Wednesday 26th is an important day for the National Union of Teachers here in the UK. We have voted to go out on strike and I am going to do so, foregoing my pay for the day. I don’t take this action lightly, but then nor do I accept what the government is doing to the education system lightly. I would like to elucidate on this and give the reasons to support my action.
Let me just prime you with this scandalous statistic: 40% of teachers leave the profession within 5 years. Think about that stat and ask yourselves why that is. That is a terrible retention statistic. Terrible. So what is Michael Gove, the UK Secretary of State for Education, doing about it? Making the system better and more supportive? Hmmm…
Here are the direct reasons for not going on strike:
1) Children lose a day’s education
2) Worst case scenario, parents cannot find anyone to look after children and have to take a day off work themselves
And that is it. What it usually comes down to is people complaining that we are unable to ‘look after’ their children; we become glorified child-minders. People don’t usually concentrate on 1). In other words, that their children have someone to look after them is more important than the working rights of that person or the future of the education system.
Michael Gove is an unpopular man, even by the standard of Education Secretaries. I would go so far as to say he is the most unpopular one in living memory, perhaps ever. But why is this? Well, I will list some of my own reasons which act as reasons for me striking:
1) Gove is trying to liberalise and deregulate the education system in the UK.
2) With free schools and academies, people whose primary interest is not in the education of children are running and financing schools. This is my biggest gripe with the move in education – the political and educational decentralisation of schools in line with right-wing political liberalist ideologies which will result in a postcode lottery for schooling. Not just of quality but of what might actually be taught.
3) Schools with dangerous ideologies can misinform and indoctrinate children. In the context of this blog, this is absolutely vital.
4) It seems the Conservatives are trying to minimise local authority and department power and support, making the Department for Education nothing more than accountants.
5) He is trying to steal ideas from other countries with no realisation that there are many more variables and mixes at play. Our children and teenagers are VERY different to those in South Korea, for example.
6) He is making the curriculum less prescriptive in one sense whilst making it far more prescriptive in other senses (you can teach what you like as long as it includes all f these classics and poems that I learnt at school, because I’m alright…).
7) He puts out to consultation on different things (eg the curriculum) to experts in the field who advise X. He ignores them and goes for Y, which is what he always wanted to go for, against the experts’ advice.
8) He has deregulated working conditions for teachers so that our rights, pay and conditions have been incredibly curtailed.
9) Plans are afoot to get rid of teaching assistants, meaning that the amount of time teachers will be working on admin, photocopying and creating displays amongst other things will exponentially rise (I work late at school and then most of the night until I go to bed on the days I work at school, without having to add another2 hours+ to my day, thanks).
10) I work within Hampshire which is an excellent authority and we get superb support. We would lose that under academy / free school in an attempt to save money (that is what it is). But then, in realising we still needed that support, we would have to buy it back at a higher cost, therefore making it a more expensive process!
11) We would lose vital support such as legal cover. At the moment, if we get sued, Hampshire pick it up such that we do not have to worry ourselves on a day-to-day level about angry parents suing over broken wrists or far worse. We get on and teach, and improve aspects of the school on request of the authority if needs be. As an academy or free school we would be on our own. WE would be sued.
12) Gove has refused to sit down with the unions over any of this.
13) Having to work until 68 as a teacher (likely to go up, too). Now I agree pension pots are being squeezed by longer lifespans. I actually agree that teachers should work longer. But not as teachers. We should be put into training, support or policy or other such roles. Would you really want a 68 year-old PE teacher teaching a bunch of teenagers? Teaching the exceptionally tiring reception class? I am 37 and exhausted after teaching. I know an excellent ex-reception teacher who just retired at the then statutory age of 60. She really struggled the last couple of years and her effectiveness greatly diminished. Technology changes, policies change, and demands change and she was unable to keep up at the level to which she was accustomed. Add what will be 10 years to that. I can’t tell you how ridiculous that is. Teaching is absolutely exhausting. I am lucky enough to be part-time and I am not going to go back full time as a result of the demands on teachers. It’s just too much (and I have many other things on my plate which float my boat). We daily plan and so cannot plan the next day’s lessons until you have marked all of the books (that can be up to 60 books for Maths and English, at a minimum of 2 minutes each on new feedback policies… you do the maths. On large bits of English that can be 7-10 minutes each book…). This is great for the children since you react to their needs and teach accordingly – real child-centred, individualised planning. But that means that every night I have to mark for several hours at least followed by several hours planning (including my afternoon lessons, too). And I have to get my classroom sorted, sort out resources, do paperwork, organise staff meetings and training and manage my own subject leadership things etc etc. And Gove wants to massively increase hours, days and weeks that teachers have to work.
14) The government refuse to value the Teachers’ Pension scheme.
So on and so forth.
The list is far greater. As the NUT states of Gove:
1) He has a narrow view of what makes a good education – one that doesn’t include vocational subjects.
2) He constantly runs down our education system and our children’s achievements, despite our country doing well in international league tables – this demoralises our teachers and our children
3) He has removed the need for schools to employ qualified teachers, and attacks our teachers’ professionalism.
