Leading Article: Teachers with too many voices

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THE GOVERNMENT has deserved much of the criticism levelled against its education policies. These have been confused, inconsistent and often ideological, even if aimed generally in the direction of improving standards and accountability. John Patten has a lot to answer for. For this reason the teachers enjoyed a fair amount of public support when they boycotted tests last year. Although parents do not like to see their children's education disrupted, on this issue many were sympathetic.

Their patience is not likely to stretch to condoning further disruption this year, as threatened by the National Union of Teachers at its annual conference in Scarborough. Nor will the majority of teachers support another round of trouble-making. Most of their objections to testing and the national curriculum were met last year when the Government sensibly retreated and accepted the recommendations of the Dearing report. Testing remains a complex and contentious issue, and although the debates around it are unresolved, in its new form it does not drive teachers to the barricade.

As a result, the moderate unions have dropped their boycott and resumed relations with the Government. If the NUT drives on into isolation, with additional talk of one-day strikes over redundancies, class sizes and new contracts for teachers in sixth-form colleges, it will alienate many of its own members, as well as parents. It will also fail to achieve its aims.

But its posturing could be useful in one respect: it will focus attention on the real cause of the trouble, which is the absurdly anachronistic structure of the teachers' unions. With six unions jostling to represent the profession, teachers now speak in such a multitude of voices that no one can be sure what they really think, or engage them in coherent debate. As a result, they are weaker and less understood than they need be.

There may be a case for more than one union in a profession with varied interests and problems, but six is ridiculous, and in no way represents six separate interest groups, or even six clear lines of policy. Primary and secondary school teachers, for instance, do not have such radically different interests that they could not be accommodated, along with others, in a general teaching council. The present system invites factionalism and rivalry and is partly responsible for allowing the NUT to fall into the hands of people who seem more concerned with politics and personal ambition than education.

Teachers have a vast constituency to address - parents, employers and young people. The Government is not their only interlocutor. They need their voice to be heard, their problems to be understood and the issues that concern them to be sensibly debated. They cannot achieve this without more coherent representation. The rank and file could quickly bring about reform by resigning from all existing unions and waiting for one or two credible organisations to fill the gap. Action is needed, and soon.