Alan Smithers: Why teachers are their own worst enemy

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The Independent Online

If I were a teacher I would be tearing my hair out at the Easter antics of the teacher unions. In their frantic pursuit of headlines they only succeed in alienating the general public. The National Union of Teachers takes the biscuit. On the first day of its conference it splashed research apparently showing that bad behaviour is increasing, all the fault of parents. Later, however, the story changed to pupils behaving better, except in a few unfortunate schools.

But it is the posturing over strike ballots that fundamentally undermines teaching as a profession. It is not that the NUT does not have a good case, but it should learn from the doctors to use brains, not brawn. Take class sizes. It was the Government that compromised workload reform by its pettiness in refusing to fund the extra teachers needed to free up primary school teachers for planning, preparation and assessment. It tried to do so on the cheap with unqualified staff and the NUT was absolutely right to object. Primary class sizes are among the highest in Europe. Only three countries in the latest OECD statistics have poorer teacher-pupil ratios, with this country nearly 25 per cent below average, and, indeed, 40 per cent below the European Union average. But somehow the NUT has ended up the villain of the piece.

Similarly, the NUT is right to claim that the purchasing power of teachers' salaries is being reduced. The Government is seemingly able to get away with a cunning sleight of hand in which inflation is measured as a Consumer Price Index that excludes council tax, mortgage payments and some other housing costs. When these are taken into account, as in the Retail Prices Index, inflation almost doubles. While the awards to teachers may not look too bad in CPI terms, they have been well below the RPI for two years and are due to remain so for another three. Compounded over five years it is a cut approaching 10 per cent.

The Union is wrong, however, to tie its claim to the impact on teacher recruitment and retention. Overall, through diversification and various incentives, the Government has succeeded in improving teacher supply (although teacher training applications are lagging somewhat this year). Studies of teacher retention show that the main factors in wastage are workload and pupil behaviour, which the NUT itself reports as getting better.

There are still acute teacher shortages, but these are particular rather than general. They occur in London and the inner cities, in subjects like physics, maths and modern languages, in positions such as primary headships, and in schools with a lot of difficult pupils. Rather than threatening to strike, the NUT should turn its mind to a strategy that would bring more money into those schools that are particularly affected so that they can offer salary enhancements above the national rates.

But these are matters of detail. Fundamentally, all the teacher unions should ask themselves is: how is it that the doctors do so well and the teachers so badly? How is it that the doctors are able to walk away with a large wedge of money for reduced hours while retaining public support and without the need to threaten strikes? Basically, it is because the Government is afraid of them. They have one powerful union that skilfully deploys its negotiating skills on behalf of an acknowledged profession.

Contrast this with teaching, where there are four unions (leaving aside the two for headteachers) keen to outdo each other whether in the battle for headlines or cosying up to the Government. The divisions are arcane, rooted in the history of grammar schools and secondary moderns.

Is there not a leader among them who can bang heads together and say that this is absurd? As competing voices we can be played off against each other. Separately, we are so weak that the Government can happily admit that if it is opposed by a teacher union then it must be doing something right. But with a united voice we could draw to ourselves power to rival that of the British Medical Association, as education is just as important to the electorate as medicine.

If bitter opponents can set aside their differences in South Africa, Northern Ireland and Kenya, it cannot be too much to expect four organisations representing the same interests to come together. If there is not the will within them, I would urge the silent majority of teachers, elsewhere at Easter, to put pressure on their leaders to get their act together.

Otherwise, teachers should not be surprised if, instead of being recognised as members of a vitally important profession, the general public instead seems inclined to see them as well-paid whingers with long holidays.

The writer is director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham