It’s because I agree with Gove about the curriculum that I disagree with him about pay and conditions

October 1, 2013



A lot of the comments on why people are striking leave me cold. Too many people on too many hobby horses. Too many people complaining that Gove hates teachers or that opposing the education establishment is indefensible or that expecting children to be taught to read in an effective way is something all teachers must oppose. None of these are why the NUT and the NASUWT are on strike today. If the strike was about curriculum issues I would have voted against it and left my union if it went ahead. I have been guilty in the past of considering issues beyond the immediate ones when talking about strike actions, but right now I have no sympathy for it. Gove has been consistently correct to challenge the low expectations of our education system and those who are outraged at the prospect of being expected to provide an academic education for working class kids will have no sympathy from me.

But on every one of the issues that the strike has been called on, I agree with my union. And this is not some anomaly or sentimental throwback to the politics of my youth. These are all issues I have opinions on and opinions that are completely consistent with my other views. In fact, I think Gove would be more likely to achieve his aims in terms of expectations in schools if he listened to the unions on these issues.

The most counter-productive thing Gove has done is to countenance performance related pay. Perhaps in his mind there are lots of heroic SMT out there, desperate for some way to bribe lazy and irresponsible teachers into doing their jobs properly and with an element of rigour. I don’t want to discount the possibility that something like this might be the case in some “turn-around” schools where there are effective SMT coming in and finding staff culture hostile to improvement. However, in your bog standard comprehensive the teachers are lions led by donkeys. The men and women at the chalkface are the people pushing for high standards, while SMT are looking to make their careers with the latest gimmick, impress OFSTED with the trendiest teaching methods or throw out rigour for the sake of the latest league table fix. However, with the rise of performance management I have seen the power of bosses to obstruct teaching get greater and greater. More and more teachers who might stand up for standards are being told “play the game”. Teamwork in departments is nothing like it was when I became a teacher. SMT was obstructive then, but now they are overpowering. PRP is a step further in that direction. Teachers are already being told that if they don’t use groupwork, discovery learning and try to entertain the kids then they are no good. Now Gove is giving SMT the power to enforce that in the pay packet. PRP will be the second biggest weapon (after OFSTED) for enforcing the progressive consensus in education. There is no point making speeches about how teachers shouldn’t be using the Mister Men to teach GCSE history, or getting A-level students to draw pictures on paper plates, if you are going to give SMT the power to fine any teacher who doesn’t resort to the latest gimmicks.

And this brings me to the matter of pay (and financial rewards such as pensions) more generally. A lot of the problems in our schools are created by the pay structure. Firstly, it does not reward those coming into schools with either excellent or rare qualifications. Even Teach First lowers the bar for maths teachers. The specialist physics teacher is a rare sight, and the PE teacher teaching maths is a familiar sight, in comprehensives up and down the country. Independent and grammar schools seem to get round the shortage of highly academic teachers, but in doing so they absorb more than their fair share of academically-gifted teachers which is likely to have further consequences for the achievement gap. But recruitment is not the end of this. The top-heavy management structure ensures that not only are teachers one of the most over-managed people in the country, but that compensation beyond basic pay in teaching is not for knowledge or teaching ability, or any marketable skills. It is for “playing the game”. Supporting the low expectations; maintaining the status quo; publicising the latest gimmick. The few attempts (like AST status) to reward staying in the classroom, were even worse in their effects, ensuring only true believers in progressive education could be credited for having the approved “expert” teaching methods. The whole situation is a mess and the lack of teamwork and the poor management resulting from it probably stands at the heart of our educational problems, at least as much as any ideological issues.

