Education: Talk to me as professionals and I'll respond: John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, tells Colin Hughes how teachers can improve their standing

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The Independent Online
JOHN PATTEN does not mind admitting that he feels uncomfortable talking about professional teaching issues with trade union leaders. He would really prefer to deal with professional bodies such as the health service royal colleges.

A couple of days ago the Secretary of State for Education devoted the best part of a day to countering the impression that he is unwilling to listen to teachers, or parent-teacher groups: he met five of the teacher unions, and umbrella groups representing dozens of other organisations. But that does not alter his belief that the only reason he has been accused of refusing to listen is that his opponents have no other obvious line of attack.

In an interview with the Independent, he said: 'The conventional line of attack about a Conservative Secretary of State for Education has been, 'He wasn't educated at a state school,' or, 'He doesn't send his children to state schools,' or, 'He never visits schools.' '

In Mr Patten's case, as he puts it, 'A not-guilty plea can be stood up on all three of those.'

He had already met all the trade unionists, he says - usually outside broadcasting studios, when they were lining up for interviews. He thought Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, was 'very nice - he always seems very cheery when I meet him.' He has had more serious discussions with Louise Kidd, president of the Secondary Heads Association, on professional issues; another one is lined up next Monday. 'I value that sort of professional discussion. I come from a teaching background myself. I admire teachers. I genuinely think it's very hard work, and I understand that it's been even harder work since the 1988 Education Reform Act.'

He 'appreciates what teachers are going through', implementing the Government's policy - but he cannot 'promise the sort of period of peace and quiet I would like to be able to promise.' Why not? 'Because the national curriculum is not yet implemented. The testing system is not in place, and it's going to be three or four years before it is.'

Nevertheless, he says, he 'can understand how, when something can be presented as having gone wrong, like with the English tests for 14-year-olds - although I don't agree that they have gone wrong - I can see how that provides a point of light for teachers to focus their discontent.'

The problem, he argues, is that traditional trade unions are not the best channel for communicating that discontent. 'I've been a minister in health, housing, and the Home Office. There's nowhere else where you've got this curious hybrid between discussion of professional issues and some of the last bastions of Seventies trade unionism.

'I find it very hard to relate to. I find it quite easy to relate to teachers I meet in the classroom, or heads I meet for informal discussions - which I have done, had my ear chewed by them. What I find very difficult is the way in which most of the teacher trade unions face in two directions at once. They face in the direction of pay and conditions on the one hand - sometimes merging into militancy - and serious discussion of professional issues on the other.'

So what conclusions has he drawn, after nearly a year in the job? 'It is perfectly proper for people to form themselves into associations to bargain over pay and conditions, so a few straight pay and conditions bodies I quite understand. I can do business with them, or do battle with them. But I do not think that the professionalism of teachers is helped by them even being identified as 'unions'.

'If I was a teachers' leader at the moment, I would be seeking ways of converting the body that I represent into the royal college model. Of course that's not for me to decide, that's for teachers to decide. But I would have thought there's an open field for, potentially, the Royal College of Secondary Headteachers, the Royal College of Primary Teachers - even Royal Colleges for subject specialisms, such as science teachers, or English teachers - although they'd be a pretty tough

bunch to deal with in their present mood.'

That, Mr Patten argues, is 'the way that teachers will raise their own esteem, with government and with the general public', in the next decade.

Educationists have long promoted the notion of a general teaching council to take over the running of the profession, but Mr Patten has no time for that notion. He offers, instead, the comparison with doctors: the British Medical Association bargains over pay, while the royal colleges (of surgeons, or physicians, or whatever) tackle professional issues. 'I can remember when I was junior health minister, the BMA would come in and have a very hard discussion about pay, and then some of the same doctors would turn up to a subsequent meeting as members of their royal college, to discuss their professional branch. Those royal colleges are not statutory bodies. They have grown up in that organic British way, so that government doesn't move much in the health world without consulting those people. That's the model I think teachers would find most rewarding.'

His 'side of the bargain' would be to 'raise the standing of teachers within government'. The rest 'is really down to the profession'.

He added: 'I think the Department for Education as a whole would find it very much easier. But this is not a question of making it easier for government. It is a question of education making it easier for itself.

'I continue to feel that there is not enough sense of ownership of state education among the general public, unlike, say, with the National Health Service. People write in about NHS issues when they aren't ill. Very rarely do people write in about quality of education issues unless they are directly involved, as parents with children in school, or teachers, or governors.

'People seem to feel that they own the NHS. I don't think they feel they own state education. Perhaps that has something to do with the way that teachers have chosen to have themselves represented.'

(Photograph omitted)

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