There can be little doubt now that the Education Secretary and the Head of OFSTED are jointly waging a war against teachers and schools that won’t play ball with them.
Michael Gove has employed a many-faceted attack, including either enticing heads and governors down the academy route, or forcing them there if OFSTED have judged them in any sense ‘failing’ (OFSTED chief Michael Wilshaw has obligingly redefined ‘satisfactory’ as ‘needs improvement’, neatly ensuring there is no neutral ground: a school is either up for becoming an academy because of a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ judgement or a candidate for enforced academisation). The campaign being waged also includes the abolition of national pay awards for teachers and the most recently announced measure, the introduction of performance-related pay for all teachers. He wants to put teachers and their unions on the back foot, forcing them to defend pay and pensions which he and his friends in the media, he judges, can easily present as ‘special pleading,’ ‘vested interests’ and ‘restrictive practices’. On another flank he pushes through a wholesale reform of the exam system, taking it back a couple of generations to a non-existent golden age that, nonetheless, readers of the Daily Mail seem to recall as part of a sort of ‘false memory’ syndrome. With the Labour Party somehow unable to mount a full frontal opposition to Gove’s policies or even his patently autocratic style, the best and best-informed opposition would be likely to come from teachers. Pinning them into a corner where they are forced to concentrate purely on pay and conditions is a blatant attempt to neutralise that potential, which my ‘Guest blogger’ and other contributors have been arguing about for the last week.
As for OFSTED, any pretence of independence and impartiality has finally been dropped with the launch yesterday of the ‘concentrated’ inspections in Derby, due for other local authorities shortly. Wilshaw is a hard man to like and from the outset he has slipped effortlessly into the mantle once worn by Chris Woodhead. His public utterances have been blunt and offensive to hard-working teachers. In his first annual report in the summer he introduced a new statistic: the percentage of children in a given area who attend a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ school. This is a simply-arrived-at figure but in the presentation can sound shocking: a child has only a 40% chance of attending a good school? This, of course, takes a number of things for granted including that OFSTED’s definition is always correct and that ‘underperforming schools’ never get better. The ‘concentrated inspections’ are based on identifying the ‘underperforming’ areas and, on the pretext of trying to find out why ‘areas’ are underperforming, these mass inspections are being extended to the local authorities concerned. Little use for those LAs to argue that they cannot intervene unless a school has been judged unsatisfactory, that they cannot intervene in academies at all or that their resources are depleted because many schools are becoming academies. This inspection regime will brand some schools ‘poor’ and then Mr Gove can make them academies, and the LA will be labelled too, thus prompting a few more schools to jump as well.
Now, it is easy for me to sit here in my comfy chair, devising drastic actions to oppose all of this. Teachers find it hard enough to take action as it is: both odd days of token strike action and ‘working to rule’ have served simply to alienate parents and deprive teachers themselves of the additional activities most of them particularly enjoy, like after-school clubs. They also find it very hard, especially in small primary schools, to take the kind of concerted action at school level that may be needed in future to oppose heads and governors in ‘independent’ academies or free schools, or who are using the freedoms of locally-negotiated and performance-related pay irresponsibly. But Gove and Wilshaw are not going to be thwarted by surly teachers and an occasional one day strike. What’s to be done? Ironically, of course, teachers do have a kind of ‘nuclear option’: imagine an extended national teachers’ strike – the country would be on its knees in a week or so. Realistically, of course, that would backfire in PR terms and, in any case, isn’t going to happen. What is needed is further concerted action by the teachers’ unions — the traditional animosity between NUT and NASUWT has enabled governments in the past to literally ‘divide and rule’ — along with parents and everyone else who realises the damage ‘Michael Goveshaw’ is doing to our state education system. Whatever, it needs to happen fast, while there’s still a state system left to defend.