Are we entering an Autumn of Discontent in our schools? Britain is once again facing the dismal possibility of classroom disruption and industrial unrest. The culprits are the militant leaders of the two main teaching unions, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), who last month voted to coordinate industrial action. While the disruption and (almost inevitable) strikes will be a huge inconvenience to parents and pupils, the real scandal is that they are only the latest in a series of threats that the teaching unions have made over the last few months — the fall-out of the ongoing battle for the soul of English education.
Until recently the teaching unions had a reputation for responsibility and focusing on their members' interests: the NUT has not held a national strike for more than two decades. Yet, since the Coalition came to power in 2010, senior figures within the two unions have ditched their moderate clothing. Today the teaching unions distinguish themselves by their efforts to frustrate the government's agenda, fighting relentlessly against Education Secretary Michael Gove's plans to free English schools from local authority control by granting them academy status. Overtures, such as his invitation before the 2010 election for the unions to run their own schools, are continually dismissed.
In the months following the election, headteachers across the country received letters from union activists, threatening those who expressed an interest in converting to academy status with strike action. These were not empty words: at Downhills Primary School in Haringey, North London, staff went on strike twice to try to prevent the school's conversion. At a national level, both the NUT and NASUWT have voted to strike over government plans to reform pensions and are encouraging their members to back further strike action.
This opposition flies in the face of the evidence that school reform is starting to work. Take academies and free schools, which the government promotes as the future of English education. In the midst of the sombre headlines that accompanied this year's poor GCSE results, academies were rare bastions of good news. The Harris Federation of academies achieved an average increase of 3 per cent in the number of students getting five good GCSEs including English and maths while among the academies of the United Learning Trust, the number of students getting five good GCSEs including English and maths increased by 5 per cent on average. Last year 55 per cent of the pupils on free school meals at Harris Federation academies achieved five good GCSEs, compared to 33.9 per cent nationally, disproving the claim that nothing can overcome the effects of poverty on a child's educational attainment.
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