Uneducated Unions

Teachers pay membership to their unions in the belief that union leaders represent their views. But when Chris Keates, the general secretary of NASUWT, stands next to a cardboard cut-out of Michael Gove, at their national conference, and speaks of the Education Secretary’s ”unparalleled, vicious assault” on teachers, schools, and state education, one has to wonder whose views these union leaders are representing.

One of the first things Gove did in office was to restore ordinary rights to classroom teachers. For years, teachers were not allowed to search pupils’ bags for suspected weapons. For my entire teaching career, I was not allowed to give meaningful detentions without 24 hours’ notice to families. This made proper sanctions at school a near impossibility. Teachers were also not allowed to use reasonable force with a pupil when he or she was endangering the lives of other children, or indeed the teacher’s own life. Now, thanks to Gove’s reforms, all of this has changed. Any teacher will tell you that such rights are crucial to their being able to do their jobs. Yet the unions hate the man who made it possible for teachers to breathe again. How could people who are elected to represent the views of teachers oppose such reforms? 

Like the union leaders, the influential education activist Fiona Millar accuses Gove of “shaming” teachers. But Gove hasn’t done any such thing. In the 1990s, the former Chief Inspector Sir Chris Woodhead used to point his finger at teachers, claiming that 15,000 of them were incompetent. Whether his claims were true or not, at least the accusation of shaming teachers would be more accurate. But Gove has never made any claims about the number of bad teachers and heads we have in our schools. He simply insists that we must have structures that allow governors and parents to hold teachers to account. 

If, as Fiona Millar and the union leaders claim, they care about the education of our children, why would they oppose reforms to help rid our schools of bad teaching and leadership? Ask teachers in a struggling school what they resent most, and they are likely to point to their senior leadership team, and wonder why such incompetent people are allowed to remain in post for so long, destroying the hopes of the young and driving good teachers out of the profession. Unions fight to ensure that all jobs in teaching, including those of managers, should be jobs for life. All Gove has done is to change the rules so that bad teachers can lose their jobs, eventually. 

One can forgive people who read or watch on TV the constant misrepresentations of Gove’s policies for thinking that academies and free schools are the work of the devil. One union conference speaker actually called Gove “an evil entity”. Peter Wilby, a decent and open-minded Guardian journalist, recently wrote of Gove “destroying the foundations of the power structure” that governs education — as if Gove were a tyrant rubbing his hands in glee. 

But Wilby is essentially right: Gove has made significant changes to education structures in this country. By next September half of our secondary schools — 1,641 out of a total of 3,261 — are predicted to have gained academy status, freeing them from local authority control.

Gove’s enemies continually insist that more academies mean that state schools are being privatised. But this simply isn’t true. Yes, services such as training or special needs can be contracted out. This is not the same as privatising education. Good headteachers of foundation, voluntary-aided, or voluntary-controlled state schools have been doing this for years. 

All Gove has done is to allow all heads, in all schools, including those controlled by local authorities, the opportunity to choose exactly what is right for that school. In other words, professionalism and trust have been restored to half of our secondary school teachers. Yet somehow, Chris Keates thinks it accurate to describe Gove as ”eroding the professional status of teachers” with a hint of something truly evil being done. 

Wilby even foresees a day when academies and free schools may be forced to select their pupils. Why is it so difficult to believe that a Conservative Education Secretary might simply think that freedom for schools will drive up standards, empower teachers, giving them a sense of responsibility, and encourage us all to take an interest in improving our local schools? As it stands, many free school proposer groups are like mine: we want to give deprived children a better chance in life. Michael Gove’s policy actually encourages us to give preference in admissions to those on free school meals. 

If one truly believes in the professionalism of our teachers and their ability to improve our state schools, then the Gove reforms can only be a good thing. Union leaders may want to consider that.

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