Now, this may seem like an argument for deregulating the pay structure and I’m sure that’s how Gove would defend the changes. However, deregulating here means shifting the arrangements from negotiated national settlements to the whim of SMT. The people who have gained from a system that undermined teaching and learning are now to set up their own systems. Having seen what happens in the worst academies, with the most progressive teachers being given more and more “teaching and learning” posts that give them free reign to interfere with the teaching methods of their more effective colleagues, I do not believe SMT can be trusted to share the rewards in a way that gives an incentive for (or even fails to obstruct) good teaching. If Gove wants to change our schools so they have more of an academic ethos and less of a bureaucratic one, he doesn’t need to deregulate teacher pay, he needs to nationalise it. He needs to set rewards that fit his priorities – the subjects he favours and possession of the subject knowledge he wants to see passed on – and an end to the rewards for obstructing good teaching that the current system of TLRs provides. I imagine this could be as controversial with the teaching unions as what is happening, but unlike what is currently happening, it wouldn’t undermine the entire direction of his own education policy and could actually support it.

Finally, we have conditions. This is probably the hardest one to explain. If you haven’t taught, or even if you haven’t taught in a tough school, it is very hard to explain how demanding a job with 13 weeks holiday a year can be. The job is stressful enough, and the workload is heavy enough, that you are constantly having to make choices between:

  1. time spent on marking;
  2. time spent on preparing lessons;
  3. time spent on activities to please managers;
  4. time spent recovering from the pressures of the multiple confrontations you can expect in a normal day at a tough school.

Some teachers choose badly and make themselves ill (by neglecting 4) or end up in SMT (by doing too much of 3). But we all have to constantly make these choices and we know that, unless we go part-time, kids are losing out educationally because of the choices we have to make. That extra bit of paperwork will mean a thrown together lesson instead of a carefully prepared one. It will mean no homework for year 9. It will mean that set of books that haven’t been marked for a month. The pressure on time is the biggest problem we have and it often leaves some of the most dedicated teachers exhausted to the point of being ineffective. A bit more autonomy (from SMT) would help us make these judgements more effectively. A few less hours in our teaching load or smaller classes would also help. Unions which actually enforced the workload agreements we already have, would help too. But this is the reality of the full-time teacher’s week and for Gove to suggest dispensing with the existing workload agreements, or any other change that would increase teacher hours, is simply to make teachers less effective. He needs to realise that extra work for teachers comes out of marking and planning time. It affects teaching and learning, and it will only encourage the type of content free lessons that are focussed on student talk rather than passing on knowledge.

Because I believe in high academic standards, because I believe in planning every lesson to pass on the maximum amount of knowledge, because I believe in creating an academic culture in schools built on attracting the academically successful into teaching, I oppose PRP, deregulating pay, pension changes and removing the workload agreements. That’s why I voted to strike and that’s why I won’t be in work today.



  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. I have a great deal of sympathy with your point about what you actually pay teachers for, which was one reason why I chose not to join a union when I joined the profession, because I wanted to reserve what little power I had to negotiate my own terms of employment, to myself. But what I found more interesting was that you focused on time in this post. I have had a good deal of experience both teaching and in business and I’ve known for a long time that the profession has a good deal it could learn from business: not in commercial terms, but in terms of routine working practice.

    Many teachers who complain about their workload have had no training at all in time management. They don’t really understand it as an activity. Doing things “just-in-time” is the norm for so many teachers in so many schools.

    In my early years as a teacher, the intelligent head I worked for employed two stress and time management experts from different industries to spend a few days in his school, and design a stress and time management workshop for staff. I still use many of the things I learned there today. One thing I grasped was that many teachers have this bizarre idea that they are the only people who face their problems. Not only is this not true, but there are in fact many people who not just face the same problems but have highly effective ways of dealing with them.

    Of course there are some aspects of working in a school, especially a tough one, that are unique: but there are many things schools could do to make teachers working lives more pleasant simply by learning from other professionals. Sadly, the incestuous nature of the profession you also describe so well in this post abhors external advice or wisdom.

    • Well virtually all teachers I know moan about work load but I really doubt all our lives could be significantly improved by time management coaching. As I read your post I kept expecting an indication of the principles behind these time management techniques that you have found so helpful so I could understand why you are so convinced. My husband, with a full timetable and in an assistant head role, went on a course that attempted to teach him how to spend time prioritising his emails. Since Aug 14th he has received over 3000 emails. The advice given would have meant he spent more time prioritising than answering/actioning. Stuff like that makes me very sceptical. Sure, a proportion of people in any profession are inefficient and might find some advice on time management helpful but I am not sure the teaching profession at large needs help ‘working smarter’.

