Stephen James is the Deputy Chairman Political & Campaigning for Folkestone and Hythe Conservative Association, a state school teacher, and the founder of Conservative Friends of Education.
Teaching is a noble profession. Indeed, it is the birthplace of many professions: somewhere along the line. a teacher has inspired somebody to meet their aspirations; be that an Olympic athlete, surgeons, vets, soldiers, and of course politicians…the list is endless.
I have no doubt that the majority of teachers (left and right) are there because they care deeply about ensuring that young people reach their potential. In fact, I have had countless conversations with teachers form across the political divide about their motivations to teach. I am always in awe of the levels of service and dedication that many teachers have towards improving the life chances of all children, especially our most vulnerable. Teaching is a hard job, but immensely rewarding.
This ‘moral nobility’ gives teachers a special place in the hearts of the British public and of local communities. In my view, teachers are up there with the doctors, magistrates, vets, police, and everyone else that puts service before self.
This has never been more evident than teachers continuing to teach key worker children and vulnerable children, as well as setting work, delivering lessons online, and caring for their own families during the Coronavirus crisis.
However, this is being slowly eroded by the actions of certain teaching unions who are politicising the easing of lockdown measures and the returning of pupils to school.
In particular, the National Education Union (formally the NUT) has not covered our profession in glory during the recent events. Instead of finding solution to problems, it finds problems in solutions – even going as far as telling its members not to engage with lessons via the internet nor engage in any video-calling.
As a professional, I pride myself on making the best decisions for my pupils based on research, and would love to see the ‘research’ the NEU has used to come to the conclusion that learning cannot even be moved online for the short term.
I think it is important to point out that most teachers are a member of a union for the professional benefits, including the insurance against allegations or professional development courses: they do not sign up for the political element.
It pains me that I pay £30 a month to a union which does not represent me (that is, the price of two pints of beer in London & five in Folkestone). This has been such a concern to the members of Conservative Friends of Education that they have asked me to actively investigate how we could get the same professional benefits of being in a union within CFoE, so that they can leave the more politicised unions.
On top of that, it is sad for me as a Tory Teacher is that my profession is viewed in large through the prism of the unions. Who do the major news channels interview: union activists, or else the leaders of unions who have not seen the inside of a classroom for a long time.
Moderate and pragmatic teachers who want to get back to the ‘chalk face’ accept that there is always going to be some risk when we start returning to normal, but acknowledge that we are doing all that we can to mitigate that risk.
For example, anything which might be hard to clean and spread infection will go, such as soft toys. There will be marked out spaces, gaps between desks, one-way systems, and a routine of frequent hand-washing. Headteachers also have the freedom to make decisions at a local level: they do not need approval from the Government to use common sense.
Headteachers are sending highly emotive and politically charged letters to parents which are shared multiple times on social media. These whip up further anxiety amongst teaching staff and parents alike. My inbox is full of e-mails from unions asking me to complete surveys full of leading questions, and sign this or that petition. This constant chipping away of confidence is damaging our profession in the eyes of the British public – something, I fear, that it will take years to get back.
I have this to say to the unions. You #DontSpeakForMe, or for the majority of moderately minded teachers. So, in short – please do not think unions speak for my whole profession. They do not.