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Teacher Bashing.

30 Oct

A couple of weeks ago I was so incensed by an article and an editorial in the Sunday Times that I decided to boycott that newspaper from now on. I’m sure this has given Rupert Murdoch a few sleepless nights – losing such a valued customer. I had been attracted in by the Times’ excellent Culture section with its first class book, film, TV and music reviews. However politics and especially education trump all that lot. The Sunday Times’ big mistake, in my eyes, was to attack the teacher unions’ fight against the dismantling of national pay bargaining and support the Tory government policy of “Payment by Results.” That particular week saw teachers’ strikes in defence of their: pay-bargaining rights, pensions and working conditions, coincide with the publication of World Literacy league tables which revealed Britain languishing in a lowly 18th position. It was a godsend for the newspapers and the politicians. Forgetting the important adage that a correlation is not necessarily a cause, they linked the two events together. Surely it was the irresponsible teachers who were to blame for Britain’s comparatively poor performance? It was a golden opportunity for another round of teacher bashing. Thus, a lazy editorial in the Sunday Times commented that the National Union of Teachers should be getting its members to improve literacy levels instead of encouraging them to go out on strike. The journalist, who has probably never entered a classroom since he or she was a pupil, failed to grasp that the strikes of the NUT and the NAS/UWT were actually an attempt to defend and protect the education system rather than harm it.
Our children’s education is often recklessly used as a political football. I think that schools, like the judiciary, should be independent of political interference but unfortunately this is not so. Both the main political parties have constantly meddled with the education system in the name of raising standards. Some new policies have been good but the constant chopping and changing has been bad for school pupils as the biggest thing they need in consistency. This we have not had because of the frequent changes of policy brought in by a series of constantly reshuffled Education Secretaries. Students also need good quality teaching of course but this is under severe threat at the moment because teacher morale has hit rock bottom. I was a teacher for 34 years and understand the terrible stresses and strains of the job. It wears you down; burns you out. The job of educating and socialising children and young people of all ages and abilities, plus a whole range of backgrounds, is difficult enough as it is. However to have the government criticising your efforts and attacking your pay and conditions, plus your long established pension arrangements, can make the situation extremely stressful, if not intolerable, for many.
Teachers used to be respected and valued for the crucial job they did for the whole of society. Now, with successive governments undermining them supported by the largely right wing press, the status of teachers has plummeted. A lot of this started in the 1980’s when I was still in the classroom. The Thatcher governments imposed a series of very low pay agreements or pay freezes, and did not allow the teaching unions to take part in any negotiations. Teachers were effectively de-unionised and largely left at the mercy of the employer. This was all accompanied by a prolonged bout of “teacher bashing” in the media. This period also saw the introduction of increased working hours at the whim of the headteacher. Parents’ Evenings, for example, which had previously been voluntary, tagged on to the end of an already busy working day, now became compulsory. The same happened with training. The Secretary of State, Kenneth Baker, forced teachers to work 5 extra days a year for no extra pay. These in-service training days or “Baker Days” as they were dubbed were deeply resented. In effect they forced teachers to work a whole extra school week for free. What other profession would have put up with that?
On top of all this, the Thatcher government decreased the power of the Local Education Authorities and increased their own hold over individual schools by giving each school control of its own finances. It centralised power and made it easier for the Government to directly control what was happening in schools without a locally elected LEA interfering. It was a classic case of divide and rule. Before, all schools had worked cooperatively under the leadership and guidance of the elected local authority; now schools were encouraged to compete with each other for pupils, each of whom represented a significant sum of money towards their budgets. The introduction of competitive league tables cemented this new arrangement of competition rather than cooperation. It was as if our education system had been reduced to the arrangements suitable for football. The press loved all this of course, gleefully publishing the tables and shining the light on the schools who were at the bottom. Little allowance was made for the fact that some schools were in deprived areas with lots of social problems.
The situation improved considerably under the Labour Governments of Tony Blair. Afterall his stated priority was “Education. Education. Education.” Teachers who passed a series of competence tests were awarded a significant pay rise. This made up a little for all the years when they had been falling behind the other professions. The National Curriculum ( introduced by the Conservatives) was revised and big efforts made to improve literacy and numeracy levels. The inspection regime run by OFSTED, although hated by many teachers, also drove up standards and stamped out complacency.
