Time for unions to join the real world? GUEST POST

As a secondary teacher of History and Archaeology who, at present, is perpetually angered by the apathy and ignorance of what is a vital issue that will affect the futures of our children, I feel it is time for change. No, not another rant arguing for the immediate resignation of the Secretary of State for Education (although it would be acceptable), nor for a rethink of the proposed pay structure or pensions of teachers. Not even a radical shake-up of the Education Ministry and ill-advised, shambolic inspectors at Ofsted. No, the people who need to change are the Unions. Every time I see a union representative on television barking out the party line of pay, pensions, workload and stress, I don’t see a person who is representing me and our predicament. I see, in truth, a politician in a different guise who feels they are better placed trying to be something than actually do something.

I won’t lie and tell you that the terms and conditions of teaching and their proposed amendments don’t concern me because they do. I’m 6 years into what will now be a 37 year career where I have to remain focused and energised in a profession that is both rewarding and draining at the same time. I understand that if the workload continues to increase at its current rate, we could potentially begin to see the rare sight of teachers expiring in service more often. Strong sentiments, you may think but many of my colleagues are at breaking point. However, my present concern is the potentially irreparable damage being done to the education system as a whole through ill-perceived ideas of a ‘Golden Era’ of schooling that we should hark back to at break-neck speed.

And this is where my issue with the Unions comes in to play. As I mentioned earlier, they are not representing me or many of my colleagues who took the path of teaching to educate the children of our nation and give them the benefits of the best education we can deliver. We are being stopped from doing this. This in itself rankles more with the teaching profession than pay and pensions and if it doesn’t it should. The unions are therefore, at least in my case, out of touch. They market and publicise their anger and distaste at the detraction of the economics and welfare sides of teaching and in doing so alienate those very people who we should be trying to get on our side, the public. Why there is nobody at the Unions who can see that,  by shouting it from the rooftops that they are there to protect the education system of this country, of which the pupils and teachers are part, is truly baffling. Through doing this,  surely popular support would increase as would unrest at the segregation and politicising of the education system in this country. A child’s chances in life and education should not be made any more uneven than it already can be , nor should children ever be politicised but it’s happening and it seems few are doing anything to stop it.

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7 comments on “Time for unions to join the real world? GUEST POST

  1. I agree with everything you have said. I have refused to take part in any further strike or industrial action until my union starts to think about the points you have mentioned and stops focussing on conditions and pay which, as you quite rightly say, are less important than the problems you have mentioned. I have always believed very strongly in the trade union movement and its role in protecting the rights of workers. However, teaching unions are losing touch with the real problems in education at the moment and are not focussing on the effects of proposed changes on the students we teach. I still enjoy my work and believe good teachers can make a difference to the lives of young people, but it is becoming harder and harder to remain enthusiatic and committed to a job that is constantly being attacked and derided by the current government. I just hope that our unions starts to realise that the majority of teachers want to concentrate on improving the education of children rather than using industrial actions to fight for our pay and pensions. Future campaigns need to focus on fighting for what really matters – the education of our children and the future of our country.

  2. There are some very simple points I’d like to raise with – and questions I’d like to pose to the first two posters.

    What do you think the purpose of trade unions,including the classroom teacher unions, is? Do you accept the premise that people are entitled to decent working conditions? Do you believe that the working conditions that were fought for and so “hard-won” by the teaching unions in any way detract from your ability to teach? The role of trade unions is to both represent the concerns of individual members AND negotiate and settle collective pay and conditions. Unions are, by their nature, “coalitions” of disparate strands of member opinion. My experience – as someone who believes that individual interests and concerns are invariably best settled by co-operating with each other in trade unions – is that I have agreed with much of what my union has sought to do on my and others’ behalf and that I have occasionally disagreed. That’s life – and democracy, unfortunately! If you don’t feel your voice is being heard, then the obvious answer is to consider standing for election to be come a school representative yourself.

    Both of you have indicated that the influence (or a very large part of it) that Michael Gove and his colleagues are seeking to visit on schools and school policy is decisively negative. Do you want your unions to stand by and allow this to continue? I am really not at all sure that relying on parental and/or other public support will prove fruitful. This government, more than any other I can remember, has sought to present public sector workers as “pariahs” – and that sadly includes teachers.

    I am not a teacher. My dad was for 35 years – and he was committed to it. He appreciated a value of education that looked beyond personal fortune, league tables and opt-out schools (and so-called “greater freedoms”). He was a NASUWT activist and proud of it. We were – and still are – proud of him. He would have been just as vehemently against academisation/privatisation, the write-off of kids who don’t all get straight As (or A*s) and the wider raft of poison that this Secretary of State is shovelling into schools policy. Sadly, he wasn’t able to retire as we all expected he should have been able to. It’s just one reason amongst many why I support – and why I think I must support – the classroom teacher unions.

