The teacher union conferences are almost as much part of the Easter tradition as chocolate and the St Matthew Passion, though they are less sweet than one and (slightly) less profound than the other. Just when the vast majority of teachers put their feet up for a few well earned days of rest, the profession's activists gather in tawdry seaside towns and, over oysters and whelks, discuss the state of education.
This year the funding of the service by a government determined to reduce taxes is likely to be the dominant theme. Anger about class sizes and teacher redundancies will lead to calls for action, either demonstrative or industrial.
The aftermath of the testing dispute is also likely to be high on the agenda. The test dispute proved to be a microcosm of teacher unionism wrapping up within it all that is best and worst in the tradition.
The unions demonstrated, beyond a doubt, that they matter, that they can represent the profession effectively and that when government policy steps over the borders into lunacy they can stop it. The revised National Curriculum, due to be implemented from this September, is their reward, the most important teacher union achievement since the war.
Equally, though, the testing campaign ended with the unions divided among themselves and further than ever from any sense of the collective destiny of the teaching profession. In short, the unions have proved that together they can halt a government agenda in its tracks. They have yet to demonstrate the ability to put a fresh, constructive, forward-looking agenda in its place. But there are tremendous opportunities ahead for transforming publicly- funded education.
Take funding, for example. Everyone, including Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State, agrees that the service is underfunded and that the process for distributing what funding exists is unclear and unfair; but where is the common agenda for what should be put in its place? A generalised call for more resources is unlikely to cut much ice with this government or any future government.
The unions, on behalf of the profession as a whole, ought to be proposing a realistic funding policy. They should consider demanding small but steady real growth from now until the end of the century. They might suggest that inner-city schools deserve a larger share of the growth in view of the great problems pupils in those areas bring to school with them. They might also agree that a larger proportion of the growth should go to primary and nursery schools. This would enable the realisation of an expansion of nursery education. They should accept some clear published performance indicators for that sector, which any sensible government would demand in return for the additional funding. This would help to convince secondary schools that the investment in children at an earlier age would benefit them, too.
Then there is growing interest among teachers at all levels in the process of school improvement. One of the beneficial consequences of the Government's reforms has been the recognition that school improvement is a job for the schools. The research has shown beyond doubt that even among schools with similar intakes some are much more effective than others. It also shows that the quality of teaching is one of the decisive factors.
Schools across the country are seeking to learn from the research in order to improve themselves. If the unions embrace this set of developments then, on a narrow interpretation, they present themselves with certain problems. They would have to admit that some of their members and some schools are much more effective than others. They would have to consider what this implies for teachers and schools that are underperforming and, conversely, what it suggests about the rewards systems.
On a bolder and less defensive interpretation, this research is their trump card. Schools and teachers really do make a dramatic difference. If so, then should not the Government invest in attracting the best possible entrants to the profession, in providing them with a proper professional training and in ensuring they have constant opportunities to keep their knowledge and skills up to date? And shouldn't representatives of the profession, in order to achieve this kind of truly professional package, ensure that all teachers who underperform receive the support and assistance they need to improve, or, if that fails, to leave teaching?
In short, potentially an entirely new deal for the profession is there to be grasped. In return for the profession rigorously enforcing its own quality standards, teachers could achieve unprecedented progress in terms of pay, status and professional development.
Along the same lines the workload issue might also be resolved. The evidence seems to suggest that teachers are working around 50 hours a week, and headteachers considerably more. One expects professionals to work hard but teaching is a uniquely stressful occupation and inspirational teaching depends upon freshness as well as skill and experience. One way to resolve this would be to transfer some work currently done by teachers to para- professionals and administrators allowing teachers to concentrate on teaching and learning.
Again the issue for the unions is one of perception. The defensive, short- term view suggests that this growth represents a threat. If support staff carry out work formerly done by teachers, the argument runs, it represents a dilution and a threat to teachers' jobs.
A bold, far-sighted view would lead to a different interpretation. Teaching can never be considered a full-fledged profession as long as teachers spend a lot of the time on tasks that could be done equally well, and more cheaply, by other less-well qualified staff. In any case, what makes teaching truly professional and truly rewarding is classroom practice, the actual process of teaching.
Teachers will only be able to give this aspect of their work the priority it deserves if they can off-load some of their excessive burden on to others. In other words, in the long run one could imagine teachers becoming even more highly skilled professionals, with higher status and better pay. But since some of their current low-level work would, in this scenario, be done by others, they would also be fewer in number.
As the teacher unions debate funding and testing this Easter, these strategic themes are unlikely to achieve much, if any, prominence. Union activists may comfort themselves that they have to deal with the day-to-day reality, not hypothetical questions about the future.
The problem for them is that they are anything but hypothetical. The new Teacher Training Agency, for example, intends this year to "consult on longer term strategic approaches to managing ... the continuing professional development of teachers". Meanwhile, in just three years, the number of support staff in schools has leapt by 25 per cent. This change is already happening. The only issue is whether the profession, through its unions, contributes to shaping that change or whether it happens while they are looking the other way. In this sense there is no escape for the unions, even at the whelk stalls in Blackpool.
The author is Professor of Education at Keele University.Reuse content