BaldJohn Bald says the unions should complain about excessive paperwork not teaching hours

Every year, the teachers' unions try give the government a long Good Friday,  and every year they hurt themselves instead. This time, they were doing well until the last minute. The ATL had its leader's "castigation" of Michael Gove. The NUT, marshalled by the Socialist Teachers' Alliance, set forth a sea of grievances, and found a good one-liner comparing the draft National Curriculum to a pub quiz. Even the upstaged NAS-UWT  managed to blame poor behaviour on supposed government cuts – not easy when the government's new powers to deal with poor behaviour have not been used by most heads – and its secretary won the prize for pulling the sourest face.

It went South when the NUT claimed its members were seriously overworked, and passed a motion to reduce teaching hours to 20 per week. Since most people work substantially more than this, the vote brought instant fury from the unions' opponents.  

The pro-union – certainly anti-government – Guardian ran a piece condemning the far left, while its columnist Peter Wilby dared to suggest that they would be better off getting parents on their side rather than talking tough. My alter ego, Quaestor, got his highest approval rating yet (198 last time I looked) in that newspaper's comments column for the suggestion, "Cut the paperwork, not the teaching".

It was, after all, the excessive paperwork that all of the union members had been complaining about. One said that it took two and a half hours to mark one set of examination essays, others that this was an understatement, that GCSE controlled assessments took 30 minutes each to mark, with a target for each – is this marking or rewriting? – and that senior managers wanted all marks in on a Monday for statistical analysis. Headteachers were demanding written planning for every second of every lesson and blaming Ofsted for it. One even required a weekly professional progress report from each teacher, detailing how each element of each lesson was contributing to learning, and with at least five personal targets.

Another said that he had to plan each maths lesson six different ways to accommodate for extremes of ability in the class – "I differentiate 6 ways as I have two gifted and talented children, two children with quite severe special needs and every flavour between." For comic relief, one felt hard done-by because he was expected to mark his pupils' books "at least once every ten lessons".  Times change – when I was at school, every piece of work I did was marked, and quite rightly.

So, why, rather than gathering support for this real grievance, did they demand a cut in teaching hours instead, which they must have known would backfire?  The answer is that the Left sees this excessive paperwork as a way of controlling teachers and forcing them to adopt its underlying agenda of imposed equality.

Since Jean Floud's "Social Class and Educational Opportunity," (1956), the Left has seen education as the foundation of inequality in society, and has tried every trick in the book to turn the system round to make it promote equality at all costs. Mixed ability was one way, but didn't work, as the social factors behind positive and negative attitudes to education dominated outcomes anyway, not least because the positive attitudes were closer to those of the teachers.

So, New Labour's agenda needed new levellers.  One was excessively detailed paperwork designed to focus on each small step for each pupil, irrespective of the demands on the teachers. The defunct Inner London Education Authority set a precedent with its "primary  language record" for each pupil that could run tens of pages, and take the equivalent of several weeks' work to complete for a class. Teachers were simply bullied into doing it, without any evidence that it was doing any good.

The strategists, though, had a written record of everything, and this could be manipulated, much like a Stalinist five-year plan. Similarly, marked and remarked coursework or controlled assessments made qualifications "more accessible" (attributed to Ed Balls) and allowed those with lower skills to receive certification that gave an illusion of success.

Excessive paperwork and micromanagement are central to the Left's educational goals. Getting rid of them, by replacing coursework with final examinations, and grouping pupils so that the teacher does not have to write six plans for each lesson to cope with the "failed experiment" – his words – of mixed ability teaching would set back the cause. In the end, the Left sees teachers as agents for its social agenda. It does not really care what happens to them at all.