John Bald is a former Ofsted Inspector, and has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling.
Nick Gibb, deputising for Nicky Morgan, did very well last week at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ (ATL) conference, with a calm and reasonable Q&A session. He did not overstate the government’s case, and announced that local authorities would be allowed to set up their own academy chains, a major change from the White Paper, which envisaged officials leaving the local authorities to do this. Assuming that this was not another “suggestion”, it would put LAs and academy chains on an equal footing, and is potentially a very good idea.
The impact of this good work was limited, though, by the obvious question, “Where is the boss?” Nicky Morgan had had an exposed and lonely session with the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers a few days earlier, and our opponents will have drawn the conclusion that she didn’t want another one. Teachers’ unions are not a happy hunting ground for education ministers of any party.
Their impartiality is best demonstrated by the NUT’s disgraceful hounding of the disabled David Blunkett, forcing him to take refuge in a cupboard. Few Conservative ministers would even consider addressing the NUT, whose man, as we saw last week, is Jeremy Corbyn.
The other unions are a different matter. The late Sir Rhodes Boyson described the NASUWT as “hard-headed”, an ambiguous but pretty accurate compliment, and their general secretary, Chris Keates, lived up to it in her reply to Nicky Morgan. The ATL grew out of the amalgamation of the Assistant Masters and Mistresses’ Associations, and was, when I started teaching, the preserve of heads of department and senior staff. It has always been the most conservative of the teachers’ unions, and the least interested in ideology.
So, its choice of Mary Bousted as general secretary, with her PhD on The Ideology of English Teaching, was a potentially radical departure. Dr Bousted did not disappoint, relishing her “duty to castigate” Michael Gove and laying into the government at every opportunity. Until this year, the attacks never quite struck home, as they were so obviously based on vested interest. This time, she had a field day.
After giving the government credit for its reports on teachers’ workload, which I wrote about on this site recently, she delivered a sustained hammering on every aspect of policy, which must have persuaded many listeners that nothing the government was doing was in their interest. This left her free to unleash her ideological alternative. The national curriculum was, she said, “insane”, Ofsted should be abolished, and examination reform should not take place. The link between our present pseudo-examinations and the excessive workload on teachers was conveniently omitted.
More worrying than the rhetoric is the proposal to move her union into the camp of the NUT. Nick Gibb, as a minister, was right to not to take view on the subject. I do, and it is that this merger would become an important victory for the Corbynistas. Teachers who are successful in their careers – not just headteachers – should be moving towards the Conservatives. It is dangerous to allow them to be persuaded that their interests do not lie with us, and the reason this is happening is that the government’s words and actions appear to be heading in different directions. One might ask whether a White Paper was needed at this point at all. It might be better to ditch it while there is time to repair the damage.
An afterthought on ideology. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but published much later. Its appearance last year, following her reclusive life, brought a tear to the eye of the Left by revealing that the saintly lawyer, Atticus Finch, was a paternalist rather than a radical, and hence no better than a redneck. The Guardian’s strapline, “Moral ambition sabotaged,” summed up the disappointment, even if the review that followed it, by Sarah Churchwell, was more perceptive.
Judge Taylor says in the more famous book that, “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” So it is with Harper Lee. Both novels are principally concerned with the responses of Scout, a twentieth-century Maggie Tulliver, to the conflicts and contradictions of the society into which she is born. Atticus is the same in both books, but in the second, Scout has grown up. Watchman should encourage the fans of Mockingbird to look and read more closely, and to see their darling as he, or she, really is.