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.
Even the academies that suffered from the national dip in results stand out as beacons of success. Eastbourne Academy's success rate fell by 9 per cent this year, but the number of pupils obtaining five good GCSEs including English and maths increased by 20 per cent. Staff at the Ark chain of schools, which came in for criticism when it was revealed that four of its schools' GCSE results have fallen this year, can still hold their heads high: the average annual increase in pupils achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths at their schools remains at an impressive 6.5 per cent.
Despite 55 new free schools opening last month, complete with academy freedoms, the news that two free schools didn't open was seized on by left-wing commentators as proof that they were located in areas where there was no need for them. In fact at least 79 per cent of the free schools that opened in 2011 are oversubscribed, with one of them, the West London Free School, attracting about nine applicants for every place. Unpopularity is not something most free schools have to worry about. Yet critics still seize on isolated incidents; the very idea of establishing new academies and free schools is still condemned by the unions who fear the freedom these institutions have to write their own teacher contracts.
The unions' hatred of Michael Gove is very real, bordering on the psychotic. He was described as an "evil entity" at the NUT conference this year, and as waging a "vicious and unjustified assault on teachers". Last year I witnessed this hysterical hatred at an education conference which ended with Patrick Roach, the deputy general secretary of NASUWT, declaring that Gove was guilty of "crimes against humanity".
The tragedy is that these militants claim to speak for all those who champion the many successful maintained comprehensives in England. At union conferences delegates calling for a more moderate approach have been heckled and their words have been ignored. The fact that only 27 per cent of members participated in last month's vote suggests that most are not as radical as their leaders' rhetoric suggests.
The latest union demands include further limits on how long teachers can be observed in the classroom (the current limit is three hours a year), a reduction in Ofsted inspections and a halt to the government's plan to introduce a form of performance-based pay. Each of these demands is a self-evident blow against accountability and meritocracy in the teaching profession and a defence of failure and mediocrity.
It would be foolish to underestimate the threat that these militants pose to educational reform. A disturbing vision of our future can be found across the Atlantic where teaching unions have, for nearly 20 years, successfully battled against school reform. Their greatest triumph occurred two years ago when they claimed a particularly impressive scalp: the reforming chancellor of Washington DC's schools, Michelle Rhee, the poster-woman for educational reform. In 2007 she inherited a school system that was in total collapse: only 8 per cent of eighth graders (13-14 year olds)were proficient in mathematics. She challenged the status quo especially the lack of teacher accountability — more than 90 per cent of teachers were recieving good marks. Rhee set about overhauling the system. Out went tenure laws and in came new performance reviews and performance-based pay. Soon 241 poorly performing teachers had been dismissed.
Although she was chancellor for only three years, Rhee was able to pass enough reforms to revolutionise education in Washington. Under Rhee, fourth-grade students' attainment in reading and maths doubled. Teacher absenteeism has declined dramatically and Rhee's ideas for evaluating teachers are now accepted by the DC educational establishment.
Yet the unions' leaders had the last laugh. Enraged by her willingness to dismiss so many teachers and realising that her reforms could only happen with the blessing of the Mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty, the unions set about trying to dislodge him. During the 2010 primary elections the American Federation of Teachers spent nearly $1 million to help unseat the mayor. Their contribution made a difference: Fenty lost his job and Rhee was forced to resign, her reforms only half completed.
Rhee, who now heads the advocacy group StudentsFirst, visited Britain earlier this year, and took part in a televised debate with Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "It was a little baffling," Rhee mused. "I thought we were going to engage, but the conversation simply became personal." She considers the unions' tendency to personalise and demonise an obstacle to educational reform. "It means that you end up with debate on polarised extremes. It means that you are never able to have deep conversations because it all becomes very personal." She believes the only hope is to make sure that parents and union members understand the reforms. "You need a system that is fair and transparent. People will support that."
Her words should offer some comfort to Michael Gove, who in his two years as Education Secretary has done more to revolutionise the English schooling system than any minister since Rab Butler introduced universal secondary education in 1944. Under Gove more than 700 maintained primary schools and around 45 per cent of all maintained secondary schools are converting to academy status, joined by 79 new free schools. The furore over the harsh marking of this summer's GCSE English papers might have heralded damnation for a less able Education Secretary, but Gove's claim that such irregularities are the inevitable product of a low-quality modular exam system is a bold move, providing the impetus for introducing long-overdue reform of GCSE exams and the reintroduction of more rigorous O-level-style papers. Further bold reform looks likely.
It's also clear that the unions won't go down without a fight. In addition to strikes, the NASUWT has recently called, among other things, for teachers to refuse to cover for absence or to supervise pupils during their lunch break. At one conference I attended, activists wanted meetings to be organised around the country to warn parents of the "perils" of academy status.
Who is going to win in this battle over our schools? Again, America offers some idea of where the debate may be headed. Despite her personal experience, Rhee is optimistic about the future of educational reform, especially in the US. "I am very impressed with the President," she says. "He has made it safe to support reform. He has said things that a Democrat would never say" — a reference to Obama's public support for school freedom and competition.
However, it looks as if the rest of his party are reluctant supporters at best. In recent years members of the Democratic Party have voiced their opposition to charter schools (the US equivalent of free schools) in states like Michigan, while in Georgia Democrat members of the State House of Representatives have opposed an amendment that would allow the state to create new charter schools. So are the Democrats really willing to continue to support school reform? "It's still not a majority view," Rhee conceded. "But change is not going to happen in one night."
In England, too, there are politicians who are still uncertain about school reform, not least within the Labour Party. Despite Labour having introduced the academy programme, the current front bench seems reluctant to continue its support. The Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg, is known to be cautiously supportive of school reform, dubbing free schools "brilliant", but he has seemingly been pressured to take a more critical view by his sceptical leader, Ed Miliband.
On a local level the opposition to school reform can be vitriolic: in August the Labour-controlled Birmingham City Council refused to allow a free school, despite acknowledging that the proposals met all the legal requirements. Even Lord Adonis, former Minister for Schools and the ideological father of these reforms, has apparently switched sides, recently proclaiming that academy conversions were a "gimmick".
That someone as intelligent as Adonis would be willing to criticise the educational movement that he helped to launch is a sign of the fragility of the support school reform enjoys among the ranks of the potential next government. Gove looks set to remain in charge of English education for the next three years at least. But the militant leadership of the teaching unions looks here to stay beyond the next general election. There is a real danger that Gove will be replaced by someone unwilling to stand up to the unions.
In the meantime, Gove shows no sign of giving up, declaring earlier this year that he wished to confront those who "are putting the ideology of central control ahead of the interests of children". Yet until the Labour Party heeds these words, the prospect of a far-left victory over educational policy remains an unsettling possibility.
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