4) He has presided over the unfairness of last year’s GCSEs and refused to do anything to help the 10,000 children given unfair grades.
5) He has done nothing to resist the trebling of tuition fees.
6) Abolition of the EMA has resulted in fewer 16-19 year olds in education. He will have cut post-16 funding by 20% across the lifetime of this Government.
7) He has unpicked many long-standing requirements for school premises, including dropping requirements for minimum temperatures, staffrooms, and minimum ratios for toilets; and he’s reduced the space standards for new schools as well.
8) He has cancelled the modernisation programme for all schools and diverted the money to supporting Free Schools, often in areas which don’t need extra school places.
9) He has cancelled the City Challenge programme which was improving results without privatisation.
10) He wants to end the national teachers’ pay system, putting recruitment and retention of teachers at risk and forcing head teachers and governors to focus on negotiating pay instead of improving standards for students.
Teachers’ workloads are also increasing hugely:
Let me post a Guardian article to help explain the issues:
A friend of mine who is currently undertaking his PGCE, yesterday described our education system as akin to that of a buffet restaurant. For those of you who are unlucky enough to not have experienced this culinary delight, allow me to explain. The USP for these establishments is that they have taken the most popular cuisines of the world and brought them together for us to enjoy under one roof. Gove is doing for educational policy as they have with food. Buffet table policy making. I’m sorry Michael, but it isn’t working.
Gove has kept a low profile in the months since his ‘u-turn‘ on GCSE reform, but this week has seen the man arrive back on the political stage with a loud thud. This week alone has seen guidelines on performance related pay, the possibility of teaching assistants being reduced and the relaxation of the restrictions that govern clerical work for teachers. Not satisfied with this, yesterday Gove announced in his speech at a conference for The Spectator that teachers and students in Britain don’t work hard or long enough.
Let’s glance at some of the policies that Gove has been successful in implementing or wishes to implement should he be given carte blanche to do so;
• Charter schools – USA
• Free schools – Sweden
• Performance related pay – Asia
• Extended working hours and shortened holidays – Asia
Gove would have us believe that he has seen how successful these policies are in their respective countries, so why shouldn’t we use them here. What he is doing is taking a slice of a system in Asia and placing it on the table next to a nugget from Sweden. He’s placing Thai Green Curry next to Pickled Herring and hoping that it works. It doesn’t take Ken Baker or Ken Hom to understand that this simply won’t work.
Like a good meal, the sum of its parts come together in a blend of flavours and spices on the tongue. Each element of the dish compliments each other in a taste sensation. As we all know and understand, sometimes we need to stop adding ingredients or the dish gets ruined. Throwing things together and seeing how they work may be acceptable in your kitchen Mr Gove, but it isn’t when applying this experimentation to our classrooms.
What Gove seems to forget when he poaches (I’m bleeding this cooking analogy dry, I know) ideas from other systems is that they may be successful because they blend with another area of policy that he wishes to ignore. For instance, longer working hours and shorter holidays might be successful in Asia because teachers spend, on average, 10 to 15 hours a week in the classroom. In Britain, we teach 20 to 30 hours a week. This means that teachers in say South Korea have more time to plan lessons, prepare work, assess learning and tailor the curriculum around the individual needs of their students.
Furthermore, schools in South Korea allow teachers more time to do their jobs properly – and, presumably, employ enough of them to cover the hours that the students are in school adequately; the same cannot be said here. So if Gove wants to force us to work longer days he need only increase the schools budget so school leaders have more money to spend on employing more teachers.
If we look at the free school model brought over from Scandinavia, then he did the same thing. He found something he liked, that fitted his free-market ideology and borrowed the recipe. However, once again he let out key elements that made it work. What Gove won’t tell you and what he won’t borrow from Scandinavia are their policies of league tables and school inspectors. They don’t have league tables and they don’t have Ofsted. It would be nice if when Gove was selling the principles of free schools that he informed the electorate of the whole picture. Actually, he would do well to look at the whole picture himself. However, this would probably require him speaking to an expert and we all know his ambivalence towards them, unless they agree with him, of course.
Quite simply this type of buffet table policy-making doesn’t work. Gove needs to invest more of his time into looking into why these policies work in their countries of origin. However, his dogmatic approach to his brief won’t allow him the scope to do this. He is like the worst type of MasterChef contestant. He believes that because he can follow a successful recipe he has the skill to alter it and still make it work. He has little respect for the time and expertise it must have taken to reach that point.
Once again Gove has taken the opportunity to talk down our already overworked and stressed profession. More dangerously than that, he is talking down the hard work of our students at a time when coursework deadlines are dropping like anchors and exams are arriving at speed. Gove would do better to focus on making his current policies successful instead of putting another platter of policies on the table.
Mike Britland is head of ICT at a comprehensive school in Bournemouth. He tweets as @MikeHBritland.
So that’s why I am going on strike. Let’s reverse this downwards journey into educational oblivion.
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