What do the Conservatives think about teachers?

In a previous post, I analysed why school choice can be a very difficult situation for parents, and how this was politically fraught in terms of contemporary political policy. Another problem for the Conservative party is its apparent ambivalence towards the teaching profession. On one level, this is probably not surprising, and represents a certain degree of continuity with the past. The relationship between teachers and previous Conservative Governments was invariably troubled, with criticism over teaching standards, and the introduction of increasing degrees of Governmental control over teachers’ activities. In response, teachers frequently resorted to industrial action. The nadir in the relationship between Government and the teaching profession was arguably when Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools, declared that 15,000 teachers were incompetent. There didn’t seem to be very robust evidence for this claim, and consequently the teaching profession has never forgiven him.

Since then there have been attempts to rehabilitate the profession’s image, not least as a reaction to periodic recruitment problems. Examples of measures taken include the introduction of the Teaching Awards (popularly known as the Education Oscars), which were established in 1999, and the foundation of the General Teaching Council, a self-regulatory body which accepted its first members in 2000, but which was one of the first victims of the post credit cruch cutbacks in 2010. So it seems timely to establish what the current position of the Conservative party is towards teachers, and whether there has been a general shift in attitude.

Early in the 2007 Conservative manifesto document, and later reflected in Gove’s pre-election 2009 speech, there is a clear statement of intent to do with allowing teachers more autonomy in terms of discipline, exclusions and so on. In his pre-election speech, the neo-conservative Gove also describes how teachers are to be encouraged to enhance their subject-specific knowledge, which he describes as “the joy of deep engagement with subjects”. In addition to this, he describes how performance related pay will be used by head teachers to incentivise members of staff. By the 2010 draft manifesto, there are additional references to teacher autonomy. At first glance, therefore, this seems to be a step change away from earlier Governmental attempts to control most aspects of teachers’ activities via the introduction of the National Curriculum and also centralised OFSTED inspections. However elsewhere there are references to teachers in a less positive light. One example of this is that the education establishment is accused in negative terms of stigmatising synthetic phonics for the teaching of reading and subsequently the 2010 draft manifesto announces a programme to train teachers in teaching synthetic phonics. Similarly the idea of unannounced inspections seems rooted in a suspicion that professional practice cannot be satisfactory unless it is scrutinised in a particular way.

Such tight control of educational delivery and audit systems would seem to be unnecessary if, in the end, the market is supposed to decide on the quality of what is on offer. After all, Conservative policy sees parents and pupils voting with their feet by defecting from (failing) Local Authority schools and moving across to (more academically successful) Free Schools. Perhaps the reason for the Conservatives’ ambivalence towards teachers is instead something to do with the sheer complexity of power relations and the distribution of influence in the contemporary educational landscape? If that is the case, then an obvious rapprochement between the Conservative party and the teaching profession doesn’t seem likely any time soon.

Image: Carlos Porto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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