t seem to have reduced the shock of seeing such a sudden announcement. It struck me that the news coverage on Conservative infighting over the referendum needed to be drowned out. Education policy seems to be one of the tools that was used to do that.
So, once again, we stand faced with a whole host of unpopular policy changes. Teachers need to organise and take the fight to the government. Remember, there is only a small majority in the Commons. Only a third of the country voted for the Tories, and we can use public opinion to fight and win.
Winning public approval
The problem is that teachers, while almost always in the right, have not had a good record of winning public support. YouGov polling on the last set of strikes showed that only 27 per cent of the public supported us. In contrast, some polls had support for the recent junior doctors’ strike at 74 per cent. This is a massive problem for teachers.
Is the junior doctors’ fight any more worthy? In my mind, no. They are both ultimately issues of burdensome, top-down restructuring causing a pay and conditions dispute. Both are just causes, and both have huge implications for some of our most precious public institutions.
So why do the doctors get so much more support? Well, they beat the Tories at their own game.
The war over public opinion is rarely won on rights and wrongs, but on the packaging and selling of ideas. The Tories are good at it. This is why even the most unpopular Conservative governments survive much longer than their Labour counterparts. Often, those who come up against the Conservative spin machine are doomed to failure. Yet the doctors have done remarkably well at countering health minister Jeremy Hunt’s charges.
Simply put, doctors have packaged their message more successfully than teachers have.
We too are the best and brightest
Some of the perceptions of doctors and teachers in the UK are not going to change overnight. But perhaps there are some lessons we can learn from our friends in the medical profession.
Has there been a junior doctor in Britain who hasn’t used the phrase "the best and the brightest" to describe the profession? It may seem trivial to point this out, but public perception is about 25 per cent what you do and 75 per cent what you say.
We should be selling our virtues and abilities and fighting the "those who can’t, teach" lie that pollutes education discourse. I appreciate that doctors train for five years. But we have to qualify to teach, and we need to talk up our profession. If we move the debate away from a perception that we are not worthy, but are dedicated, intelligent and articulate people helping some of the most vulnerable in our society, we will help to shift that perception.
Doctors based their campaign for a better contract on safety, not pay. This is a move that galvanised the public to their cause. We have to speak to people’s basic concerns about teaching, and not appear simply to be trying to protect a good pay and conditions deal. Remember: we all know the reality of 12-hour days plus weekends, holidays swamped with marking and unrealistic expectations, but that may not be the perception of the average person on the street.
Talk up safety concerns
If we make it clear that the action we take is about unqualified and untrained people looking after children’s safety, because of budget cuts and a recruitment crisis, we will gain more traction with the public at large. We must not allow the belief that we are being selfish to take hold.
One of the biggest problems teachers have had is that the unions are the forefront of our defence. I am a member of the NUT and a supporter of the trade-union movement. They have been a cornerstone of equality and democracy, but that isn’t how the public sees them. The firebrand rhetoric just doesn’t work any more.
We need to have calm and considerate teachers and headteachers making their case in TV studios and in press releases. I think I only saw one interview in which the person put in front of the press by the British Medical Association wasn’t a junior doctor. This strategy was a masterstroke. It humanised the story and reminded the public that doctors are not an abstract idea – they’re the people who help them in hospitals. Perhaps people could do with a reminder about who teachers are and what they do on a day-to-day basis.
Cynical media coverage
If or when (and I think it is certainly a case of when) teachers go on strike, the media is always hostile. This is for two reasons, one which is out of our control. Media bosses do not like the disruption a teachers’ strike brings to their organisation. Many people have to suspend their work commitments for childcare considerations and this has a cynical effect on the news coverage.
Yet there are still things we can do to improve this. On strike days, teachers often march and picket. This is a sentimental return to the pre-Thatcher days of trade-union might. The problem nowadays is it doesn’t work. Marches can be ignored by the media or presented as more menacing than they actually are. I thought the most effective part of the doctors’ actions on strike was to run health check-up clinics and CPR training in local communities. It was visible, local and fought the idea they were having a day off.
What could the rest of us be doing? CV workshops for those looking for work? Nutrition-education sessions outside the school gates? Instrument-tuning? Church-hall drama workshops for children? Computer drop-in sessions for the elderly? I am certain teachers in their communities will have even better ideas than these. The point is that a strike day could help teachers to gain support, by demonstrating the unique skill we have: taking complicated or alien concepts and making them accessible. Let’s remind the communities we live in what we are good at.
Ultimately, the doctors showed us the way. Public support has turned on the health secretary and there are a lot of nervous Tories on the government benches. A government with a small majority cannot afford to lose public support, because backbenchers will choose public support and political cover over angering their constituents.
If we repackage our argument and change public perceptions, we can win this fight. If we do not, I fear that we are doomed to fail.
Joseph Bispham (pictured) is an English teacher at Forest Gate Community School. He featured in Channel 4's Educating the East End and tweets at @MrBispham