Teachers’ unions must look at the big picture
Industrial action ‘short of a strike’ is not going to change things for the better for teachers or students, argues Fiona Millar
Two years ago, the schools minister, Lord Hill, wrote a round robin to the heads of schools that were considering academy conversion. In it he warned them against signing an agreement, proposed by the teaching union NASUWT, that would require continued observance of national pay and conditions. The letter was explicit and the message clear: any school that did sign such an agreement might not be successful in its bid; the government was on a mission to weaken the collective power of the unions.
What has happened since then? Academy conversions have continued, albeit at a much slower rate these days. Union membership in the teaching profession remains high compared with other sectors. A recent report, Collectivists, Functionalists & Critics by education thinktank LKMco, delved into the question of what teachers thought of their unions, and found an overwhelmingly positive picture. Most of the teachers surveyed thought membership very important, especially when it came to personal support in employment issues.
By all accounts, the number of union members in academies is holding up, and many chains have agreements with the unions, which are not that dissimilar to arrangements governing maintained schools. As with the national curriculum, much-vaunted “freedoms” haven’t really lived up to the hype. A few free schools are attempting non-recognition, but I suspect it is only a matter of time before that changes.
So the unions could be justified in giving themselves a pat on the back. The combined forces of successive governments hell-bent on dismantling their influence has amounted to little.
I am glad about that. It suggests that school leaders from all types of school recognise that unions have a role to play. And the right to belong to a union is an important one. In my experience, people who don’t join unions usually find out why it matters when it is too late. In an increasingly volatile labour market, and with fragmenting public services, the sort of support that union members value is more necessary than ever.
Yet the unions face a dilemma. They have a clear mandate to support and protect their members, some of whom (if the polling is to be believed) don’t consider campaigning and policy work very important. But what we might call the progressive coalition – heads, politicians, parents, governors and the wider community, interested in creating viable alternative policies to those promoted by this government – need the teachers’ unions to be part of a bigger discussion, engaging with new ways to improve schools that may indeed challenge conventional ways of working.
I am not sure they have got that balance quite right, and the current “action just short of a strike” is indicative of that. Of course, the workload is a concern, as it is in families up and down the country struggling to make ends meet in the recession, and paperwork doesn’t seem to be being reduced, in spite of election promises. But overly prescriptive action, if implemented, won’t make any impact at all on the government, against which this action is apparently directed, and may have a negative impact on schools and pupils, possibly even playing directly into Michael Gove’s hands if heads are unable to manage staff as required.
Restrictions on tasks such as report writing are, frankly, silly. We should all be trying to find new ways of being accountable to parents, ways that go beyond written reports once a year and crude league tables. The unions should be at the forefront of debates about accountability, wider parental engagement, what sort of curriculum and qualifications will meet the needs of all pupils and the many other issues that will genuinely improve young people’s life chances while the government busies itself with things that won’t.
It is always risky to put too much weight on international comparisons between countries with different cultures, but the most successful school systems do seem to have a more mature approach to the unions – seeing them as part of the solution, not the problem, forging innovative social partnerships rather than fostering division. I doubt very much that Michael Gove will stand up tomorrow at the Conservative party conference with a message as refreshing as that, but the teachers’ unions could join others in articulating that vision, which is one many people would like to see.