This article appeared in April 21 issue of Sec Ed magazine.
Nicky Morgan took on the teacher trade unions during the Easter conference season, but her ‘call to arms’ only served to show us exactly what this government thinks the role of our unions should be.
It would be hard to imagine an address that could be quite as embarrassing as Nicky Morgan’s speech to delegates at the recent NASUWT annual conference.
It is unfair, though, to suggest her speech was poorly received. There are people who go on Live at the Apollo who can’t get that many laughs from an audience.
But the part that wasn’t at all funny was the education secretary’s comments about NASUWT which, in their conclusion, reveal much about this government’s true vision for the role of unions and therefore the concerns of teachers: mainly that they should “put up and shut up”.
Ms Morgan announced that she had “visited the NASUWT website” and was horrified to see that “of the last 20 press releases NASUWT has issued only three said anything positive” (those press releases concern abuse, inequality, work-related mental health issues, inadequate pay, budget cuts and exploitation of supply staff).
Mistaking the fundamental work of a union for that of a Tory PR company, Ms Morgan admonished delegates: “Wouldn’t it be helpful if more of your press releases were actually positive about the teaching profession? Because if I were a young person making decisions about my future career and I saw some of the language coming out of NASUWT as well as some of the other unions, would I want to become a teacher? If I read about a profession standing on the precipice of crisis would I consider a life in teaching?”
Many people have perceived the recent education White Paper’s assertion that “recruitment is becoming more difficult as the economy grows stronger, competition for the best graduates and career changers increases” as the DfE’s admission that there is a recruitment crisis.
Rather, it is back to the Govian school of academic rigour which states only “top” graduates make “top teachers”. There are 86 instances of the phrase “the best” in the White Paper. Educational Excellence Everywhere equals elitism. Ms Morgan wants teachers to shut up about how unhappy they are in case high-flying graduates overhear.
The reason that the dialogue surrounding the teacher crisis remains unproductive is that the government is still unable to distinguish between the concept of recruitment and that of retention. The government has realised too late that the collateral damage of the recruitment crisis is one of bad PR. The narrative of “workload”, “stress” and “Ofsted” is now running alongside one of Goodbye, Mr Chips.
When it comes to teacher training, the government must recognise there now exists a double process: students do not only decide whether or not to train to teach, they then decide whether they want to teach enough to let their life be engulfed by their job. If they do decide to teach, there is a good chance they could become another statistic at any stage of their career.
Both Labour and the teaching unions are trying to tell the government that there is a hole in their bucket and the government replies: “But we keep pouring more water in and it’s of a better quality than ever!”
This talk of “negative unions” sabotaging teaching is nothing new. It is just the latest snipe in a long and predictable party line. At last year’s Conservative conference, schools minister Nick Gibb accused general secretary Dr Mary Bousted of having low expectations of pupils. More recently, the Department for Education said that Dr Bousted raising concerns about sexism in schools is “why sexism still exists”.
You’ll have heard NASUWT delegates choking on their coffee with indignation when in her speech Ms Morgan accused unions of rhetoric and dishonesty and adding to the problem.
Now, the Trade Union Bill represents another disarming of the unions and could, among other changes, make it more difficult to strike, as its proposals are to classify teaching as an “important public service” therefore requiring a 50 per cent turnout in ballots. The Bill would increase strike notice and defeat the object of withdrawing labour anyway as agency workers could be brought in. Why? The final insult: to stop “hardworking people’s lives being disrupted”.
Worse, forced academisation means that previously agreed conditions and pay become no longer valid as academies are not bound by the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document. How worrying that the word “forced” is used to describe so much of this government’s activity.
Ultimately, “teaching unions have a choice”, Ms Morgan tells us: “Spend the next four years doing battle with us and doing down the profession they represent in the process, or stepping up, seizing the opportunities and promise offered by the White Paper.” The education secretary warned: “There isn’t another government just around the corner. So I stand before you today to ask you to step up. Decide to be a part of the exciting changes happening.”
The trouble is, Ms Morgan, asking us implies that we actually get to decide whether to partake. Sadly, this government has left the teaching unions with very little choice any more.
Anna Connelly, SecEd