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Primary Education News
News Teachers' unions would do better to get parents on side rather than talk tough | Peter Wilby
Most people hold teachers in high regard and are sympathetic to their cause until they hear the militant language of the unions
The point of the teachers' Easter conferences is to let off steam. For the past 30 years, their frustrations have grown steadily, as ministers weaken their employment terms, increase links between pay and performance, set targets, reorganise schools, and stipulate not only what they should teach but how they should teach it.
The current education secretary, Michael Gove, has upset them more than most, partly because he is demanding change at an unprecedented rate, partly because, as teachers see it, he is deskilling their profession. His new national curriculum includes more factual knowledge and more of the "basics" of grammar, spelling and multiplication tables. Gove takes an unashamedly traditional view of how children should be schooled – he sees nothing wrong with rote learning, for example – and it directly contradicts what most teachers were told during their training about how children should learn. He makes almost no effort to meet teachers halfway or get them onside.
So it is no surprise that two of the teachers' unions have passed votes of no confidence in Gove and that they are threatening a programme of strikes. But will the minister lose sleep? Probably not. The British suffer from a kind of cognitive dissonance about teachers. Look at the league tables of who the British respect most, and teachers, along with family doctors, come very near the top while the politicians and journalists who frequently denigrate teachers languish towards the bottom. Why? Because most people like and trust the individual teachers they know, usually from school parents' evenings, but have never met a politician or journalist.
Teachers collectively are a different matter, particularly when they speak in the language of union militancy. Many people think they enjoy good wages, excellent pensions, short hours, regular breaks, long holidays and exceptional job security. Some of these judgments are unfair – outsiders think teachers are working only when they actually stand in front of a class – but they are hard to shift. Equally stubborn and unfounded is the perception that schools in general are "failing". Ask parents about the school their children attend and most will rate it highly. Ask them about the state of the nation's schools, and they will rate them poorly.
An education secretary who comes into conflict with teachers' unions may well, therefore, see it as a vindication. The teachers' unions have never quite grasped this. The Easter conferences involve threats of industrial action and demands, such as the NUT's on Tuesday, for lower limits on the time teachers spend in the classroom frontline.
Most threats will come to nothing. But with parliament in recess, news is sparse at Easter, and the conferences get heavy media coverage. The teachers' collective image takes another knock: they seem to be ungrateful and unruly whingers.
Perhaps the unions should turn down the volume. They may be right about Gove, but they should find ways of mobilising their individual members, in schools across the country, to explain to parents why they are so aggrieved. Only when Tory MPs find their postbags full of letters from parents demanding the government lay off teachers, will the education secretary give them the recognition and respect they crave.