Politicians and reformers need to work with teachers and unions, not against

More teachers are reporting high levels of stress. Gabe Palmer / Alamy

More teachers are reporting high levels of stress. Gabe Palmer / Alamy

By Sam Tomlin

This bank holiday weekend has seen delegates at the National Union of Teachers threaten to boycott classroom inspections and call for the resignation of the chief inspector of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw. Dislike of Wilshaw and the inspectorate is nothing new from many teachers and historically there has often been significant tension between Ofsted and the unions. Discord has been growing, however, since the Coalition came to power amid new measures such as significant reductions in warning before inspections. In Ofsted’s own words:

“Ofsted also announced further reductions to the notice of inspections… Under the new arrangements, schools will receive almost no notice of an inspection with inspectors calling headteachers the afternoon before an inspection takes place. Ofsted proposed conducting school inspections without any notice but listened to headteachers’ concerns about this during the consultation. Calling the working day before an inspection will enable headteachers to make any necessary logistical arrangements including notifying parents and governors of the inspection. Parents can be reassured that inspectors are seeing schools as they really are.”

The NUT conference learnt that teacher suicide rates have increased 80 per cent due to such increases in pressure. Working hours are often as long as those working in top city jobs and salaries that do not begin to compare.  Many teachers believe that they are being used as a political football to bring forward a specific agenda of unrealistic levels of accountability and opening education up to the market and the free-school and academy programmes. This certainly appeared to be the case with my local primary school – forced to become an academy due to narrowly missing shifting Ofsted goalposts, despite having high levels of EAL (English as an additional language) and receiving £1,500 less per pupil compared to inner London boroughs although Haringey faces almost identical challenges.

The sad fact is that our education system would work considerably more effectively if politicians saw teachers and unions as part of the answer and not part of the problem. To outline my thinking, it is worth considering the educational system in Ontario, Canada. Ontario’s education system (there is no federal Education body) experienced significant educational reform to improve ailing results. According to an OECD report in 2011, “From 2003 to 2010, Ontario was a world leader in its sustained strategy of professionally-driven reform of its education system.” It has also consistently outperformed the UK in international comparisons such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment).

Following a conservative government, disliked by most teachers and unions alike (for example running advertisements demonising teachers), Premier Dalton McGunity and his deputy Gerard Kennedy initiated a number of reforms, underlined by an approach to bring teachers along with them, rather than simply telling them what was going to happen. Kennedy, “met quarterly with the major teachers’ unions, superintendents’ organisations, and principal associations to discuss ongoing reform strategies”, and, “a four-year collective bargaining agreement with the four major teachers’ unions in 2005, covering 2004 to 2008 [was signed]. In this agreement, the ministry was able to negotiate several items that were consistent both with their educational strategy and with the unions’ interests.”

These reforms were seen as key to eventual success of the system, not just in Ontario, but all over Canada. Indeed, the OECD concluded:

“too often in education policy discussions the choices are frequently framed as reform versus the status quo. The implicit idea is that there are two sides: external reformers who are pushing for progress; and existing forces – primarily teachers, administrators and unions – who are resistant. The Canadian experience suggests a more complex analysis, in which teachers are a crucial constituency who can be enlisted in a broad reform agenda. Ironically, the more they perceive the state as the hammer, the more likely they are to entrench themselves into a unionised rather than a professional association. The Ontario experience suggests instead that by treating teachers as professionals, and including them at the table, they were able to build considerable goodwill – a critical resource for long-term and sustainable change… Ultimately, the Ontario government created a sustainable strategy and a clear push for improved performance in a way that included teachers, rather than alienated them.”

It is clear that our current government’s approach is alienating most teachers and, as long as politicians and reformers seem to view teachers as the enemy who have their own interests, and not the students’, at heart, our education system will not improve. This is not to say that accountability is a bad thing – clearly in any profession, people should be held to account – but surely performance will improve when teachers do not constantly feel un-trusted, undervalued and under pressure, expecting the powers that be to try and catch them out at any given moment. Negotiations and conversation will require teachers and unions (of course not always the same thing) to make some concessions and they should be open to this, but that is very different to expecting them to simply roll over and accept whatever they are given.

Teachers, politicians and reformers all want what is best for students, who should clearly be at the centre of all education debates. But if those educating the students are forgotten or treated as peripheral, it is all who will lose out. Are you listening Mr Gove and Mr Wilshaw? A house divided against itself cannot stand.

  1. senex72 said:

    Having ‘stood down’ after more than thirty years in education, I suggest that these problems arise from over-hightened expectations and Says Law. Teachers and politicians alike have conspired to offer ever-greater promises of success to the public in pursuit of votes and income. Yet these promises of social mobility are mostly failures compared to the results of buying your way in to the circle of influence and affluence via private schooling – a course which should lead its participants to being widely despised. There is no educational panacea for society’s wrongs, the supply of diploma holders does not create a supply of diploma-holder’s jobs, or Egypt would be wealthy. Education can give enry-point to awareness and understanding: understanding of practical matters, theoretical questions, art,music literature, culture. But it will not make us all great engineers, musicians or artists, in spite of the Turner prize awards. It enriches leisure as much or more than it enriches commercial gain. KIt ednables us to loive well as free men, not conscripts to the machinery of merely base ambition.

    • While I do agree that we need more than education to change society’s ills (structural change), it is important to get it right, as the more people understand about the world (and are not simply forced through a conveyor belt), the more they will be able to challenge the system which holds them back.

      I would also say that while there are clearly some lazy teachers who don’t care (seemingly Gove’s opinion of many in the profession), this is far from the truth for all. If we want the best people to become teachers, we need to pay them more – look at South Korea.

  2. It is heartening to see a rising tide of opinion which sees current government education policy as destructive. Given that those who have honed their expertise over a lifetime of working in education, who have devoted their creative energies to finding better ways of teaching and who have constantly changed their practice to do their very best for the children in their charge are now allied with an ever growing number of voices from all quarters of society in saying that current policies are damaging you might hope that there would be some response. All too often the DfE follows the model set by the secretary of state which is to first of all state that what they are doing is really good and then characterise the voice of opposition as politically motivated and with a history of ineffectual action. In short someone whose only experience of education is his own private schooling knows more than everyone else.

    In spite of this I still hear government sources announce that Michael Gove is doing a great job in education. One can only wonder what they intend if this is measured as a success.

    • sjtomlin1 said:

      Thanks Geraint. I agree with your analysis and also think that things would be improved if we had more former teachers involved in making policy at the top level. Gove appears very popular in Tory & current government circles. He clearly wants to be remembered as the great educational reformer, and in reality he probably has changed the face of education for a generation.

  3. senex72 said:

    Yes we all keep adapting and changing, but the fact remains that the income and opportunity gap between the top oligarchs and the rest is wider than ever before; and after all these years of free state education UK is about the most unequal of societies in the developed world. If the recent documentary on Herculaneum is anything to go by you had a far better of chance of rising through the ranks as a newly-arrived Roman slave than the run-of-the mill State school child has here. That place had abundant water and public baths and was clean and well-fed too and smartly decorated. But then Gove and co do not grant manumission!

    We need social transformation – revolution even – to change life-chances, for all our goodwill is otherwise just taken for granted.

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