Letters: Calls for union unity

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The call for union unity surfaces every year during the Easter conferences (Comment, EDUCATION & CAREERS, 27 March). Like the annual row over exam results, it's one of the repetitive rituals that we have to go through. However, those who argue in favour of one super union overlook a number of important points.

There are ideological differences. Voice, the union for education professionals, for example, one of the four teachers' unions, does not take industrial action, while others favour such tactics. The teachers' unions are not just for teachers. Some represent teaching assistants, technicians, bursars and other education professionals. The public-sector unions also represent support staff, but not teachers. Lecturers have their own unions and join some of the teachers' unions.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their national unions and are represented by some of the four. Those unions demonstrate every week in their meetings with the Government that, while they do have differences, they can work together to achieve significant and lasting results on workload, pay and conditions. Unions are about more than conference controversy and battling for headlines.

Big isn't necessarily beautiful. Not everybody wants to be part of a monolithic organisation. Many of my union's members value the personal service they get from a smaller, independent organisation that is large enough to operate successfully on the national stage but knows many of its members personally.

Alan Smithers would be welcome to visit Voice's conference in July. He would then be able to appreciate the difference and celebrate diversity.

Philip Parkin, General secretary, Voice (previously PAT), Derby

I agree that the lack of a single teachers' union is probably the biggest factor in teachers' lack of political clout with the Government. Nearly every year that I attended conference, there were motions on professional unity, usually voted for enthusiastically. Towards the end of my time as an NUT representative, they were actually suggesting that the NUT executive work towards amalgamation with the NAS/UWT.

It seemed to me that the unions had developed such strong individual identities, representing niche sectors or views, that it was difficult for them to do more than work together on a few issues where policies are similar. The frustrating thing about this is that most classroom teachers agree on what they want their unions to achieve: a reasonable workload, less prescriptive teaching methods, less unnecessary testing of pupils, maximum class size, better remedies for bad behaviour, and fair pay settlements that are promptly implemented.

I hope that the teachers' unions will work harder to unify the profession for the good of education in England and Wales. Teacher colleagues in Scotland do not labour under this difficulty.

Helen Jones, Cheltenham


Margaret Brown may not be aware of the Engineering Professors' Council maths task group, which has confronted the need for more mathematics for students studying the new engineering diploma at Level 3 and who want to move to engineering degrees (Letters, EDUCATION & CAREERS, 27 March). We have designed an optional "maths for engineering" qualification based on the Loughborough University mathematics foundation course. We propose that the assessment is based on students' ability to solve engineering problems using maths concepts and skills.

This qualification will be augmented by examples that will set the maths in the context of the real world of engineering. These examples will be supported by industrial companies and will be designed to provide exciting applications to enthuse young people, and to provide support material for teachers.

We are optimistic that by stressing the applications, we can promote fluency in the key maths skills required by engineers and encourage more students to take up maths at the level needed for a degree course in engineering. Geoff Parks, Cambridge's director of admissions and a member of the task group, is on record as saying that he believes that this qualification will provide a better preparation for reading engineering at Cambridge than A-level maths.

Fred Maillardet, Chairman, EPC Maths Task Group

What has also been so valuable as a result of developing the new maths-for-engineering qualification is the close working relationship between the engineering professors and the engineering employers. The diploma will be available for schools and colleges from January 2009 for those students who start the Advanced Diploma course in 2008, and will give them a thorough grounding in the maths they need to study engineering at university. The new diplomas will allow all students to progress to university, employment or modern apprenticeship, and will not limit their opportunities but widen them.

Graham Lane, Chair of the Engineering Diploma Development Partnership, London E6


Mervyn Benford (Letters, EDUCATION & CAREERS, 27 March) highlights the countrywide crisis facing small schools. To update the Isle of Wight story, the council voted on 19 March to close its 16 middle schools, reorganise to a two-tier system, and to close "fewer" primary schools than originally threatened.

But as at least 25 of the island's 46 primaries were on the initial hit list, "fewer" could still mean a large number. We won't know the final tally until the summer.

The Isle of Wight council is driving through this reorganisation with no evidence that it will improve standards; and many successful schools remain threatened. National government has given councils the power to make local decisions about school organisation, and argues that councils are democratically accountable for those decisions when they come up for election. The next local elections on the Isle of Wight are in 2009, but by then our Tory council (which won by a landslide last time on a promise of retaining the three-tier system and protecting rural schools) will have begun a very expensive series of changes.

Wendy Varley, Newport, Isle of Wight

Mervyn Benford highlights the importance of the Isle of Wight's small schools as an antidote to the "toxic childhood". These same small schools are often far more conducive to children making connections with their local natural and built environment.

To promote this, we are calling on the Government to put the environment at the heart of the national curriculum by introducing environmental education as a cross-curricular theme; and by raising awareness of environmental education as a vital dimension of the Sustainable Schools strategy. Readers are invited to sign the petition at: http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/env-ed/

Henricus Peters, Executive board, National Association for Environmental Education

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