In my last post, I explored the theme of professional unity, and did my best to make a case for it as the only feasible option if we want to see future success. Here, I will explore a few criticisms I have heard and come across, and explain why I don't think they will really hold up if put to the test.
"The unions are ideologically different. Some are against striking, while others support it."
Yep, that's an undeniable fact. But, is it really a barrier to professional unity?
Democratic decision-making is at the heart of the union movement. Unions exist by the grace of their members, and decisions which affect members ought to emerge from them, and of course these same decisions must be ratified by them. Yes, some unions have taken the decision that strike action isn't for them. This baffles me as I don't generally subscribe to the idea that you ought to voluntarily throw away one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal (except of course for the cases of actual warfare, particularly nuclear warfare).
Anyway, fine, you don't currently believe that strike action is a way forward. I don't personally take that view at the minute, but I'll make you a deal: I'll give you as much time as you like to convince me that I am wrong and you are right, as long as at the end of a fair debate we both accept the way the vote goes.
If strike action is fundamentally not the way to go, then you'll find the way to convince me of that. So, are the arguments of people against unification so weak on the issue of strike that they are unwilling to test them democratically?
"A union of teachers needs to be 'of and for' teachers."
I really could just leave it there and feel quite justified, but it am feeling ranty and this is my website after all.
At the NUT Conference, one particularly poignant debate was centred around the need for qualified teachers in every classroom. This is not to suggest that others can't help a child (or an adult) to learn, but the debate drew on the very secure knowledge that trained and qualified teachers are the best at educating others. What came out of this debate, though, wasn't that teachers were just in it for themselves.
It was the love of teaching, and a love of learning, that informed the debate.
People in education are united by a core belief: that education is paramount, and nothing can better prepare someone for life than a quality education. I don't think I'll find a lot of TAs, lecturers, educational psychologists, pastoral managers, deputy heads and head teachers (and I could go on) who don't feel that this central philosophy - this "core moral purpose" (to borrow a phrase) - is central to education. This is the tie that binds, the thing we all have in common.
I know there are arguments that a union consisting of such a wide variety of professions might find common ground hard to locate, and even harder to stand on, but I simply do not agree that these so-called "divisions" should hold back a move towards real professional unity.
"A large union is only about antagonising the Department for Education, and can't possibly take individual members' concerns seriously."
My initial reaction to this argument was actually mildly sympathetic, so I will acknowledge that first. In fact, it fits with my general mantra of supporting small business, shopping locally, and avoiding too many super-corporations. It has all the emotional resonance it needs as well: we generally prefer small classes, more individualised attention for our students, and more direct support ourselves.
But no aspect of my "mantra" is written in stone. I accept that Apple makes a better computer than I could if I managed to source all the raw materials locally. I accept that I'm going to have to shop at Sainsbury's (near payday) or the Co-op (later in the month) now and then. I further accept that I prefer national sports to local sports (I like when the whole country gets behind something) and I like the Olympics even more!
So the more I thought it through, the more it was obvious that "it's too big" wouldn't quite add up. Again, it seems like an easy emotional choice. But at the start of every debate it will almost always be unions trying to converse (and occasionally negotiate) with a national government. That's a pretty powerful force on the other side of that table, with an awful lot of resources. Resources for research, publication, and public relations. Resources for dissemination of information, and collection of data. Huge, massive, comparatively unlimited resources!
So I'm spoiling for a fair fight.
Or, as fair as it can be, and not necessarily a fight, either. In fact, the fairer the discussion, the less likely the need to fight!
Beyond fighting (or "antagonising") I think that a genuine union, which has grassroots membership at its heart and professionalism at its head, need not worry about losing touch with its membership. I don't feel put out that Christine Blower probably doesn't know who I am, but I know full well that if I ever need help, my union will be there for me (though let's hope I don't see that day).
Part 3 - The Way Ahead - is coming soon!
Part 1 - One union for teachers a must if we are going to succeed
I have referenced time and time again my origins as an Ontario teacher, both as a student for the majority of my schooling, and as an educator. I trained at Nipissing University, in one of the finest faculties of education in the country, and continue to be a member of the Ontario College of Teachers. When I was training to be a teacher, I was also proud to represent my faculty on the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), the only union representing Ontario's public school teachers.
Ontario is not a one-union outfit, but there are no unions competing directly with one another. Catholic teachers have a Catholic teachers' union, and elementary teachers have their own unions as well.
Each union representing teachers in publicly funded schools is then further represented by the Ontario Teachers' Federation, a federated model encompassing diverse views from a variety of unions, each with their own backgrounds and histories.
However, the model stands in radical contrast to the current, hyper-competitive market that I entered into when looking for a union in England.
