I read that the head of education at Policy Exchange, Jonathan Simons, has launched an astonishing attack on teacher unions, saying (shock, horror!) that they exist to represent the interests of teachers.http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/12192450/Teacher-unions-are-highly-paid-Trotskyites-with-a-grievance.html Quite true, Mr Simons, that is what trade unions are for – to protect their members.
Now, to be honest, I don’t always agree with statements put out by my union, particularly with regard to the curriculum. Being fairly traditional, I like the government’s drive to install rigour and a focus on academic subjects, which puts me in a minority when I attend a union conference. I have spoken up supporting the Ebacc, for example, asking delegates to reject a motion condemning it. Yes, I was unsuccessful, but I still attend conference and I am still on speaking terms with people who disagree. The thing is, union pronouncements in favour of progressive educational practices will not stop until more traditional teachers attend conference and get involved.
I first got involved in a union as a result of excessive and unnecessary observation in my first ever UK teaching job. None of the people I know who are involved in the union set out to become an activist, as far as I can make out. None of them are Trotskyites with a grievance. They got involved through bad management in their workplace, or just casually attending a meeting and asked if they would be a school rep.
I gather Mr Simons also accuses unions of protecting lazy teachers from reasonable demands of managers. I have to say now that I have never met a lazy teacher. I’m not saying they don’t exist. I’ve read the books of Francis Gilbert and Frank Chalk and there plainly are some. However, in my union role, I have often heard of managers making unreasonable demands on normal, hardworking teachers, which seem to be less about the interests of children and more about the manager’s need to tick a box on his/her CV before moving onward and upward. I have often heard about nervous, over-reactive managers making unreasonable demands on staff on the basis that Ofsted would want something, when actually they don’t. Of course not all managers are like this, but in my experience this is much more of a problem than “lazy teachers.”
If anything, I feel that unions are too timid on workload issues and I like the idea of refusing to carry out certain tasks which have no impact on parents and pupils, but send some managers into a tizzy (not attending more than one meeting a week, for example). Simons is probably correct when he says that most teachers join a union for insurance purposes. He is also probably correct in saying that most teachers would not support some of the more extreme rhetoric of some union leaders. But unions are democratic – if we don’t like something they do, we can get involved and try to change things.
So my message to Mr Simons is, be careful about whom you attack. You risk alienating a lot of people who are potential supporters of a more traditional approach to education.