Teachers returning to their schools after the Christmas break face an unparalleled assault on their unions, their professionalism, the service they work in...
Education Secretary Michael Gove has never disguised his contempt for teachers, particularly those who speak out against his erosion of the education system. Last year, when teachers were planning protest strikes against the government’s unjustified assault on pensions, he called on head teachers to side with him against striking colleagues. His arrogance was instantly seen for what it was, and he succeeded in uniting teacher unions, including the heads’ union, and propelled thousands more into the fray.
20 October 2012, fighting for a future: teachers join the TUC march in London.
Last summer, his inept handling of the GCSE results fiasco angered every quarter of the educational establishment. In early December, he used Osborne’s Autumn Statement as a vehicle to roll out his latest ploy, a proposal to scrap nationally agreed pay scales and foist performance-related pay onto schools. This despite there being no evidence to back his claim that this deregulation of long-standing pay scales will “...make teaching a more attractive career and a more rewarding job”, and will “drive up teacher quality”. Indeed the evidence points the other way.
A recent international survey by the OECD found that in countries such as Britain performance-related pay leads to a decline in teaching standards. Nationally agreed pay scales, along with conditions of service, afford teachers, and schools, a degree of protection and, in the main, free them to get on with the business of educating children. Gove’s desire to remove this protection is driven by his desire to reduce teachers to a state of individual helplessness and servility, the better to continue with his anti-education “reforms”.
In the same way as many others like him, he looks to the United States for ideas, and yes, performance-related pay has history there. Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, made the following observations in a recent Guardian article:
“School authorities in the US have tried performance pay plans for almost 100 years. They have never worked. They don't work because teachers don't want to compete with one another for cash prizes. They don't work because teachers are already doing the best they can, and the lure of a bonus doesn’t make them work harder or better. Currently, the US has embarked on a scheme to pay teachers based on the rise or fall of their students’ test scores.
“The frequency and cost of testing are spiralling upwards, and US teachers are greatly demoralised. In some districts, the teacher of the year has been fired as ‘ineffective’, because scores on unreliable standardised, multiple-choice tests did not go up as much as the computer predicted they should.
“The most thorough examination of bonus pay was carried out by economists at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. They offered a cash prize of $15,000 (£9,000) to teachers who could raise test scores. They created a control group and an experimental group. At the end of three years, they determined that the bonus made no difference. Both groups got the same result. Mayor Bloomberg in New York City awarded bonuses to whole schools if they raised scores. That didn't work either, but $56m was wasted.”
Most Ministers, and Gove is no exception, like to delude themselves that they are innovators, that they are coming up with new solutions to old problems. This is rarely the case. A recent re-reading of a well thumbed copy of The Struggle for Education 1870 – 1970 (Bourne and MacArthur 1970) unearthed the following gem:
“I cannot promise the House that this system will be an economical one and I cannot promise that it will be an efficient one, but I can promise that it shall be one or the other. If it is not cheap it shall be efficient; if it is not efficient it shall be cheap.”
With these words, performance-related pay for teachers in England and Wales was introduced to the House of Commons in 1861. The plan, which, it was thought, would cut the growing cost of education if teachers did not succeed or raise standards if they did, was the idea of a commission into the state of popular education in England (The Newcastle Commission). It proposed “...to institute a searching examination...of every child in every school...and to make the prospects and position of the teacher dependent, to a considerable extent, on the results of the examination.
The notorious “payment by results” system lasted for thirty years, during which time teachers taught to the test, were confined to a narrow, boring curriculum, attempted to arrange the school intake, cheated, ignored bright children and drilled and beat the slower ones until they could satisfy the all-powerful inspectors.
Such is Gove’s vision of education, to turn the clock back 150 years. ■
To add insult to injury, on the eve of the Christmas holiday, Gove has weighed into the current form of teacher action with a 24-page letter to head teachers, advising in minute detail how they are to be encouraged to penalise members of the NUT and the NAS/UWT who are presently engaged in a campaign of action short of strike action designed to defend pay and conditions.
This form of action, effectively a work to rule, has been in place since September. Essentially it comprises a refusal to complete administrative tasks over and above what has already been agreed. It includes refusal to cover for absent colleagues, refusal to supervise school dinners, refusal to write unnecessary reports etc.
The action is popular with teachers because it is flexible. It enables staff to focus on areas of school life which cause deep resentment, most notably the loss of valuable marking and preparation time to cover for absent colleagues. Teachers are entitled to a break, and supervising a dining room full of students hardly qualifies as a break, so if it’s an issue in a particular school, staff can deal with it.
It means teachers can begin to exercise some influence at their place of work without disrupting education. It is especially popular with younger colleagues who have never known a working life not circumscribed by the most draconian anti-union legislation. They are relatively new to struggle but embrace this guerrilla action because they see themselves as defending a profession under constant attack.
Gove’s intervention, inviting head teachers to dock the pay of teachers who work strictly to their contract, should blow up in his face. If the teacher unions keep their wits about them, it will. In a rebuke to Gove, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, while acknowledging that school leaders would rather the action was not taking place, nevertheless said, “...it is part of our job to sensitively manage the impact of the industrial action, and we will make our own judgements about the best course of action to meet the needs of our schools”. In other words: Keep your nose out, Gove.
The teacher unions need to consider their response carefully. They must reflect that calls for strike are one offs, not a campaign. Gove is attempting to make this particular battle a positional one. We can’t fall for that.
Despite his rhetoric about the present campaign being ineffectual, Gove is attacking it because it is so effective. The message ought to be “Keep up the good work”. Teachers, despite what some self-styled leaders proclaim, are not ready to strike at the drop of a hat. But they are professional, and will engage in action to defend their service.
Let’s call Gove’s bluff. His inflammatory letter to headteachers simply advises of the Department for Education’s view. We choose to take a different view. Teacher unity is vital here. The unions representing classroom teachers and heads have worked together effectively and must do so now.
New tactics may have to evolve. What about meetings for parents in the evening or at weekends so that teachers can explain why they are doing what they are doing? It won’t come top of the list of militant stances to take, but would be important to securing support outside of the profession.
Save the set piece battles for when they are needed, for instance should a rogue head choose to take Gove at his word and dock teachers’ pay for the crime of doing their job.
What we face is a genuine struggle for education. It will be protracted and therefore needs forms of action which can be sustained, and will see teachers continuing to work in the best interests of the children they teach long after Gove has become a half-remembered joke. ■