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Primary Education News
News Teaching conference season: unproductive union bashing abounds
Kenny Frederick considers the purpose of teaching unions and argues that heads need to stop viewing the unions in their schools as the enemy
As we come out of the teaching union conference season the media have been full of derisory comments about the unions and their membership. By being active rather than passive teachers are seen as anti-establishment, left-wing and loony. These are strange labels to attach to individuals who care enough about their profession to give up their holiday weekend to discuss educational issues and matters that affect the pay and conditions of the teaching profession.
Most professionals belong to a union to protect themselves against any moves that threaten their jobs. This is an important part of the work that unions do, but they do a lot more besides. They fight for the rights of teachers all over the country. They negotiate our pay and our conditions of service. They develop policy and deliver continued professional development. They read and digest and analyse some of the bizarre documents that are produced by the Department for Education and others and try to make sense of them. They meet with officials and try to make sure that the teaching profession is represented and that no decisions are made on our behalf without us at least having some opportunity to feedback.
It is not surprising that government (of any persuasion) distrust unions because they kick back and no government wants opposition to their plans. Yet our unions are voicing the views and concerns of their members who are often too frightened to speak out and speak up in their own schools.
More importantly, I worry about some headteachers and governors who are at loggerheads with the unions in their schools. I hear increasingly about schools that forbid teachers to belong to a unions viewing union membership as something subversive. When I meet other headteachers I am often asked in hushed tones about the unions in my own school. They want to know if they are active but more importantly if they are difficult.
In today's climate the teaching profession feels like it has no voice. The education secretary Michael Gove shows little respect for the profession. Pay and conditions are being changed with little or no negotiation. The profession is not consulted about the new curriculum or exam system or indeed anything else. Yet teachers are expected to work miracles in the classroom and to overcome all the ills of society. Ofsted and subsequently school leadership teams put teachers through untold stress and make them jump through hoop after hoop. They feel undervalued and often deskilled. Should they just accept what is happening and be walked over or should they stand up and be counted and demand that their voices are heard?
I know head teachers who view the unions in their schools as the enemy. They go head-to-head with their union reps for no apparent reason other than proving who is boss. Instead of meeting with them and listening to what they are saying they go out to prove who is toughest. In my experience if the unions are alerting me to something it is usually an important issue. I normally agree with them or if I don't I need to seriously consider their concerns. It may be that we have implement something that is causing unnecessary workload or anxiety to teachers or the timing was wrong. Much as it pains me to say it, I know I am not always right. I believe heads need to stop viewing the unions in their schools as the enemy. We need to listen and work with them.
The recent teacher conferences called for strike action later in the year. If and when this happens I will not be disciplining teachers who want to go out on strike. I don't believe a strike will make much of a difference other than to play into Mr Gove's hands – he will make political capital out of it, but I understand why they need to take this action. What else can they do to vent their frustration and to let government know how they feel?
Let's stop the unions bashing now and work together before the teaching profession we know and love is dismantled piece by piece. We must all become activists and get involved and not just sit back waiting for things to happen. We are all on the same side.
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