Teacher strikes – why we’ve been here before, and will be here again.

This is a post originally published in 2011 that still has relevance in terms of the outcomes of this week’s teaching union conferences, so I thought I would repost.

Primarily, Thursday’s teacher strike is supposed to be over issues surrounding pensions. However if we look at current Conservative education policy, we get the sense that this run-in between teachers and the Conservative Government is in some ways just the latest manifestation of a much older, more entrenched battle. Indeed, one particularly contradictory aspect of Conservative education policy over the past thirty years seems to be its ongoing ambivalence towards the teaching profession in general.

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 generally fraught, 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. 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 to last just over a decade before being forced to close as an economy measure. Bearing this in mind, it seems timely to establish what the current position of the Conservative party actually is towards teachers.

Early in the manifesto document the Tories brought out before the 2010 election, there was a clear statement of intent to do with allowing teachers more autonomy in terms of discipline, exclusions and so on (p. 20). At first glance, therefore, this seems to be a step change away from earlier attempts to control minutely all aspects of teachers’ activities. However this impression is undermined by references to other aspects of teacher professionalism in a less positive light, which give us the first clue as to how teachers may really be perceived. One example of this is that the education establishment is accused of stigmatising synthetic phonics for the teaching of reading (p.15). Similarly the idea of unannounced inspections (p. 34) seems very heavy handed and rooted in a suspicion that professional practice is not always going to be satisfactory unless it is scrutinised and audited in a particular way. This can be problematic in a school situation. Clearly an infinite number of human variables exist in any learning environment. Pupils can vary greatly from day to day in terms of behaviour, attendance and on, and this can be related to matters outside a school’s control, for example classrooms can appear unsettled as a consequence of something as prosaic as poor weather. Teachers as professionals learn to accommodate such comparatively transient issues within the larger scheme of things, based on their experiential knowledge of individuals, local conditions and circumstances. However this degree of adaptation is not always easily understood by the outsider on a fleeting visit. Therefore the idea of spot-checking schools in this way sits uncomfortably with any notion of teachers being autonomous professionals. This might seem like a relatively minor issue, but is highly indicative of a particular position being taken by the Conservatives in relation to the distribution and flow of power within education.

So where does that leave us in terms on Thursday’s strike? As Schattschneider said in relation to democracy in America, “Organization is the mobilization of bias. Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out”. In current Conservative education policy, this “organising out” currently seems to apply to the democratic concerns of many of the people engaged in education on a day-to-day basis, while they themselves are presented repeatedly as social problems. They therefore become subordinate to an insidious system in which their best interests are not always realised, along with many of their pupils. So we had better get used to strikes, as very many more are likely to be on the horizon, as people try to find some sort of democratic voice in a time of great change.

Image: jscreationzs / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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