Off the pace and in a time warp?

In favour of local democratic accountability, while  ignoring  the national governments mandate

The National Association of Head Teachers and NUT have decided to back industrial action to disrupt the SATS tests being taken  this  month. The Unions together represent 85% of head teachers in the 16,000 schools.

The unions, which have spearheaded an anti-Sats campaign for more than a year, claim they have a mandate following a ballot of members. Presumably the Government could have  argued, plausibly on the announcement that it has a greater national mandate as the elected government to stick to its guns and keep SATS. (notwithstanding the on going election).

The NAHT and NUT want the Government to scrap externally assessed exams for children at KS2, because they put “intolerable pressure” on school leaders and are used for the compilation of league tables. The unions want the current regime replaced with a national sampling system for maths and English, which has already been done for KS2 science and KS3 core subjects.  They say schools should be allowed to focus on potentially more accurate systems of teacher assessment, and time would be freed up to widen the curriculum.

But some Heads are not happy, particularly about the timing of the announcement and spoken to by The TES said the decision on industrial action has come too late and drags children who have prepared hard for months  into a political battle.  There are claims from governors too that the boycott could put greater strain on schools than the stress of going ahead with the tests.

Unions appear to be signalling a new brand of militancy more so than at than any time in the last five year and it seems to amount given the timing to a warning shot across a newly elected Government. All the major political parties have condemned the union action.

The Unions should take stock. Peter Wilby, the respected former editor of the New Statesman,  with union DNA in his blood,once claimed that teachers’ unions have opposed every innovation since 1972. Though clearly an exaggeration at the time (not so much of one if one is talking about the NUT) his perception is still shared by many. Part of the problem is that there are so many unions that the messages they communicate are too diffuse and garbled to have much impact, and their resources dissipated as they rarely speak with one voice and imply sectional interests should hold sway over the public good. Meanwhile, the Government in handling them, can practise divide and rule.

To be fair, the independent sector suffers the same problem -with   too many bodies seeking to represent its interests.

While seeking to raise their professions status, a worthy aim, and to give teachers a bigger professional  voice,  they hardly help their case by constantly threatening industrial action, at different times and on differing issues, while picking  fights with the elected Government of the day, frequently on relatively obscure issues .They are also inconsistent. On the one hand Unions trip over themselves to champion local democratic accountability, expressed as they see it, through local authority control over schools. But on the other hand   they ignore the ‘democratic accountability’ of national governments, elected with a clearer popular mandate than any local authority. It is hard not to conclude that Union actions have little to do with democracy or accountability and everything to do with power and who controls education policy.

They profess improbably to work concurrently for the interests of their members (their raison d ‘etre) and children. But they can’t have it both ways. What happens when the interests of a pupil or pupils may conflict with those of a union member? Do they side with the pupil/ parents?  Of course not. If there is an incompetent teacher in a school blighting the life opportunities of children, do they seek to remove that teacher from the school and indeed the profession, again, of course not .Incompetent teachers, by and large, stay in the system and are simply moved from one school to another, with the connivance of  local union reps, which goes some way to explaining why it is so difficult to improve outcomes.  And indeed why the status of the profession is not improving.

The professions and the bodies that represent them see safeguarding standards and the integrity of their profession as paramount, along with quality assurance and improving the image of their profession in the public eye. Teaching unions speak from an altogether different script. Talking of the public eye, the Annual Teachers Easter conferences do the profession little credit either. Greg Hurst, the Education editor of the Times, got it about right recently when he wrote ‘Teachers come across as government-baiting, parent-hating, child-fearing lunatics spoiling for a fight, gathered only to agree how and when’. But unions still don’t get it. The wrecking ball of self-knowledge always just   misses their collective heads.

At a time when the profession is well recruited and   the quality of individuals entering  it is probably better than ever before- and with many outstanding teachers doing such good work, it’s a terrible shame that there is such a disconnect between teachers and their leaders. It  is an awful shame too  that many  union leaders seem to be stuck in a time warp where the default position is to object to progressive reforms in their members  conditions , working practices and remuneration  and  in which they  appear unable or unwilling  to provide the leadership   required for much needed   changes in the workplace  and to help  transform the public image of the profession and therefore its status.

The timing of the SATs boycott says it all.

One thing for sure is that whatever the colour of the next Government they will have (some, though not all) militant unions to deal with, almost immediately, who will not be prepared, on past form, to face the new realities or their new responsibilities, under a newly elected government.


The Unions point out that SATs are not conducted in Scotland and Wales.  Performance Standards at least  in the Scottish system are believed by those working in the system  to have dropped significantly over the last few years.

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