    • I completely agree that the purpose of unions is to represent workers and protect their pay and working conditions and our unions have tried to do this. However, the movement towards academies has weakened the power of the unions within schools and made it more difficult for teachers to take industrial action without repurcussions. For example, unions fought for “rarely cover” to protect time for us and allow for teachers to only cover other teachers lessons in emergencies. However, academies are able to ignore this which does affect teachers ability to teach effective lessons. I do accept that protecting pay and conditions should be the main focus of the unions but they are currently unable to do this effectively, so I agree with the first post that perhaps a change of focus in the current climate may be appropriate.
      I do feel that the current government policy towards schools is largely negative (although there are some aspects that will benefit schools and students) and I am very aware that the unions are trying to oppose this. I do want them to continue to do this and to continue fighting for the rights of teachers but it would be good to see the former publicised more than the latter. However, this is largely the fault of the government and the media, both of whom seem determined to represent the teaching profession in a largely negative way.
      I will remain committed to my work with children, despite the continued focus on League tables and privatisation. I will also remain in the union and continue to believe very strongly that unions are vital to protect my rights at work. However, I do still stand by the comments I made above and would like to see more opposition from the teaching unions against the current government changes and the negative effect they are having on the future of our children.

  3. Hi Paula. You’ve made some interesting comments here and there’s obviously a debate here that is worth pursuing. One thing I would say though is that the principal purpose of trade unions has to be to settle the pay and conditions of their members. The teacher unions clearly do have views on the policies that governments seek to introduce into schools that and that will impact on children… it would be odd if they didn’t, because they want their members to be able to teach within an ‘ethical’ education system. It is not their job to “manage” the system, though!

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head regarding Michael Gove’s motives when you suggest that unions may have been “weakened” in the academies… it could almost be that he intended it that way??! I don’t actually believe that any of us should accept that just as I don’t accept the premise generally that any of us should be ashamed of the working conditions that we enjoy – especially when this message emanates from what is almost certainly the most wealthy collective assembly of government ministers any of us have ever seen. Staff who work in academies and free schools should be respected and treated as well as those who work in community schools. Did you see the news story today indicating that many MPs (mainly Conservatives, but that’s not to let any Labour of Liberal Democrat members off who feel the same way) think they’re entitled to a 32% pay increase at the same time that they are imposing cuts and trying to worsen other people’s pay?! These MPs apparently think that their salaries need to increase “to attract the best people”. A pity they can’t apply that to teachers (and other employees)!

    I can only speak from personal experience, but I will stand with the people who I have known and know still who are involved with the teaching unions any day. As I say, if you have real concerns, I’d advise them to voice them within your union as talking about these things is better than not talking!

    Best wishes.

  4. Hi Robert and Paula. I fully understand both points of view expressed here. I guess that what I’m getting at is that public opinion, in this day and age, DOES have a significant impact on how governments act. Only recently we have seen U-turns or investigations over such issues as the selling of forestry land, banning of fox-hunting, expenses etc and ,although I agree that to many they are no way as important as the education of our children, they do prove that if enough of the public kick up enough of a stink then the proposed changes in education just might be looked at more closely and the Government take on board the advice and discussion offered by those in the profession and connected to it. This at the moment is not happening.

    The trade union movement is an invaluable tool to fight for the rights of the workforce but it has to play smart, just like the Government. Although the media support in the Government’s pocket possibly outweighs the ones who aren’t, there should still be enough for the Trade Unions to work with to get the intelligent message across. By continually, interview after interview, speaking of teachers’ pay, pensions and conditions the Unions portray the image that their sole aim is to secure the finances of their members. THAT, in the current situation, will not sit well with the general public. As teachers we know the levels of work, stress and care we put into our jobs but will continue to be seen as lazy, money grabbing, holiday loving public servants if money and that ‘easy life’ are what our Unions only seem to want to protect.

    The Unions have to react to this. I find it incredulous that there is no-one in the Unions, responsible for P.R. that could see this. By advertising that the current changes proposed are so dangerous and that they commit to fighting them not just for the conditions of their members but for the welfare and benefit of the children, with emphasis on the latter, they may get redress on both. Would you, as a member of the public, be more likely to support teachers and a Union if you thought it would benefit your children’s education or support it to ensure Teachers got what was fair?

    Before writing this blog I had in fact contacted my Union for the contact details of their P.R./ Press officer to discuss this. As yet, they have not replied.

    • To be honest with you, all I think teachers have to do where parents are concerned is persuade them that they have the best educational interests of their children at heart and that they are equipped to do their jobs (i.e. teach the kids).

      I don’t think that the teacher unions need to think about tailoring their approach to defending their members’ pay and conditions just because the Coalition has been so successful in appealing to so many voters’ “basest instincts” (whether on public sector workers, the EU, overseas aid or whatever). That way lies the road to ruin for everyone who wants to live in a decent society. the problem is not the classroom unions but the government ministers who attack teachers so frequently and with such relish. if they refrain from that, then there won’t be so much need for the unions to speak out.

  5. And therefore how do we get the Government ministers to refrain from attacking teachers? Through a concerted campaign targeting areas that will make it harder for ministers to attack teachers led by the Unions. How else?

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