      • It all depends on the quality of advice Heather. Hence my ex head’s intelligent approach to employ external experts to spend a few days in school studying the place, before they designed a course. Your email example is a useful one. I recognise the prioritising strategy and think, once your husband stuck at it for a few weeks, his email stress would reduce substantially because his prioritising would have allowed him to identify the regular, pointless correspondence, he just did not need to read.

        I would also offer an experienced view that your husband’s problem originates not with him but with a local school culture that does not insist on teachers restricting their internal email communication to necessary and vital. I’ve worked in far too many schools not to know that most teachers copy in anyone and everyone…just in case. An issue one might well trace all the way back to… Ofsted.

        If there is one area of routine practice schools are often chaotic about it’s communication. Ask anyone who has to phone them regularly. I once gave a CPD session at a school where I was teaching and as an exercise took every piece of paper out of my staff room pigeon-hole that had accumulated there over the summer. I went through each one with colleagues to demonstrate that I actually needed to see… about 3%.

        Of course I’m not saying the email issue doesn’t happen in business too. But good and successful ones: do something about it.

        • I agree schools can encourage less email use although most emails I get I do need to read. My husband’s view is that he manages to do a pretty good job without patronising advice.

          • Heather, apologies if your husband found the advice patronising. I assure you it was meant sincerely and to help.

            Perhaps not so coincidentally, Michael Wilshaw’s recent speech to the HMC urged the independent sector to support and help state schools more. In a previous role, one of the schools I frequently worked in had the dubious honour of being christened by the tabloids’ as one of the worst schools in the UK. In an effort to help, I contacted a local independent school (which was about 800 yards down the road) and asked the head to provide a lovely venue, food and drink, so that the head of the state school and his SMT could spend a day out of the awful environment they endured day after day, enjoy a really positive school atmosphere, get a break and do some constructive work together. The independent school head took no persuading. The state school head refused pointblank to go. Even when I shifted ground and found another, more pleasant, none school venue, he refused.

            One of the most difficult barriers for anyone interested in school improvement or reform to deal with, is that many teachers lack the opportunity to experience positive school cultures and reject support or advice, out of hand.

  3. I think the unasked question behind a lot of Gove’s reforms is: “Who keeps headteachers accountable?”, since much of his effort goes to giving heads more power, the checks on and scrutiny of heads become commensurately more important.

    Governors are theoretically there to scrutinise the head and direct school policy, but it is difficult for us to know what’s really going on in the school and in practice it is hard for a governor to effectively challenge the head even when you do think they’re wrong. I know Gove is aware of this problem, but I’m not sure he has a plan to do much about it beyond “better information for governors” which doesn’t really tackle the problem.

    I think he sees true scrutiny coming from parents, a sort of market pressure on the weakest to up their game to attract pupil numbers. But, here in London at any rate, any competitive pressure being exerted on schools is weak: the shortage of places is so acute that even the worst schools will be full.

    However, that problem provides an opportunity for teachers. The shortage of places tends to be seen in terms of buildings and capital costs, but it also raises demand for teachers and makes recruitment more difficult for schools. That ought to strengthen the bargaining position of teachers, as they’ll find it easier to switch schools while schools will find it harder to replace them. So why not try to take advantage of the situation to get some real action on workload, oversight, micro-managing, etc? The stuff that doesn’t cost money, which heads should therefore be able to agree.

  4. Interesting. While I do not believe PRP to be useful, I do like the fact that Heads have been given the freedom to use it, or indeed to ignore it. ‘Fine’ teachers who do not use progressive teaching methods? PRP isn’t about fines. It is about rewarding teachers who do well with their pupils. Your post presumes that all Heads are idiots. What about those who are not and wish to reward their teachers for truly excellent work? Are you against PRP in principle, or because all Heads are morons? I myself am against PRP because it divides one’s staff, destroys a school’s ethos and does not incentivise. Had you made these arguments, it would have been more intellectually robust instead of what seems to be too much of a rant against stupid SMT. But an interesting post nevertheless.