To be honest, I was shocked to think that different unions were needing to compete for my membership, as though they wouldn't all be able to sympathise with my needs as a teacher. I couldn't get over the fact that I was being offered a first year for free, or for £1, or any number of other perks! All this in direct contrast to Ontario, where I was actually legally obliged to be in a union, and that there would be no selection required.
All this, though, is simply a long, contextual prologue to what now follows:
It is time - beyond time! - to unite the teachers in this country under one union (while I support a union for all education workers, please let me focus just on teachers for now, and come back to the issue of TAs and other educators in a future post).
The NUT Conference reaffirmed this position just yesterday, in fact, when their membership voted overwhelmingly to find a way to stand together with our parallel unions (you can see their press release here).
On the heels of that debate, I attended a fringe meeting on the topic of professional unity.
The discussion was launched eloquently by Prof. Howard Stevenson, of the University of Nottingham. He described the historical and political context that used to allow room for a diversity of unions, conditions which he quite rightly points out no longer exist. Unions, he says, are now dealing with hundreds of employers, in a range of academies and free schools, rather than one in a Local Authority.
Gawain Little, an NUT Executive member, carried forward Prof. Stevenson's points brilliantly, elaborating that the role of unions are being systematically eroded. In his own words, he writes "Professional unity has moved from being an aspirational aim to being a necessity." Gawain also reminded us of his sympathy with the arguments that there could be one union to represent all union workers.
Hank Roberts, who is a member of three teachers' unions, reminded members that professional unity is a grassroots effort, and that all members have the opportunity to make this change. Of course, these are the briefest possible summaries, so my apologies to Hank, Gawain, or Howard if they should ever come to read this.
Naturally, being an NUT event, audience participation was as diverse as it was intelligent. I wish I could list every person and every contribution, but it just is not feasible, so I will go with a couple of highlights, which I believe signal excellent ways to move forward:
Emma Hardy read my mind when she noted that the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), whose conference ran parallel to the NUT's, debated key motions relating to Ofsted and qualified teachers in every classroom at the exact same time as the NUT. She quite rightly pointed out that, owing to the ubiquity of social networking, members of both unions were tweeting one-another from different conference floors, effectively making the conversation and debate multi-union. She used this as an effective jumping point to suggest that the unions should run joint activities for members. The gentleman next to me hit on a point that we had mentioned earlier in the conference: why couldn't we video link the two debates, and join each other as we demanded the best for our students and the best for our teachers? (I don't mind saying, I think that would be pretty awesome.)
And, I like the idea of joint events! (Just as much as I like flouting conventions of grammar and starting new paragraphs with "and.") I think joint events would serve to generally demystify the so-called divisions between the unions (which I believe are as arbitrary as they are artificial), and lead to a much more fulsome and productive debate overall.
I was gutted when I was not able to attend the NUT-organised Professional Unity Conference on 1 March, due to the need to move house (I figured that was a pretty decent excuse) but the feedback that has followed has been excellent. This major event was attended by representatives from ATL and UCAC, as representatives from the (single, unified) Finnish teachers' union. It also received messages of support from the NAHT and the ASCL.
Come back for Part 2, where I intend to outline some more of the criticisms that came about at the Professional Unity meeting, and explore some ideas about a way forward.
National Union of Teachers delegates in Brighton have been working dilligently, intellectually, and cooperatively to carve out their planning and priorities for the year to come. Important (real) motions have been passed about continued industrial action, child poverty, the peace process in the Middle East, conditions for older women in teaching, and sixth form funding (among others).
I thought, though, that it might be fun to dream up a few satirical "NUT Motions to Make a Difference," add a bit of well- intentioned satire, and smile.
So, in that spirit, my first "NUT Motion to Make a Difference":
Hot and Cold Water
"Conference instructs the executive to
1. Oppose separate hot/cold taps in washrooms, in which water comes out molten lava hot or ice cold, but never properly warm.
2. Begin transitioning all separate taps to functional, single taps in which hot water can be combined with cold to make warm, like the rest of the developed world."
Any others you can add? Please leave a comment below!
I have another confession to make: I like the idea of being an Ofsted inspector. In fact, I think I would love it. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love being a classroom teacher. I can think of no other job in the world that provides the same daily intellectual challenge, the same comical anecdotes, and the same sense of accomplishment.
I suppose you can put it down to an element of educational voyeurism. There is something deeply compelling about the idea of seeing a school putting its very best foot forward (and of course I know that an Ofsted inspection is but a slice of reality, often finely homed and deeply counterintuitive). I like the idea of seeing hundreds of lessons, and interacting with hundreds of teachers and school leaders, and finding out what they do, but even more importantly, why they do it.
So, turns out I don't hate Ofsted.
I used to. But that was an ignorant, irrational kind of hate, and it makes no sense as I reflect on it.
