Teaching unions give a lesson in blind self-interest
One does not enter the teaching profession for the money: it is a relatively low-paid public service job in which incremental salary increases are meagre. And the only opportunity for career advancement is the path which takes one out of the classroom altogether: to progress in teaching is to sit in an office and administrate on matters of equality, diversity and ‘excellence for all’. Over the past decade, interminable days have been filled dealing with ‘initiatives’ from the Department of Children, Schools and Families for literacy, numeracy, ICT, inclusion, the Gifted and Talented, Work Related Learning, Every Child Matters, Extended Schools, Specialist Schools, workforce remodelling, changes to curricula, qualifications, inspections and buildings.
And all of these programmes have only succeeded in breeding a culture of mind-numbing, box-ticking mediocrity. Schools do not now so much inspire learners to a genuine life-long love of intellectual discourse; they produce citizens who are able to regurgitate bite-sized snippets of pro-forma answers which subscribe to the state-decreed orthodoxy. The focus is on exam results and league tables, for that is how schools are judged.
But the best teachers will know that, although qualifications are important for the nation’s GDP, education must also equip children of all abilities to make positive, lifelong contributions to their families, communities and to wider society.
On Thursday the UK’s largest teaching unions, the NUT and the ATL, will call their members out on strike in opposition to the Coalition’s plans to pay down the national debt, which will require an adjustment to their traditional ‘gold-plated’ final salary pension scheme. It is a lesson in rootless individualism, for virtually everyone else knows and understands that the nation simply can no longer afford such schemes: the UK is not quite insolvent, but we are in dire economic circumstances which require remedial and swift intervention. You might have hoped that teachers of maths and economics at least would understand that equations need to be balanced and that the Laffer curve is not mere theory.
Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, has urged headteachers to keep their schools open: he has reminded them of their moral obligation to do so. Not all teachers will be striking, and these can be complemented with retired teachers or a "mum’s army" of volunteers to keep the curriculum rolling.
The ATL’s Mary Bousted hit the roof at this suggestion. She declared: “The idea that you can have untrained people in baby-minding large numbers of children, with all the potential that has for accidents, for chaos, for poor behaviour, I think that is a nonsense.”
What on earth do parents know about educating children? There is perhaps no better example of the arrogance and ignorance of the teaching unions than the offensive assertion that ‘untrained’ parents are fit for nothing but ‘baby-minding’. A mother or father in a classroom is not merely child-minding; they will have a plethora of things to contribute: stories to tell, wisdom to share, life experience to impart. Having negotiated relationships, marriage and child rearing, they would doubtless find themselves skilled moderators in the discussion of highly sensitive topics. Sure, there probably won’t be a lesson plan in accordance with Ofsted criteria and conforming to ‘best practice’. But Michael Gove’s "mums' army" would be as well-equipped as any emergency service. And they’ll be able to see for themselves what textbooks and curricular materials are being used to induct their children into particular worldview.
Student-teacher interactions are the most important determinant of the quality of the education a child receives in school: this strike is a wonderful opportunity for parents to experience such dynamic interaction for themselves – to experience first-hand what happens in their child’s classroom. Some will be delighted; others will be horrified. Doubtless many will leave full of admiration for what an awful lot of teachers have to put up with every day.
But let us consider what this strike is about: pensions. The NUT and ATL argue that their members’ pensions are sacrosanct. While the rest of the country adapts to the dire financial context, the teaching unions seek exemptions for their members. This is short-sighted and selfish. It is also antithetical to all virtuous notions of communitarianism and self-discipline: the dominant morality conveyed is materialism and the dominant ideology taught is critical of political conservatism and fiscal prudence.
But one has to wonder why the ATL has chosen this issue as the reason to strike for the first time in their 127-year history.
The number of school visits has declined significantly over the past decade, due largely to increased ‘health and safety’ bureaucracy and a shortage of funding and time to plan trips and activities. This impinges upon the learning experience of children. Why have teachers not taken strike action over this?
As school playing fields have been sold off, PE and sport have suffered. And playground games have declined because fewer staff are available to supervise children. Why have teachers not taken strike action over this?
Modular exams and limitless re-takes have seen a decline in academic standards, with teachers reduced to providing model answers for students to memorise and regurgitate. This has severely restricted the university and career options for millions of children. Why have teachers not taken strike action over this?
Just seven per cent of the population attend private schools, yet they account for 75 per cent of judges, 70 per cent of finance directors, 50 per cent of top journalists and 33 per cent of MPs. Grammar schools were the greatest single engine of social mobility ever devised in our nation’s history. They were meritocratic, permitting the poorest students to compete with the privately-educated élite and attain the highest offices in the land. Why did their abolition not cause teachers to strike?
Working class children in these schools were ‘pushed’ to aspire in ways their parents never knew how. Academic aspiration has historically been the preserve of the wealthier parents, but those from deprived backgrounds have rarely spurred their children to achieve beyond the confines of their context, principally for fear of them ‘getting above themselves’. Low aspiration begets low expectation; low expectation begets low achievement; low achievement begets low income; low income begets poverty; poverty begets crime. Yet, until Michael Gove’s push on ‘free schools’, no political party sought to address this demoralising spiral. Why did teachers not take strike action to spur successive governments on?
During New Labour’s years of ‘Education, education, education’, the perpetual boast was one of revolutionised provision and raised standards. Yet in 2010 the OECD established that British children have a poorer grasp of literacy and numeracy than most other children across the developed world. During Labour’s period in government, the UK plummeted from 8th to 22nd place in the international league table for Maths (behind Hungary, just above Slovenia), with British 15-year-olds falling ‘below average’ in comparison with their peers in other countries. We fell to 11th place in Science (beneath Estonia); and sunk to 20th place in Reading (way beneath Poland and Belgium). Why did teachers not taken strike action over this?
It is the task of the teacher to inspire students to think for themselves: to provide them with the skills necessary to recognise, criticise and dismiss the state’s efforts to preach to them; to teach them to weigh what they hear in school with what they learn from their parents and the news media. A teacher’s democratic mission requires them to teach students to deliberate critically about the common good and aspire to the Aristotelian virtues. A skilful teacher will excite and engage the minds of the young, and mediate epistemological difficulties with insight. His or her attitude will determine whether students approach a subject with enthusiasm or boredom, sympathy or hostility, imagination or torpor.
Those who understand this vocation will be in the classroom on Thursday doing the job they love. Those who do not, deserve to replaced by a "mums' army" for the day – health & safety legislation and CRB checks permitting.