Christine Blower: 'Teachers feel they deserve better'

With the prospect of pension cuts and wage curbs – and constant criticism of education standards – Christine Blower, leader of the NUT, predicts fighting talk when the union meets for its conference this weekend, she tells Richard Garner.

Christine Blower admits to being "very cross" with Education Secretary Michael Gove and his fellow ministers. The teacher in her takes over as she mulls over the way politicians often talk about teachers' unions using poverty as an excuse for the poor performance of disadvantaged pupils in schools.

"We never ever have used poverty as an an excuse, but we do think it is a reason," the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers says, as she describes how relations between her union and the Government had fared since the Coalition took office nearly two years ago.

"It is a coherent reason as to why children might not do as well as their affluent counterparts," she insists. "It strikes me that these kind of things demonstrate how very easy for government to be completely out of touch. A child who arrives at school not having had a bed in which to sleep the night before and who may not have eaten anything since their free school meal the previous day – they don't arrive at school as well prepared to learn as children who come from a home where at least you can get a reasonable meal in the evening and have somewhere to sleep. I can't see why they can't see that."

Her comments get to the heart of one of the fundamental disagreements her union has with the Government. It believes that – in order to help poorer children succeed at school – the Government must first tackle the disadvantages they suffer at home.

The Government believes equally firmly its members should drop any suggestion that poor performance may be fuelled by poverty.

It is by no means the only bone of contention that the union has – as the agenda for its annual conference, which opens in Torquay tomorrow, makes clear.

Cuts to pensions, wages curbs and the new phonics test for six-year-olds to be introduced in primary schools this summer are all items which are likely to spark calls for industrial action over the Easter weekend.

Indeed, ask Ms Blower about the mood of her members and that word "cross" crops up again. "There are quite a lot of teachers feeling quite cross about a lot of things," she says. The word is almost spoken in sorrow rather than anger, as if it may shame a recalcitrant pupil into changing his behaviour. It is almost an appeal to the good nature of ministers to change the direction of travel they have set out for the education system.

Most unions would be more likely to talk about their members being very angry. "I'm very careful about saying people are angry because I know it is something that trade unions very often say," she explains. "You do have to be careful about saying your members are angry about something. You go into classrooms and you see people doing a great job day in and day out. They do not look angry.

"To be honest, doing a great job in the classroom is a fantastic experience. I accept that there are some children who are badly behaved but – for the most part – it's a great job. Underlying that, though, is the fact that teachers feel they are being treated badly and actually think they deserve better."

Many of them feel "dispirited" as a result of the Government's rhetoric about education standards, she adds.

Of course, the key question is whether being "very cross" and "dispirited" (which she also uses to describe their mood) will convert into taking action to force a change of direction. Even some hard-line union activists are sceptical as to whether their members will be ready to obey another call for industrial action over the threat to their pensions. Since the mass walk-out with other public servants, which led to the majority of schools closing for the day on 30 November, negotiations have chugged along at a snail's pace. Some concessions have been made, but teachers still face increased contributions at a time of pay curbs and the prospect of working until they are older.

As a result, the unity of the profession has been shattered, with one teachers' union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers – the most moderate of the big three – reluctantly accepting the Government's latest offer. Both the NUT and National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers are holding out, though.

The mood of NUT conference delegates is such that further calls for industrial action are almost certain to be carried over the Easter weekend. The union already has a mandate for "discontinuous" strike action, ie, it can resurrect it when it wants, over pensions. On pay, a second priority motion is to be presented to the conference opposing the Government's one per cent pay ceiling for public servants for the next two years.

The union is also incensed at plans outlined in Chancellor George Osborne's budget to scrap national pay rates and – in the words of Mr Gove – move towards regional rates of pay that are more reflective of the local market.

"You might think that would be good for some teachers," said Ms Blower, "but we believe it's more about paying less for teachers in poorer areas."

The third front likely to be opened up at the conference is over the new phonics check for all six-year-olds, to be introduced this summer. It will mean testing them on 30 different words – including some made-up ones – to check on their understanding of phonics, considered by ministers to be the best way to teach children how to read. There will be calls for a ballot on boycotting the tests – although whether this could be agreed in time for this year's is debatable.

Teachers who have piloted the tests say they are not an accurate check on children's reading, as some of the brightest children misspell the made-up words in an attempt to make them seem genuine.

Ms Blower also adds that the union may have to revisit its campaign against the national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds – where a successful campaign two years ago led to a government review. She says that the tests are "still putting children under too much pressure" – thus risking turning them off learning.

At the end of the day, what happens will depend on whether teachers back in the classroom feel ready to take industrial action over these issues. The past two years have shown a willingness to respond to union calls for militancy and there is no doubt that the union leadership will be playing up the successes it feels it has gained from action to persuade their members to come out again. The going may get rough, though.

Christine Blower detects a growing tendency for Conservative politicians to dismiss their opponents as "Trotskyists" (Mr Gove used the word to describe governors at Downhills primary school in Haringey, north London, who opposed his plans to turn the school into an academy). While exempting the NUT leader from that epithet, he also accused his opponents of being the "enemies of promise".

"We are not the enemies of promise," she insists.

"And I'm glad he excluded me from the Trotskyist label – that wouldn't have been right. We see Michael Gove from time to time and he is always courteous. The fact is he's a smooth operator. He's never less than polite but he doesn't really listen to what we are saying."

The union sees it as its task to make him listen. Whether that will be through another bout of industrial action this summer remains to be seen.

TEACHING UNIONS: WHO'S TAKING ACTION

National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT)

Represents the most state school teachers and head teachers in England and Wales. It joined the strike on 30 November over pensions and a decline in working conditions. Currently it is following a policy of "work to rule", for example refusing to cover absences, do lunchtime supervision, or clerical tasks.

National Association of Headteachers (NAHT)

After 114 years without action, the NAHT made history when it voted to strike on 30 November. The NASUWT's action short of strike action plan has caused tensions with the NAHT, who say the dispute is with Michael Gove, not school leaders. It has currently been negotiating over pension reforms.

Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)

Joined the day of action last November. Its General Secretary, Mary Bousted, described the Government's approach to teachers as "calamitous". It has warned that a regional pay "free-for-all" could lead to further industrial action this year.

Voice

A smaller union, not affiliated to the TUC, Voice has more than 20,000 members. Its "cardinal rule" is not to take industrial action – they have "reluctantly agreed" to the latest offer on pensions.

Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS)

After striking last year, the EIS called off plans for additional action in March after agreeing to further talks on pensions. Its leader Ronnie Smith said that "further future action will be contemplated if further satisfactory progress in pensions cannot be achieved in Scotland."

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