The NUT and other teaching unions show their true colours11 April 2012
It was when the union spokesman justified long school holidays on the grounds that teaching is the “most stressful profession in the country” that the presenter Evan Davis’s eyebrows hit the roof. I was sitting in the Today studio, having been invited on to defend the pioneering head teachers who have shortened their summer holiday to combat their pupils’ loss of learning between July and September. Kevin Courtney, the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, started by arguing that there was no academic evidence for the idea, which was rubbish but at least sounded reasonable. But he lost all sympathy when he argued that teachers needed long holidays for “essential relaxation”.
Evan Davis has an economist’s suspicion of humbug. He asked, in exasperation: “Are you ever, at the NUT, really welcoming of any kind of experimentation, change, something ambitious and different, thinking outside the box when it comes to teaching?” I simply added that the unions are wrong to describe the notion of shorter summer holidays as a government conspiracy against teachers. In fact, teachers themselves have come up with this new thinking. Ministers have latterly (and rightly) given them support. It is the NUT that wants to impose its thinking on schools, in this case by a blanket veto on change.
In truth the teaching unions have done us a great service at their recent conferences by revealing just how reactionary and self-serving their agenda is. We don’t need to dwell on the fact that the NUT conference is heavily attended by the Socialist Workers Party, which speaks for a tiny handful of voters on the extreme Left who want to change the government via a workers’ revolution rather than a democratic election. We can pass over the fact that NUT delegates once forced David Blunkett, then Labour education secretary, to take refuge in a room for 30 minutes after he committed the heinous crime (in their eyes) of condemning teachers’ strikes and promising to sack bad teachers and shut failing schools. These things scarcely matter, when compared to their actual demands in regard to education and their own privileges.
Two unions have now called strike action over the Government’s freeze of teachers’ pay and the requirement for teachers to pay higher contributions towards their pensions. Both of these changes are entirely reasonable. On one estimate, a private sector worker needs to build up a pension pot of £300,000 in order to obtain the average teachers’ pension. It used to be said that public sector workers’ higher retirement benefits were a compensation for lower pay, but nowadays public sector pay has more than caught up with the private sector, as Lord Hutton’s review found. A teacher on the average salary will now have to pay a mere £10 a month more towards their pension. Most private sector workers will be amazed that teachers will strike over such a slight change to what are very generous terms and conditions.
They will also be surprised by the NUT’s vehement opposition to the basic idea that schools should measure the performance of their teachers and expect improvement. For the union this is (again) a cause of “stress” which “leaves teachers feeling overwhelmed by the constant pressure”, as one of this year’s conference motions put it. Inspectors sometimes dropped in on classrooms “unannounced”, complained a motion, when clearly this is the best way that inspections can capture the true performance of the teacher. This is not all. As Damian Hinds MP pointed out yesterday, the teaching unions argue against the testing of children, at all ages, just as much as they do against the testing of teachers.
In fact, staff at the best schools – both state and private – understand that teaching is a skill that can be learnt and developed. Schools such as David Young Community Academy in Leeds have even drawn up their own training framework, grounded in a practical understanding of what works in teaching day-to-day and based on a passionate commitment to improvement. This vision of good education seems to be the polar opposite of that of the NUT.
The question for the Government is how to respond to the unions’ demands. So far it has sought compromise. For example, most schools still operate under national terms and conditions (and the regional pay-setting proposed by the Chancellor is not a fantastic improvement) and a national curriculum, which the Department of Education is refreshing this year. These ideas are entirely consistent with the NUT’s worldview – nationalised, top-down, one-size-fits-all. That should give ministers pause for thought. There is still time in this parliament to do something radical. One idea would be to go beyond regional pay, and implement local pay-setting in every school, as if every school were an academy. It would not be supported by the unions – but that should hardly be ministers’ first concern.
The NUT’s formal motion in favour of long summer holidays ended as follows: there is a “misconception that more teaching automatically leads to more learning”. It has come to something when a teaching union questions the value of teaching itself. The unions’ ideas on education are dangerous, damaging and unrepresentative of the good practice in many state schools. When they sit down with the unions in future, ministers can afford to be a little tougher in their negotiations.