Of all people, it was my head teacher who started to change my views on Ofsted. He told me "Kyle" - he has a very paternal tone of voice sometimes - "think of it this way: they see thousands of schools every year. What other organisation do you know of that has the ability to do this?" And I really couldn't think of one. Of course, the Unions have that kind of experience, but on the whole they don't do the same kind of comparative analysis and data collection. So I thought some more.
He was right. They have more experience than anyone else. They see more teachers, see more students, and see more schools than anyone else. They keep meticulous records. They publish thousands and thousands of pages of documents every year. They have a very good PR strategy. They annoy the Education Secretary.
But, that discomfort remained. I needed to figure out why.
So I did more research, and stumbled upon a live Guardian chat session with Ofsted's Deputy Director for Schools, Tom Winskill, who said to me:
"I fully support the notion that schools should not be spending time 'preparing for Ofsted'. A school where good teaching is simply what happens day in day out so that pupils achieve well need not worry about being 'Ofsted ready'."
And that was it. It's not Ofsted I hate. It's the things that schools do in the name of Ofsted.
It's every time I heard "Ofsted wants it that way," when I genuinely believe that this is not the case. It was every time I've been told "Ofsted wants a lesson plan" when, again from Tom Winskill: "It was never there - there is no instruction or requirement for teachers to provide a lesson plan should they be observed by an inspector." And in fact the requirement to know student data in an observation is as much the responsibility of the member of Leadership observing alongside Ofsted as it is the class teacher's.
I did some more looking. I came across a profoundly excellent blog/website from an inspector named Mary Myatt, who seeks to dispel some of the enduring mythology of an Ofsted inspection through the use of plain language, evidence, and her own experience. In fact, her description of an inspection almost makes me want to be inspected (knowing fully that she would find my areas that require improvement).
Do I accept all Ofsted practices without question? Of course not! Here are some remaining areas of contention:
I don't love the second economy created by private, Ofsted-trained inspectors who can also sell their taxpayer-funded training in the form of private consultancy.
I don't love the fact that there is no differentiated guidance available which shows a different approach to inspecting SEN schools (although I acknowledge some of the flexibilities available to SEN schools because of this. I further acknowledge that inspectors who inspect SEN schools receive additional training in this area).
I don't love the idea that schools are put into categories, and that "requires improvement" is akin to failing. Good grief, this is the worst one! I have been to some truly incredible schools, and seen some truly inspirational lessons, but I have never in my life seen something completely devoid of an area for improvement.
I don't love the idea that people's jobs and livelihood are on the line. The pressure on my SLT to "get an outstanding" must be equal to or even greater than the pressure on me as a class teacher.
There is no Ofsted where I come from. Someone asked me the other day "then how are schools held to account" to which I was (finally!) able to use the reply "accountability starts where responsibility ends." Schools are fundamentally responsible for their students' education. I have never been in a school that doesn't take this responsibility seriously.
Can't Ofsted support, rather than inspect this responsibility?
I don't love the perception that RAISE Online data is the spine of an Ofsted inspection, and worse, I don't like the idea that an inspection team might arrive with their minds already made up, looking (maybe) to be proven wrong.
But I still don't hate Ofsted.
As always, I value additional comments and feedback.
How effective are our 1 day strikes? Would we see better progress (even the word makes me flinch now) if we extended our strike mandate?
One of my most vocal Twitter colleagues, @bedtonman, as well as a new colleague, @MissCranky, suggest that members don't always get behind a 1 day strike, and ask whether we should assume that they'd be any more interested in a longer strike?
Looking back to when I moved here, and was involved in my first Day of Action with the NUT, I have to admit I was surprised to learn that strike action was decided well in advance, last 1 day, and be optional. Optional!
James Barry has just suggested "don't tell the opposition what you are going to do well in advance." I have deep memories of being a student in 1997, and being surprised to learn that teachers across Ontario would be striking until their dispute was resolved. The result was the largest strike in North American history, lasting two weeks and involving 126,000 teachers and 2 million students.
The biggest problem, though? The teachers didn't win. After 2 weeks, they went back to work. But they didn't lose, either. Following the two weeks of strike, teachers in Ontario then engaged in a series of rotating 1 day strikes (in addition to being locked out in many cases). But, over time, concessions were made.
Damn. What a paradox.
At the NUT Conference, we are facing a pretty serious question about our willingness to extend our strike mandate.
My view is that this is a question with extraordinarily serious implications, and unfortunately very much at the front of my mind is the idea that we will be potentially relinquishing hundreds or pounds in pay in order to strike. There are no strike pay provisions in place, and eventually the money coming in won't match up with the money that needs to go out.
And, building on that, I think it's dangerous if such a small number of people make decisions with such far-reaching implications.
On the other side, my colleague has pointed out that we need a change of tactic. And she is absolutely right. At the moment we are in the midst of a decision so I will look forward to the results while I post this and turn my attention back to Twitter.
More or less live from Conference...
