Archive for April, 2008

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Scabs

April 24, 2008

I wrote before about how I support the strike because, although pay isn’t that bad (well not unless you are in a shortage subject) teachers are discontented and should start kicking up a fuss.

However, my school will be remaining open with only a minimal number of us on strike. Overwhelmingly, my fellow NUT members would rather be scabs than rock the boat, even though some of are a lot unhappier at work than I am. It was not an option I considered, even as I began to feel more and more exposed on the issue. I suppose I have personal reasons for this. My grandfather worked on the railways before the war and used to tell me stories about how workers would be maimed at work, then sacked for being disabled (even though they could still work), and the only way to stop that was for the rest of the workers to down tools. Apart from the belief that effective trade unions are a fundamental part of workers’ rights, a fundamental part of decent working conditions and absolutely indispensable for anybody engaged in a difficult or stressful job, this has also left me with the unavoidable feeling my grandfather would be spinning in his grave if I ever turned scab, and so I doubt I ever will. Discovering that many teachers don’t realise why they should support their union, or, more seriously, that many teachers don’t have the vaguest clue what a trade union is for has been a surprise, so I thought I’d better write a quick reply to what I’ve been hearing from the scabs:

I’m not bothered about striking. Unions negotiate for their members. If they are perceived as weak then they have a weaker negotiating position. Union members who ignore their own unions are undermining their own unions. They certainly have forfeited the right to complain about their own working conditions. If you tell the bosses you won’t fight you deserve what you get.

I only joined for legal cover. Unions are not the AA of the work place. You could buy legal insurance without joining a union. It is no excuse to say “I joined a union but not in order to be part of a union”. That means that you are stupid with your money as well as disloyal to the interests of your profession. It’s particularly daft for teachers who (to my regret) have a large choice of unions including those that never strike.

I’d strike over behaviour or working conditions but not pay. Unions cannot be effective if members pick and choose what issues they will support industrial action over. I’m the first to admit there are more pressing issues than pay, but pay is what the union has voted to strike on, failure to support that strike will undermine teachers on all issues. You either believe in collective action or you don’t, there’s no point believing in it for conditions but not for pay.

The strike will make us unpopular. What good has the popularity of teachers done us? It might not feel like it but teachers have had overwhelming support from the vast majority of the public and the vast majority of parents for a very long time. But this has been based on the sympathy people feel for victims and has done us no good at all. The idea that we should continue to be victims in order to continue to keep the public pitying us is ludicrous. I’d rather not be a doormat, even if it’s a doormat with a good reputation with the public.

A day’s strike might be ineffective. You can never be sure what it will achieve. But scabs are only making it more ineffective.

I can’t afford to strike. This would be merely pitiful if the strike wasn’t over pay. If you are short of money then you need to fight for more, more desperately than those of us who won’t miss a day’s pay. Yes, it might require sacrifice, but you hardly have a right to complain about your pay when you were unwilling to fight for more.

The kids can’t pass their exams without me being in today. Get over yourself.

I’ve been getting more money anyway due to promotion. There’s a parody of the red flag includes the lyrics: “The working class can kiss my arse, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last”. Declaring “I’m alright, Jack” is just selfishness. You don’t just strike for yourself, you strike for everyone particularly your less fortunate colleagues. Of course, the thought springs to mind that if you really don’t care about your colleagues then no wonder you got promoted.

I said earlier about having been raised to believe in trade unionism as a prerequisite for decent working conditions. There is another side to that. Being a scab is just plain wrong in that culture. I have to assume that many teachers must have had more generations of the middle class in their families and don’t recognise this attitude, and that this is combined with ignorance of why loyalty is required from trade union members. But there is one comment that I am hearing from scabs that winds me up. It can go in front of any of the reasons above. It is: “I am not a scab but…” Let me make it clear: If you are not turning out when your union requires you to go on strike then you are a scab and that is the end of it. Your self-pitying, selfish excuses for your disloyalty do not make it go away.

Feel free to remind me to write a blog about all the things I hate about the teaching unions. I almost wrote one already during the Easter conferences. But, even when the unions are at their worst, there is no excuse for being a scab and striking over pay at a time when many of our schools are short of qualified teachers, and many children are learning important subjects from people who have no qualification in them, is hardly the worst.

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And On the Plus Side

April 20, 2008

You know how much I hate to be negative. So I thought I’d mention just a few of the things I like about my job:

1. Kids are funny. Well sometimes. But they at least know absurdity when they see it. They are far more likely than adults to try and find out what the crazy fat boy in year 9 looks like when wearing mascara and lipstick, or to walk up to the head and ask “Who the hell are you?”

2. I enjoy my subject. Bizarrely, I enjoy teaching it more than I ever enjoyed learning it. There’s nothing like having to explain something to get you thinking about it in a very fundamental way.

3. I do get to make a difference. In two of the tough schools mentioned in this blog then, in between all the chaos, I got to teach sixth form classes and roughly once every two years I helped prepare a child for getting into Oxbridge, from schools where most students don’t even consider university. Less dramatically, I can usually see progress being made in my lessons.

