A lot of the comments on why people are striking leave me cold. Too many people on too many hobby horses. Too many people complaining that Gove hates teachers or that opposing the education establishment is indefensible or that expecting children to be taught to read in an effective way is something all teachers must oppose. None of these are why the NUT and the NASUWT are on strike today. If the strike was about curriculum issues I would have voted against it and left my union if it went ahead. I have been guilty in the past of considering issues beyond the immediate ones when talking about strike actions, but right now I have no sympathy for it. Gove has been consistently correct to challenge the low expectations of our education system and those who are outraged at the prospect of being expected to provide an academic education for working class kids will have no sympathy from me.
But on every one of the issues that the strike has been called on, I agree with my union. And this is not some anomaly or sentimental throwback to the politics of my youth. These are all issues I have opinions on and opinions that are completely consistent with my other views. In fact, I think Gove would be more likely to achieve his aims in terms of expectations in schools if he listened to the unions on these issues.
The most counter-productive thing Gove has done is to countenance performance related pay. Perhaps in his mind there are lots of heroic SMT out there, desperate for some way to bribe lazy and irresponsible teachers into doing their jobs properly and with an element of rigour. I don’t want to discount the possibility that something like this might be the case in some “turn-around” schools where there are effective SMT coming in and finding staff culture hostile to improvement. However, in your bog standard comprehensive the teachers are lions led by donkeys. The men and women at the chalkface are the people pushing for high standards, while SMT are looking to make their careers with the latest gimmick, impress OFSTED with the trendiest teaching methods or throw out rigour for the sake of the latest league table fix. However, with the rise of performance management I have seen the power of bosses to obstruct teaching get greater and greater. More and more teachers who might stand up for standards are being told “play the game”. Teamwork in departments is nothing like it was when I became a teacher. SMT was obstructive then, but now they are overpowering. PRP is a step further in that direction. Teachers are already being told that if they don’t use groupwork, discovery learning and try to entertain the kids then they are no good. Now Gove is giving SMT the power to enforce that in the pay packet. PRP will be the second biggest weapon (after OFSTED) for enforcing the progressive consensus in education. There is no point making speeches about how teachers shouldn’t be using the Mister Men to teach GCSE history, or getting A-level students to draw pictures on paper plates, if you are going to give SMT the power to fine any teacher who doesn’t resort to the latest gimmicks.
And this brings me to the matter of pay (and financial rewards such as pensions) more generally. A lot of the problems in our schools are created by the pay structure. Firstly, it does not reward those coming into schools with either excellent or rare qualifications. Even Teach First lowers the bar for maths teachers. The specialist physics teacher is a rare sight, and the PE teacher teaching maths is a familiar sight, in comprehensives up and down the country. Independent and grammar schools seem to get round the shortage of highly academic teachers, but in doing so they absorb more than their fair share of academically-gifted teachers which is likely to have further consequences for the achievement gap. But recruitment is not the end of this. The top-heavy management structure ensures that not only are teachers one of the most over-managed people in the country, but that compensation beyond basic pay in teaching is not for knowledge or teaching ability, or any marketable skills. It is for “playing the game”. Supporting the low expectations; maintaining the status quo; publicising the latest gimmick. The few attempts (like AST status) to reward staying in the classroom, were even worse in their effects, ensuring only true believers in progressive education could be credited for having the approved “expert” teaching methods. The whole situation is a mess and the lack of teamwork and the poor management resulting from it probably stands at the heart of our educational problems, at least as much as any ideological issues.
Now, this may seem like an argument for deregulating the pay structure and I’m sure that’s how Gove would defend the changes. However, deregulating here means shifting the arrangements from negotiated national settlements to the whim of SMT. The people who have gained from a system that undermined teaching and learning are now to set up their own systems. Having seen what happens in the worst academies, with the most progressive teachers being given more and more “teaching and learning” posts that give them free reign to interfere with the teaching methods of their more effective colleagues, I do not believe SMT can be trusted to share the rewards in a way that gives an incentive for (or even fails to obstruct) good teaching. If Gove wants to change our schools so they have more of an academic ethos and less of a bureaucratic one, he doesn’t need to deregulate teacher pay, he needs to nationalise it. He needs to set rewards that fit his priorities – the subjects he favours and possession of the subject knowledge he wants to see passed on – and an end to the rewards for obstructing good teaching that the current system of TLRs provides. I imagine this could be as controversial with the teaching unions as what is happening, but unlike what is currently happening, it wouldn’t undermine the entire direction of his own education policy and could actually support it.
Finally, we have conditions. This is probably the hardest one to explain. If you haven’t taught, or even if you haven’t taught in a tough school, it is very hard to explain how demanding a job with 13 weeks holiday a year can be. The job is stressful enough, and the workload is heavy enough, that you are constantly having to make choices between:
1. time spent on marking;
2. time spent on preparing lessons;
3. time spent on activities to please managers;
4. time spent recovering from the pressures of the multiple confrontations you can expect in a normal day at a tough school.
Some teachers choose badly and make themselves ill (by neglecting 4) or end up in SMT (by doing too much of 3). But we all have to constantly make these choices and we know that, unless we go part-time, kids are losing out educationally because of the choices we have to make. That extra bit of paperwork will mean a thrown together lesson instead of a carefully prepared one. It will mean no homework for year 9. It will mean that set of books that haven’t been marked for a month. The pressure on time is the biggest problem we have and it often leaves some of the most dedicated teachers exhausted to the point of being ineffective. A bit more autonomy (from SMT) would help us make these judgements more effectively. A few less hours in our teaching load or smaller classes would also help. Unions which actually enforced the workload agreements we already have, would help too. But this is the reality of the full-time teacher’s week and for Gove to suggest dispensing with the existing workload agreements, or any other change that would increase teacher hours, is simply to make teachers less effective. He needs to realise that extra work for teachers comes out of marking and planning time. It affects teaching and learning, and it will only encourage the type of content free lessons that are focussed on student talk rather than passing on knowledge.
Because I believe in high academic standards, because I believe in planning every lesson to pass on the maximum amount of knowledge, because I believe in creating an academic culture in schools built on attracting the academically successful into teaching, I oppose PRP, deregulating pay, pension changes and removing the workload agreements. That’s why I voted to strike and that’s why I won’t be in work today.
Courtesy of Andrew Old at Scenes from the Battleground