Some key questions that have already developed this morning:
- What is the definition of a teacher?
- Where is the coffee?
- Can I have some coffee now, please?
I am a first-timer here, in a room with people who have been Conference delegates longer than I have been alive! That's a fairly humbling thought.
As a result, seeing a friendly face or two has been really reassuring. I've already mentioned the terrific Laura Chisholm, who I am sure has far-reaching aspirations for the Union. I can also now highlight Kristian Jones, who spoke compellingly about the definition of a teacher. Nearly immediately, the TES Twitter feed picked up on his statement that "72% of teachers in his department are unqualified." It's a disappointing but unsurprising statistic, in an education environment that is trying to "keep costs down" by replacing teachers with unqualified teachers, who are presumably less expensive.
I think it's deplorable that this practise is so ubiquitous, but - even worse - that it would seem parents generally aren't aware when their students are being taught by someone without a teaching qualification.
There has, though, been some comparisons between teachers and other professionals, like surgeons and pilots. Okay, granted, teaching requires a specialised set of skills, which take training to hone and perfect, as does surgery or aeronautics. I just don't think it's a fair comparison, and it's as unfair to surgeons and pilots as it is to teachers.
What I'd rather we did was highlight exactly those skills that make qualified teachers better for their job.
A qualified teacher has been trained in methodology and pedagogy. As one delegate (whose name I shall try to confirm) put it, a qualified teacher knows to ask open, developmental questions. They can deftly guide students towards epiphanies - towards learning! - because they have been given the knowledge of just how to turn a phrase, to adjust a question, or two develop a new analogy.
A qualified teacher stays current. The very best teachers read current research, develop new practice, and make contributions to the profession and to academia.
A qualified teacher has specialist subject knowledge, alongside specialist teaching knowledge. They know how to get a room of students riled up about unfair conditions and taxes and lead their very own revolt, before revealing that they were actually re-enacting a (less gruesome) Peasants' Revolt. They can see the science in the every day, or know that there are nearly unlimited ways to apply mathematics skills to everyday problem solving!
There has been a lot of bossing around the media at this conference (a strategy which in my experience nearly always fails). But, if I could point out anything about the merits of qualified teachers versus unqualified (in education) adults in the classroom, it would be to highlight their real skills, not simply point out that we aren't treated the same as other professionals.
The three questions I have heard the most:
"Is it your first time here?"
"How are you finding it?"
I use a map. (Sometimes people laugh.)
"Do you miss America?"
Not very much. I'm from Canada.
Not that these are complaints. Quite the contrary actually! I love the chatting and networking that's been happening so far.
As far as Conference goes, I can't help but compare experiences here to similar experiences I have had with unions and political organisations in Canada.
In the main, the setting and experience are quite similar, but some things which have emerged stand in stark contrast. For example, to speak to a motion one has to know a full day in advance and submit a speaker's card and be randomised and "genderised" so that women and men speak alternately. This, of course, is becoming quite common, but the need to register in advance to speak does seem to take away an element of spontaneity. On the flip side, though, there has been an increase in first-time speakers and a decrease in "old blokes" taking all the time on the microphone.
The terribly-shot image above probably gives some indication as to the enthusiasm of the crowds (in this case, jostling for refreshment).
It was a pleasure to attend a reception for Young Teachers, hosted by the charming and dynamic Laura Chisholm. We also received some really heartfelt greetings from newly-minted NUT President Max Hyde, pictured with Laura below.
I'm not the most militant unionist out there, I'll start with that mea culpa.
But, I love unionism. I love the mentality of cooperation and debate. I find it fascinating to meet colleagues nationally and internationally, and in so doing make friends, connections, and the occasional adversary along the way.
So, I'm feeling pretty privileged today to be on my way to Brighton to help represent Dartford and Swanley at the NUT Annual Conference (alongside our truly excellent Association President).
I will be there with a few hats on:
- I'm a foreigner in a foreign land! A Canadian-trained but English-tried teacher (and am therefore very much looking forward to hearing from Canadian Teachers' Federation President Dianne Woloschuk (@CTFPresident) this afternoon).
- I am Vice-President of my Association
- I am a young teacher and am part of the organising committee for the NUT's Young Teachers' Conference
- I am a Special Educational Needs teacher
I also have a keen political interest in the progress being made my LGBT people around the world; I believe the question of fundamental equality regardless of sexuality is one of our last major civil rights battles, and needs to be won for the betterment of all people.
As far as advance work goes, it is probably the best-organised conference I've ever been to. My post-woman must think I'm the NUT's most senior member, with the multitude of high-quality, high-weight envelopes that she has managed to stuff through my mail slot this weekend.
As the weekend progresses, I hope to use this space to reflect on the experience, summarise the affect it has on my mission as a teacher and an activist, and share the best aspects of the conference as it moves forward.