3rd November 2009 - I've been thinking about an exchange I had in Manchester. Britain's second largest teaching union, the NUSWT, promoted itself at the three Party Conferences. Their stand was uncompromising. The posters contained no hint of renewal or improvement; no recognition of the huge increase in attainment that the nation demands. Simply a series of statements opposing even this Government's relatively feeble attempts at reform. Above them all the keynote claim 'PUTTING TEACHERS FIRST'.
I approached the imposing woman behind the counter. "Shouldn't that read 'putting children first' I ventured. "Certainly not! We're a Trade Union and I'm its General Secretary." Clearly I'd struck lucky and this was the big boss. "We put teachers first so we can get the terms and conditions that allow us to do the best for the children." "But haven't you noticed that on the commercial stalls around you businesses are saying that they put the customer first?" Mrs Chris Keates drew herself up to her full height. "I won't take lessons from the private sector with their bonus culture," she expostulated
I tried again. "Could you explain why your union has opposed every new proposal for reform and why none of these posters on your stand promote positive ideas for improvement."
"We're not opposed to new ideas. You tell me when we've opposed them." Mrs Keates was getting aggressive.
"Well, how about the Academies, you don't like them?
"We're not opposed to Academies as long as they abide by the nationally agreed terms and conditions." It was the old fashioned trade unionist speaking again.
"Does that mean you can't pay good teachers more and bad teachers less and make those decisions locally?" My modest proposal was greeted with a snort and a, clearly much-repeated, mantra about professionals and standards which added up to "No". I tried again, asking what experiments and reforms she would back. "You shouldn't experiment with children. Anyway, we've spent the last ten years putting right all the damage the Tories did to education."
"Ah", I said, "so you are a Labour supporter". The anger rose another notch. "I'm not. We'll work with Governments of any kind. I'm not a member of any political party". Well, maybe not, but how does any Government work with an organisation whose General Secretary seriously believes that she can learn nothing from the private sector - the sector that ultimately pays her wages and where the vast majority of children will ultimately work?
The archaic lack of realism continued when I spoke to her about the problems of school dinners. Children often come to school unable to eat with a knife and fork. More and more families don't own a dining table and eat all meals in front of the TV. Obesity is the health problem of our time. Children do not know how to converse and more and more suffer from eating disorders. In light of all this, I asked whether she would encourage her members to eat with their pupils and facilitate conversation over the meal, help them to choose the right diet, and keep an eye out for those with incipient eating problems. "Certainly not - we have professionals to do that".
Incredulously I asked "you mean dinner ladies?
"Well, yes. Teachers have professional support staff who leave them free to concentrate on their role".
And that, of course, is the problem. The NUSWT does not see education in the round. They betray the thousands of teachers in every part of the country who recognise that relationships built over the lunch table, conversational skills honed in the informal circumstances of the lunch break, and the understanding extended by those conversations for pupil and teacher alike - all are as much part of education as a maths project.
Teachers deserve better than this. They deserve a professional body run by people who recognise that education is much more than the classroom; that there are lessons to learn from the private sector; that independent schools might have ideas worth borrowing; that a new generation needs new methods as well as old. Above all a professional body that could only label its stand PUTTING CHILDREN FIRST because that was what it was all about day in day out from first thing to the moment the last script was marked.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
The Dinosaurs Still Roam...
For reasons which may be all too obvious, I have been spending some time looking at John Gummer's website. Among the gems I have discovered is this entry from 3 November. It illusrates perfectly how some trade union leaders still live in the dark ages.