4. I get to think about philosophy, psychology, history, politics and ethics on a daily basis. I enjoy that sort of thing. A teacher who understands nothing of justice, virtue, the mind, social class, social change and human nature will get very little out of the profession. Except promotion to SMT, of course.

5. I’ve made lots of friends in teaching. Well at least three.

6. Most of the time I’m in charge. It’s great bossing people around. Anybody who says it isn’t is a liar.

7. I never have any shortage of people to tell me if my shirt’s untucked; if my flies are undone; if my hair’s a mess, or if I smell.

8. Whenever anybody claims that children (and by extension all people) are basically good, I get to look at them with a sense of pity and the warm smug satisfaction of knowing that, whatever illusions I hold about the world, at least I will never say anything as stupid as that.

9. It is a genuinely satisfying experience to see somebody learn something particularly if they thought they couldn’t.

10. The holidays.

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Excuses, Excuses – This Time from the Grown Ups

April 13, 2008

I wrote before about the excuses the kids always use. I think, for the sake of balance, I should suggest the excuses used by teachers and SMT to explain poor achievement ad behaviour.

Excuse: “This is a deprived area.”
Used: To explain to OFSTED inspectors, interview candidates, parents and anybody else who will listen why the school results are terrible and the kids are organised into feral gangs who engage in drawing graffiti, shoplifting and heavy drug use.
Notes: You don’t actually have to recruit students who live in the area or even be in a deprived area to use this excuse. It is just something teachers and headteachers say. I’m sure even the headteacher of Eton has spent lots of time explaining that a lot of the children there come from broken homes (and that’s just the members of the royal family) and that past students have included many who ceased to be respectable through taking drugs or becoming leader of the Conservative Party (or, in some cases, both).

Excuse: “Families here have no educational aspirations.”
Used: When the Careers Service notices that the two occupations they get most questions about are “single parent” and “gangsta”.
Notes: Schools despair that their students have no academic role models. If only they could find people who were highly educated, widely respected and happy in their jobs, who would then be introduced to the kids and thereby encourage them to have similar aspirations for themselves. But where would you find anybody like that in a school?

Excuse: “We don’t have the support of parents.”
Used: As a standard formula for explaining poor behaviour.
Notes: It is the ironic that as schools are required to perform basic parenting tasks, like telling children about sex and drugs, teaching them good manners, or monitoring their happiness they seem to become more convinced that parents are the key to discipline. While, of course, parents can help, it seems somewhat strange that schools are convinced what happens at home is more important than what happens at school. Parents are actually likely to be at a disadvantage when disciplining children as they have an in-built bias towards believing the best of their off-spring, they are likely to have to live with them afterwards and they usually hope to remain in contact with their children even after they reach school leaving age.

Excuse: “The children here aren’t academic.”
Used: To lower expectations.
Notes: There are two things to notice about non-academic kids. Firstly, they are never your own children. Not all parents value education, but if they value it for themselves then they value it for their children, no matter how unpromising the child’s prospects actually are. Teachers who proudly deny that the kids they teach have academic potential will talk incessantly about the prospects of their own treasured off-spring and their efforts to get them into the best schools. Secondly, non-academic kids are always reputed to have a host of non-academic skills to fall back on. Every illiterate is a potential plumber, soldier, beautician, carpenter or architect. The possibility that their low level of education will limit their potential even in the non-academic career planned for them is not even to be considered. After all there’s no point casting pearls before swine (unless they come from your own litter).

Excuse: “They are turned off by all the preparation for tests.”
Used: To explain why students aren’t enthralled with their lessons and to suggest that it is somehow the fault of the Government
Notes: This is a variation on the suggestion that learning should be interesting, which has always been an unlikely claim when you consider that knowing things is not always interesting. However, unlike the conventional version which claims teachers should be more entertaining this version suggests that if students didn’t get tested on what they had learnt then suddenly their lessons would be a cross between Think of a Number and Dead Poets’ Society. While revision lessons are often boring, nobody seems keen to point out the obvious fact that it might actually be necessary to go over what you’ve learnt even if there weren’t tests. In fact the possibility that in the absence of tests pupils will be left to forget everything they’ve learnt previously is probably a good argument in favour of frequent testing.

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Insane Teacher Bothers the Prime Minister

April 6, 2008

My time as a pillar of the community paid off this week. Well sort of. A friend of mine invited me to a meeting where a number of “community leaders” and assorted leading lights from voluntary organisations and local agencies were to meet a visiting minister.

I may have mentioned before that I used to be quite political, but since becoming a teacher I have found it too depressing for words to hear politically motivated people talk about education from a position of ignorance. I managed to start the day in exactly that fashion. A student activist told me how in many other countries children didn’t learn to read and write at school until they were seven (true) and there were schools like that in this country (not really true, or at least not true by intention). I suggested that a lot of this was explained by complexity of the writing system (you will need to start learning Chinese a lot earlier than German) rather than there being a natural age for writing. Another young activist (this time sixth form age) told me how his school was “seventy five per cent working class” apparently unaware that it was by far and away the poshest state school in the city.

