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The unions claim to represent teachers' interests, but at what cost to pupils? (Reuters/Andrew Winning) 

One day, during my PGCE teacher training, we were all herded into a large hall where the teaching union representatives sat smiling behind their stalls. We dutifully queued up and signed on the dotted line. The option of not belonging was, in essence, hidden. We agreed to allow about £150 to leave our bank accounts every year because that's what teachers do: we belong to unions. Except for me, that is. I had to use the loo, was bored of queuing and left with the intention of signing up later. But when September came, I got busy working, and couldn't see the point of paying money to a union for nothing. In those first couple of years, every teacher who heard of my lack of protection from the big bad bosses (whom I have never met) rushed to warn me that I was putting my life in danger. Even if I didn't worry about being fired for incompetence, what if a child were to accuse me of something? Who would defend me? Eventually, I capitulated and signed up. 

In state education there is a kind of social obligation for a teacher to belong to a union. The most ardent union supporters among teachers belong to the National Union of Teachers (NUT). They tend to be very loud in the staff room, forcing others to toe the line. They push the mantra of evil senior management exploiting staff, and bully younger teachers to buy into it. The idea of holding colleagues to account or requiring high standards of teaching is not on their agenda. Good teachers keep their heads down, ignore the fact that they are paid the same or considerably less than the worst teachers, and get on with the job.

Interestingly, it is not just bad teachers who are vocal in support of union power. The union grip on schools, both psychologically and socially, is more pernicious than that. Some young teachers, good and bad, are radicalised by senior ones. The veterans seek out the more vulnerable and awkward young teachers, who may simply be looking for a club to belong to, or want approval, a voice, a reason to feel valued.

Most teachers believe fervently in their teaching union. If you ask them why, they will say something about being protected from evil management. If you're a bad teacher, there is some sense in this, for unions are powerful and will stand in the way of a head trying to get rid of a bad teacher. Heads know that firing a teacher is practically impossible in an ordinary school beholden to the local authority. It is estimated that in the last 40 years only 18 teachers — out of the 500,000 in the UK at any one time — have lost their jobs because of incompetence. Such is the strength of union power. Unions have persuaded most teachers — whether good or bad — that the protection of bad teachers is in the interest of all.  

In an academy which is independent of the local authority, unions do not have the same kind of power. Free schools are essentially the same as academies in terms of the freedoms they retain. Academies and free schools break up the monolithic structure of state education. Instead of taxpayer money going to the local authority, where bureaucrats decide how to use it in providing services to schools, the money is given directly to the schools, and heads decide how that money should be spent. Academies and free schools can set their own pay and conditions (thereby giving heads the option of rewarding good staff financially) and employ non-qualified teachers who have missed the PGCE herding-into-the-hall moment. With the centralised state education system broken up, unions will no longer be able to call for national strikes with ease. More importantly, they will no longer be able to protect bad teachers. A more open system will reduce union power. 

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Adam Creen 2
June 3rd, 2011
2:06 PM
Unions in general serve a valuable service, they protect the interests of there members from forces which might normally overwhelm a lone individual. However, when it comes to education it is essential to keep in mind that the continued employment of any one teacher is of relatively little importance. This is because in education the teacher is not what is important, the student is. If a teacher is crap they have no business being, it does not matter if you fire them and they loose they house and their family go hungry because they as a person are not the most important thing. Anything which detracts from the experiences of the students should be rooted out and and that goes for unions which hold the jobs of their members above the education of the students. Also, in response to Adam Creen, anything bellow a C to my mind should be considered a failure. Any grade which future employers consider to be a fail is a fail.

Steve Sarsfield
May 30th, 2011
10:05 AM
Why does KB feel so hostile towards teaching unions? As a fully paid up Daily Telegraph blogger and self confessed darling of the right she might just be forgiven for having a slightly myopic vision of her former profession. Where in this article is there ANY evidence of bullying? It’s all anecdotes and hearsay and completely self serving nonsense. In short it’s what we have become to expect from KB. I would like to ask KB.... WHO, exactly, compelled YOU to join a union? And when you where suspended your union was obliged to defend and support you. I feel your account of this episode is deliberately misleading and those of us who have half a brain can see through this fictitious drivel for what it is. Bullying? Currently, Gove is framing new laws that will help head teachers to fire their staff by removing safeguards and procedures. Can we have similar legislation for Ministers MP’s and HT’s? Gove handed back £7K in fraudulent expenses claims recently. No teacher would ever stay in post if they flagrantly fiddled their expenses in such a spectacular fashion. KB is an attack dog of the right and this article should be read in this context.

May 30th, 2011
7:05 AM
Teachers were foolish enough to go for the trade union model instead of the professional model several years ago. Then they wonder why they are paid less than barristers, solicitors, doctors, and even accountants. Professionals do not go on strike; they control the entry to their own profession; they have no fixed hours. The teaching unions have little power in the independent schools: inter alia, that is why the independent schools are the best, so much so that research shows that teachers in state schools would prefer their own children to attend independent schools.

May 29th, 2011
4:05 PM
Teachers on this planet will recognise this as a rambling, incoherent and inaccurate attack on the teacher unions. It combines the right wing hysteria on the influence of trade unions with more than a little personal bitterness. But for all that, as a contribution to the rise and spectacular fall of Katherine Birbalsingh its compelling reading. Mainly for her complete failure to understand the meaning of 15 minutes of fame.

May 29th, 2011
11:05 AM
I have spent a long time in the perimeter of Conservative politics and the Unions in a number professions. The political power wielded by the unions in the 1970's told me that the 'tail was wagging the dog' then Leadership telling the members what to think and do. As a teacher I joined a union not to protect me from my management but to protect me from a claim following an accident in the workshop or a malicious accusation by a student. My current school became an Academy in the New year and the Unions were 'invited' to address the Staff, just two turned up to the first meeting and the head put us on a '3 line whip' to attend the second because the unions accused him of not publicising the meeting. Our staff were simple not interested in them or their view, though all are members of one union or another. Our head is at pains to put his staff first and as a result the pupil performanced is outstanding. One Regional Union rep accused our management of wanting to line his pockets through the Academy, at this point most of the staff stood up and walked out. Some heads are like that but as I invited them, 'get on side with us here and lets do an academy in the right way' no reply, they are just opposed regardless of the obvious, that they cannot stop the Academy programme. Teaching unions need to move away from being 'trade unions' and start representing the 'professionals' that good teachers are, and a piece of paper does not make a person a good teacher I know several qualified teachers who should be encouraged to 'consider other careers' and TA's who get a pittance for outstanding work in the classroom.

Adam Creen
May 29th, 2011
9:05 AM
Ms Birbalsingh has covered all the bases in this article. If I disagree with her opinion (as I do), then by her argument, I must be a highly-paid incompetent teacher in search of protection, or a self-centred unionist who doesn't care about children. Neither of these are true. I am a head of department (which already, in her school-world-view, means I have been promoted beyond my competence) with 2 decades of teaching experience, and have belonged to a union all that time, with no efforts to 'radicalise' me or make me live in fear of 'evil management'. I disagree with her opinion in the following ways: I do not believe that good teachers are paid significantly less than poor teachers. I do not believe free schools and academies should be allowed to employ unqualified teachers. I do not believe that a D grade in a GCSE is the same as failing the exam, and Ms Birbalsingh knows this not to be true. I do not believe that quoting 5 sentences out of context from a speech given in March 2007 is enough evidence that unions do not speak in the interests of teachers or children. And I do not believe that children are left to rot in chaos.

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