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John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
The teachers’ strikes will fail. They always have. Teachers are not natural strikers. Most have no understanding of the economics of strikes – when I was working in Hackney some young teachers did not understand that if they went on strike for a day, they lost a day’s pay. Most older teachers have mortgages and family commitments that make it impossible to strike for long enough to make the action bite. Those immediately affected by a strike, the children, are economically inactive, and the inconvenience to their parents, most of whom are hard-pressed to earn a living has an impact on any sympathy they may feel, especially if teachers are earning more than they are. So it may seem, to paraphrase Dickens, that “striking is dead, to begin with.”
The reality is more complex. Following the failure of comprehensive schools to improve the quality of education, Labour and Conservative governments and local authorities have responded by putting more and more pressure on teachers to deliver what they want. Labour started it, with hand-wringing conferences about the failure of education to improve the lot of working-class children during the Wilson-Callaghan governments of the 1970s. This had to be due to bias. So their Inner London Education Authority, the largest in the country, produced a primary language record which required teachers to write down every detail about every child. Filling it in took more than a full week’s work per class, and was the first of a series of failed attempts – too many to list – to improve education by writing everything down.
The persistence of this form of management, often accompanied by lesson observations by people who don’t know how to do them properly and fairly, is a major and legitimate grievance. A current example is the Early Career Framework, which writes down everything a new teacher can possibly know and expects it all to be done in the first year, when there is so much else for a new teacher to learn and cope with. The idea that teachers should be obliged to hand in weekly planning – fortunately not enforced in all schools – was a huge error of Michael Gove’s, and in the wrong hands a shield for executive bullying. One such bully in the primary sector, still in employment, went as far as searching female staff’s handbags. These oppressive practices, unknown in any other school system in Europe, are a major reason for discontent.
Then there are the unions, in which there are three main players. The largest, the National Education Union, was formed by the amalgamation of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, whose members were mostly heads of department, with the former National Union of Teachers, whose leadership was dominated by the hard Left, and who famously caused Lord Blunkett to seek refuge in a cupboard at their national conference. It has two general secretaries. Kevin Courtney, formerly of the NUT, is an honest, if slightly old-fashioned, union leader, who believes there should be a place for Conservatives in his union. He is not, Jonathan Gullis MP please note, a Commie. His colleague, Dr Mary Bousted, is by contrast one of very few people actually to have a PhD in Ideology (The Ideology of English Teaching), and promotes policies in line with the NUT tradition of left wing politics. The Union’s current advert for an equalities officer at a salary substantially above that of most teachers is an example of spending money on issues of little practical relevance to its members, and the current situation allows them to be promoted on the back of legitimate grievances. The National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, whose members know that striking costs money, did not generate enough interest among its members to meet the voting threshold in the strike ballot.
This does not make them, or anyone else working in state education, any more likely to vote Conservative at the next election. Idealists apart, people vote from self-interest, and it is hard to see how teachers’ self-interest lines up with what the government has done and is doing. Reduced pensions, capped salaries (for teachers, not their bosses), over-mighty management and the oppressive system of tuition fees and interest rates – making it so much harder for young teachers to buy a house – have created a climate of discontent that has been brought to a head by the pandemic and the financial effects of Putin’s evil war. Our experienced, practically-minded group of ministers at the DfE gives us the best chance of improving this position, but they have their work cut out. They might start by adopting a lighter and friendlier touch in their communications with teachers, nationally produced resources, and policy statements. As my MP, Lucy Frazer KC, said to us before canvassing at the 2016 election, “We want them to like us as Conservatives.” At the moment, teachers don’t, and with reason. The strikes can be seen as a howl of protest. Unless things change dramatically, the election will see them eating the cold dish of revenge.
Footnote. In my last article, I said that Sir Gavin Williamson would not talk to the Conservative Education Society. I have now been told that he hesitated rather than refused, but resigned before the meeting could take place. Apologies to Sir Gavin for the error.