Stop putting all the blame on teachers

'They are illustrating, in shockingly graphic fashion, that many children are sent to schools where there are no staff to teach them'
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The Independent Online

The ballots in London and Doncaster that have resulted in overwhelming votes for industrial action by teachers, are profoundly depressing. The most disheartening aspect of this work-to-rule, designed to highlight teacher shortages with a refusal to cover for unfilled permanent posts and staff absences of longer than three days, is that the mandate for this action is so narrow.

The ballots in London and Doncaster that have resulted in overwhelming votes for industrial action by teachers, are profoundly depressing. The most disheartening aspect of this work-to-rule, designed to highlight teacher shortages with a refusal to cover for unfilled permanent posts and staff absences of longer than three days, is that the mandate for this action is so narrow.

It is fine to describe the vote itself as "overwhelming", because 93 per cent of participants, from the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and from the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NAS/UWT), said yes to industrial action. It would be wrong, though, to describe the vote as "representative", as just 41 per cent of those entitled to voted in Doncaster, and just 30 per cent in Greater London.

Nevertheless, the disruption caused by this action is being talked up as considerable. So far, the dispute touches about 1,000 schools, and up to half a million schoolchildren are expected to be sent home from school on reduced timetables from next week, as further ballots are taken in other parts of the country. The work-to-rule, unions stress, is not about pay, but about teacher shortages.

The Government, which set aside further extra money for teacher recruitment in last week's budget, says that one in 200 primary posts, and 0.8 per cent of secondary posts are vacant. Unions say there are regional variations and that the true number of vacancies is higher, as it is much more difficult to find supply teachers for short-term vacancies, which are not included in government figures.

The education secretary, David Blunkett, simply says that the teachers of the NUT and NAS/UWT are "abandoning" their pupils, and that they will be dealt with "in a way they could be surprised about". (Which rather suggests that Mr Blunkett will be as surprised as anyone when one of his wonks comes up with an idea of what this punishment might be.)

But surely, whatever you think of this action by teachers, they cannot possibly be abandoning their pupils. Their pupils will be in school being taught by their teachers. The teachers are actually refusing to teach pupils who aren't "theirs". They are merely illustrating, in a shockingly graphic fashion, the fact that many children are being sent to schools where there are no members of staff to teach them.

The education of these pupils is already suffering, and to some extent, school has already become for them a sort of childminding effort. The most chaotic consequences of this action by teachers will not be strictly educational. Instead, these consequences will come from the children of working parents, roaming the street instead of going home, or going home with their mates and causing disruption there. But this won't be the fault of their teachers.

These pupils have no teachers to abandon them and those teachers who remain in the school trying to teach are being overstretched by this situation. Is it fair for one person to struggle on indefinitely doing their job and cover for someone else's as well?

By insisting that teachers must be expected to deal with this problem without cavil or complaint, Mr Blunkett is implying that they have lost their right to protest because they have somehow created the situation.

This situation, whereby government assumes all complaints by teachers to be hostile and counter-productive, is one legacy of Chris Woodhead's that he cannot in all conscience bleat about. It now lies deep in the national psyche. So deep that not even its primary architect can shake it.

Mr Woodhead, in his whingeing attempts to justify his own "abandoning of pupils", has announced that there is a black hole at the heart of education policy. He cites this as "the failure to understand that education is important because it is intrinsically valuable, not because it contributes to our social and economic good". This is true. But it exposes also the black hole at the heart of Mr Woodhead's attitudes. He rails against the Government's rejection of his views on performance-related pay, but at the same time offers no indication of how the "intrinsic good" he values so much is to be calibrated and rewarded.

Ever since this government's term began, the attitude to teachers has been overshadowed by the mantra that good teachers cannot be rewarded if it means bad teachers are rewarded, too. That's why, despite the obvious need for them, big pay rises have not been awarded to teachers across the board. The latest pay rise was 3.6 per cent - mad in the present situation. That's why, as well, the protracted battle over performance-related pay was fought as teacher numbers slid.

The idea is that some kind of year zero can eventually be achieved whereby all the bad teachers are gone and only the good teachers remain. That is why the Government's attempts to assuage the teacher shortage have been so focused on offering incentives to get a new generation of teachers into training. The assumption is that so many of the teachers we have already are bad, that only by starting again can standards be raised.

But the teacher shortage is not caused only because of a lack of new teachers coming into the profession. It is also because teaching has a retention problem, with many leaving the profession. These people have their reasons for doing so, which cannot be purely about wanting irresponsibly to "abandon" pupils more permanently. Such an exodus suggests that even beyond the hated union grandstanding, teachers are not happy.

Unions and government appear to be in broad agreement that the shortage of teachers is a parlous state of affairs. Oddly, though, they don't seem entirely to agree that the reasons for this may lie in features of the profession itself and the way it is run. Instead, the Government is so suspicious of the idea that teachers may be able to represent themselves, that they have set up the General Teaching Council, a body that will represent teachers whether they want it to or not, and to which they have to pay £25 a year whether they want to or not.

The attitudes of both sides promise to exacerbate rather than solve the problem. Teachers are certainly exacerbating the problem by stressing just how bad things are. Quite a few potential teachers must be put off. And while the Government, guided by Chris Woodhead, has made quite a success of convincing the public that bad education is almost exclusively linked to bad teachers represented by destructive unions, it also seems appalling that in a survey last year, working hours for primary teachers averaged 53 hours per week, while secondary teachers clocked up 51 hours.

At their spring conferences, the four major teaching unions intend to ballot their members on demanding from government an independent inquiry into working conditions. This follows the McCrone report in Scotland, which produced an agreement to limit hours to 35 per week, with a maximum class contact-time of 22 and a half hours. Which sounds most attractive.

Maybe the unions, crude as their tactics appear, do have a point. Maybe, by refusing to acknowledge this, Mr Blunkett is undermining his own educational ambitions.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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