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Primary Education News
News Teaching: talk, not action | Editorial
Michael Gove should resist the temptation to present teaching unions as the enemy to his ambitions
Like distant planets on separate orbits, Michael Gove and the two main teachers' unions passed one another on Thursday, apparently intent on their own concerns, although of course each is intimately connected with the other. Mr Gove, while almost invariably courteous, is a naturally confrontational politician, with strong convictions about how schools should be improved, a fine thing in an education secretary. But he should resist the temptation to present teaching unions as the enemy to his ambitions. It's no good for children or teachers, and nor in the end will he benefit either, because confrontation rarely works better than collaboration.
The two main teaching unions, the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Schoolmasters and Women Teachers, announced a second round of partial industrial action, and plans for a one day national strike, to start midway through the Tory party conference on 1 October. They're protesting at Mr Gove's reforms of their pay and conditions, which he is cutting after more than a decade of improvement, mainly during the lifetime of the Labour government that regarded raising the status of the profession as one of the most important levers for improving classroom outcomes. There are three Gove objectives. First, pensions, where actuarial calculations show that in the 10 years from 2006, the cost of pensions will double to £10bn. He wants to increase teacher contributions, switch from final salaries to career averages and raise the pensionable age to 68. After limited consultation, in December 2011, he declared his proposals were non-negotiable.
Second, from the term that started this week, school heads have been given the power to set teachers' pay. Although the nationally set pay bands are maintained, the unions argue that performance-related pay – something recommended by the School Teachers' Review Body at the end of last year – would effectively mean some teachers getting less so that others could get more. They accuse the education secretary of undermining the cohesiveness of schools.
And finally, aspects of the way teachers manage their time are being reviewed: Mr Gove wants them to go back to doing tasks such as photocopying which, teachers argue, are a poor use of their day. There are other unpopular changes, too – making it easier to sack teachers, free schools allowed to employ unqualified staff and the extension of the academy programme. But it's the pay and pensions package that's in dispute. The unions say every aspect of it undermines the support and status they need to do their jobs properly. They claim that morale has never been so low.
Mr Gove – no surprise here – robustly defends his position. In a speech on Thursday he argued that, on the contrary, teaching has never been so popular nor morale so high, and he points to improving retention rates, status and the number of graduates with good degrees choosing to become teachers. The unions say that's the very Labour legacy which Mr Gove now wants to unpick. But he is not budging. The two sides last met in June, just before the first round of industrial action, when – unlike his Welsh counterpart – Mr Gove refused to set up any further meetings. The unions came away with the phrase "the train has left the station" ringing in their ears.
There is a familiar conservative critique of teachers and teaching which casually elides the wilder shores of educational theory with obstructive unions. Mr Gove was at it again in Thursday's speech, accusing teaching leaders, not his plans, of damaging morale, noting in passing that, in his experience, it was always the footsoldiers who bore the pain of disputes. The education secretary knows very well that strikes are unpopular with voters, and the right of teachers to take part in industrial action has less support than that of most other groups of public sector workers. Not surprisingly, the unions suspect his reluctance to talk is driven by the search for political advantage. They want to talk. So should he.