For the main ministerial visit I was seated with a police inspector, some representatives of residents’ associations and somebody from a housing association. We were encouraged to discuss, around our tables, a number of questions about local issues and it soon became clear that there was a lot of sense being talked around the table (which in my experience is not common for these sorts of events). Lenient sentences for repeat offenders and juveniles who break their ASBOs were roundly condemned and the police inspector spent plenty of time answering criticism of the local police and apparently showing a general interest in improving things. I had quite a long talk with a local politician, who also works for an MP, about how the schools locally work and was pleased to find that he was generally interested. He was particularly curious as to why students now seem to do half as many subjects as they did when he was sixteen.

It soon emerged that our special ministerial guests included the Prime Minister. He came round and asked what we’d discussed in our groups. Naturally, people were keen to talk about the problems with anti-social behaviour and repeat offenders in their area, as ever this focused on the young.

“So do you think there needs to be earlier intervention?” he asked. People half-murmured their agreement but stuck to pointing out the importance of what needed to be done now. One of the representatives of local residents, Ray, finally raised the obvious issue when discussing young criminals: “What I don’t understand is what schools are doing about this?” He recounted how children in his family had been bullied at local secondary schools only for the schools to do nothing and claim “we don’t have bullying here.” As the least important person at the table, probably least important person in the room, I hadn’t been talking at all previously. Now was my chance:

“What you describe is quite normal” I said. “I’m a teacher. It is normal for schools to fail to deal with bullying or behaviour problems. They make a real effort to cover them up.”

“Who do?” asked the Prime Minister.

“Senior management in schools. It’s very common for schools to ignore the fact that kids don’t feel safe there, or even staff.”

“Yes,” interjected Ray, “and this sort of thing can scar a child for life”.

At this moment one of the Prime Ministers’ aides came over and said it was time to finish off. (I assume this was true and she hadn’t just decided that the Prime Minister was being bothered by an insane teacher.) She asked if anything interesting had come up.

“We were talking about the importance of early intervention,” said the Prime Minister.

The politicians then said their goodbyes to the room, summing up what they had heard. Apparently what the Prime Minister had heard from our table was about the importance of early intervention. I knew it had been raised in the discussion, but I could have sworn the person who raised it was named “Gordon Brown” and hadn’t been at the table when we sat down.

Anyway, I thought I’d better share that with you. Blogging is a very good way of putting across a message that can be ignored by everyone who needs to hear it. I decided I’d let you know that I’ve at least made the effort to be ignored in real life too.

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Strike!

April 3, 2008

Well I’ll be on strike on April 24th.

There’s nothing much to say about why I’ll be on strike. If you are in a union and it takes industrial action then you really have to support it or there isn’t any point being in a union in the first place. In a situation like this where there are a lot of alternative unions to join it seems pointless being part of a union if you are not willing to cooperate when it take action on your behalf and a poor turn-out for the strike will simply weaken the NUT’s negotiating position in the future.

I will, however, say why I voted “yes” to the strike option. I wasn’t convinced that our pay rise was unreasonably low. I’m not convinced that teachers are badly paid. I would much rather have had the opportunity to take action on a whole host of other issues. However, the teaching unions in this country are fragmented and incoherent. They all seek to represent bosses as well as teachers, primary as well as secondary, private as well as public sector. They will never be able to represent all these groups’ interests in a coherent way. The most any union can do is raise issues such as pay that cut across the boundaries and if the issue is close enough to what concerns you in your sector and your type of school then you should support your union raising that that issue.

I do have a problem with teachers’ pay. As I said it’s not the percentage raise nor is it the general level of teachers’ wages. I object to the way it is allocated. There are no across the board, long term financial rewards for:

  • Having extensive academic knowledge (even if you are the only person in a school able to teach a subject)
  • Having good qualifications (even ones that would make it easy to work elsewhere or ones that are directly related to teaching)
  • Working in challenging schools or with children who need the most help
  • Teaching a shortage subject

After the first few years of teaching the only ways to increase your pay are:

  1.  Promotion (which can mean spending less time teaching)
  2. Various forms of performance related pay such as passing threshold or acquiring Advanced Skills Teacher status

Unfortunately, the downside to these is that they ultimately require either support or approval from Senior Management. This means that in teaching the money is handed over not for what you know but because of who you know. This situation makes it difficult for teachers to be either academic role models or autonomous professionals. Or to put it another way, the things I do to make myself a better teacher or to contribute more to society are far less financially rewarding than the things I do to please SMT.

I do realise that it is optimistic to hope that a strike over the pay deal will make government look at teachers’ pay in a constructive way, but the unfairness of the system couldn’t be any worse. I also realise that I am calling out for someone to respond with a cry of “Won’t somebody think of the children?” However, more than anyone teachers do think of the children. Who do you think loses out most when schools in poor areas can’t, on current levels of pay, find enough qualified maths or science specialists? Who do you think loses out most when teachers are recruited extensively from among low achieving graduates? A change to the rewards of teachers could far more to benefit students than lofty disdain for strike action on the part of the teaching unions.

One more thing: although the turn-out was not much to boast about the vote was 75% in favour of striking. I don’t think I’m the only teacher feeling gravely discontented at the moment.

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