    By the way, Gove will never follow your suggestion. He believes in freedom. He will not impose his will on teachers and be the new tyrant in town. Setting rewards to fit his priorities would be to do exactly what you say is so wrong about PRP, except that in this instance, you agree with the teaching methods being rewarded.

    Heads should be accountable to families. Heads who fail must be fired, schools that fail must be closed, and ‘failure’ must be decided by the people. Heads must be free to do what they believe is right for their school, and parents must be free to reject it.

    • My full objections to PRP are here: https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2013/04/17/why-im-against-performance-related-pay/ This post really just focused on how Gove’s reforms could undermine his wider agenda rather than making a full case against PRP. I’m not so sure schools feel they can ignore PRP, although that may be more down to OFSTED than Gove. There were certainly SMT bloggers over the summer saying things along the lines of “I don’t want to introduce PRP but as we have to, here’s how we are doing it”.

      Wider issues of school management are something that I do need to explore further. In short, I do not think all heads just happen to be idiots, but I do think the system is set up to encourage idiocy in management in a fair number of ways.

      I’m not expecting Gove to read this and think “I must immediately centralise everything”, and there is certainly a case against centralised reforms that can be easily subverted. However, I do wonder if Gove realises how little difference he’s making in a lot of schools and how it’s probably the more interventionist things he’s done, like the phonics check, that have had the most impact.

      • I’m not sure introduction of PRP undermines his reforms. He believes in giving schools freedom and PRP is more freedom. BUT, you make an interesting point, that other elements of the system ensure that SMT are more stupid than they should be. They certainly are stupid if they are saying that ‘they have to’ introduce PRP. Still, I am not sure all heads should not be trusted simply because some are stupid.

        Gove cannot and should not centralise. Pointing out to him that he is having little impact on the culture of schools is of use but I’m not sure you were doing that exactly.

        I look forward to reading your post on what makes SMT more stupid than they would otherwise be. Whatever you write about here is really what undermines Gove’s reforms, not PRP.

  5. I disagree regarding Gove and curriculum but you have explained superbly in my view the issues around the competence of managers to manage and in particular develop and maintain PRP in schools. As a state funded professional service education will in my view never deliver the learning provided by privately funded education. Moreover to treat state education as some sort of FW Tayloresque factory system using a quality control based reward systems designed originally to provide profits for will always produce the types of outcomes you describe. That is I think the nature of professional service delivery.

    Combining PRP with relaxing/scrapping the workload agreements will simply compound the felony.

    The previous head honcho at Tesco is current being lambasted for profit/growth based expediency while in power that has led to a disaster of a legacy. I fear that many will suffer the legacy of Gove’s meddling without the short run benefits that Tesco enjoyed.

    • bt0558
      Could you explain your comment about never delivering ‘the learning provided by privately funded education’?

      • Hi

        Of course. I don’t believe that the average UK taxpayer will pay for the same education as your average independent/private school.If your average UK taxpayer was happy to pay sufficient to provide such an education in the private sector then they would do so.

        This is a simplistic argument, and of course the taxpayer has to pay for all of the bureacracy surrouning the state system as well as the teaching/learning.

        It is of course the case that some selective grammar academy independent state funded schools usually with substatial 6th forms and outstanding results are closer to independent than proper state funded non selective schools attended by working class kids.

        You may not agree, but that is what I meant.

        • Thanks for clarifying.
          More money = more learning?
          No, I don’t agree.

  6. […] It’s because I agree with Gove about the curriculum that I disagree with him about pay and conditi… […]

  7. I don’t agree with some of your views on ‘progressive’ teaching, but this is a great blog. PRP in schools is an unnecessary, damaging idea for many, many reasons. It’s a popular idea amongst the public because it seems logical if you’ve only experienced schools from a pupil’s perspective. It’s essential that the unions try to explain to the public why it’s damaging without portraying their members as work avoiding.

    As Michael Gove is constantly using your name amongst others to try to show that teachers actually support his reforms, I really hope he reads this one!

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