Now however it’s back to teacher bashing. They have been told that they will have to work longer for their pensions, make larger contributions and get less in the end. It’s a triple whammy for teachers. It’s moving the goalposts near the end of the game for all those teaching staff in their 50’s. It must feel like a kick in the teeth. I was lucky as I was able to retire and get my pension just before the new rules came into force. However that does not stop me from sympathising with my slightly younger colleagues. Then came the much trumpeted Academy system, introduced by Labour and accelerated by the Tory/ Lib Dem Coalition. This is simply a way of privatising education. Private businesses are invited to form consortiums to run schools which are then taken out of Local Authority control. The government saves money by attracting private capital into education. But why would private businesses want to run a school? The answer somewhere along the line is in order to make a profit. The same sad thing is happening to our beloved National Health Service. It’s privatisation by stealth of an organisation which is vital for the nation’s welfare. Do we really want individuals and organisations trying to make a profit out of our children’s education? How can that education remain fair and balanced?
The first thing many Academies have done is sack or reduce the pay of many of the teaching and support staff. Why would they want to do this? The answer is to save money of course. I was shocked to find out that Academies can set their own pay rates and establish their own terms and conditions. In other words they are outside any nationally agreed system and beyond the control of the democratically elected local authority. I still work at a local secondary school as a part-time, examination invigilator. Two years ago it was turned into an academy, partly persuaded by large government financial inducements. At the end of the summer term prior to the reorganisation into an academy, 38 staff were sacked! Usually the end of the academic year is a cause for relaxation and celebration but on this occasion many long- term staff were in tears. Later in the year some of these same people were re-employed, doing the same job but on reduced pay and on a temporary contract! Academies are a law unto themselves.
So many teachers are demoralised and at a very low ebb. Their main support, the teaching unions are being side-tracked by the new system. National pay bargaining to negotiate a fair pay structure for all teachers has now been virtually scrapped. There has been talk of paying teachers in one area more money that teachers doing exactly the same job in other area. This is in order to tackle the problem of teacher shortages in areas such as London. It sounds a reasonable way to solve a serious problem but it is also very divisive and demoralising for many of the teaching profession. It’s the same old tactic — divide and conquer.
Finally, we now have the introduction of Payment by Results. We had this system in the 19th centuries and it was generally discredited and abandoned. Now it is back and seems to have been mostly welcomed by the public. That is why, the new shadow Education spokesperson, Tristram Hunt, has come out in support of the idea. His party does not want to do anything to jeopardize its chances of getting re-elected. It sounds, at first to be a perfectly reasonable and good idea. What is wrong with rewarding good teachers and punishing the bad ones? Surely this would quickly lead to the weeding out of incompetent teachers from our schools. However, I don’t think it is as simple and straightforward as it first seems. It’s easy to play the blame game and pin the responsibility for our under-achieving pupils on individual teachers rather than on government interference. Isn’t this just another crude example of divide and rule? Instead of everyone in education working together for the benefit of the pupils and of the country as a whole, we now have the terrible situation of school fighting school and teacher fighting teacher. It’s ruthless competition rather than constructive cooperation.
I think underperforming teachers should be supported, retrained, encouraged and helped instead of being castigated and punished. What happened to the idea of being in a team? How can results be a determination of pay when there are so many variables in the situation. The performance of a teacher depends on what area he/she operates in, what school he/she is in, how effective the Head and senior management are and most importently- the abilities, aptitudes and attitudes of the pupils. A teacher can be a great motivator and skilled communicator but there are still many factors outside his/her control that can determine his/her results.
Then there is the question of Headteacher subjectivity. The whole system seems to depend on the Head being able to identify the good and bad teachers. Heads are only human and, in my experience, are not always fair. Some Heads have their favourites. Staff who challenge or criticise them will go down the pecking order when it comes to dishing out the financial rewards. I have seen this happen in my career. Staff who toe the line, support the Head uncritically and even worship the ground that he/she stands on, tend to get promoted. We used to call them “boot-lickers.” I’m sure you’ve heard the term before. Alternatively staff who disagree with the head’s policies and pose a threat to his/her authority , have tended to have their career side-lined or have even been forced out of the school. The system of payment by results will obviously increase the powers of the Heads over the careers and lives of their staff. To me it sounds like a possible recipe for dictatorship.
So I’m not going to read the Sunday Times any more. I don’t intend to vote for Conservative or Labour or any party that supports payment by results, Academies and privatisation of education. ( and I’ve not even mentioned the latest gimmick — the so called “Free Schools.”) I seem to have painted myself into a corner. As with many subjects, I seem to be in a minority. But I wanted to speak up for my much maligned ex-colleagues, the teachers and their support staff. At the moment the politicians supported by much of the press, are bashing them into a pulp. Demoralising, dividing and financially punishing our hard working teaching profession is not the way to improve educational standards.