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Teachers are striking for the wrong reasons

Instead of fighting for greater professionalism in teaching, the unions are engaged in a war against

I once watched a teacher play a word game with a group of six-year-olds. The purpose of the game was to get from "pat" to "tea" by changing a letter at a time. The teacher wrote "pat" at the top of the board and "tea" at the bottom. The children set off: pad, sad, sed ("No, Tom, that's not how you spell 'said'"), sat, hat, hit. Then, the teacher drew a line from "hit" to "tea" and said, "There! Tea!" She beamed at the kids and moved on to the next lesson - or the next "segment" of the lesson, as these things are called these days. The pupils, quite used to this senseless game, moved on unquestioningly.

There are good teachers and there are bad teachers. This one had all the jargon of the highly trained educationalist - her boxes were ticked, the children's targets were set out neatly in their workbooks - but no talent for teaching. When Ofsted visited that school a month later, the staff had the usual complaints about the inspectors - they hadn't spent enough time there or hadn't appreciated something - but their fairly damning report had got that teacher down to a tee (closer to "tea" than she had managed to get in her word game).

Faffing around

A report by McKinsey & Company four years ago concluded that the quality of teaching is pretty much all that matters for a good education system. Of far less significance are class sizes, new school buildings or even the national spend on public education. What counts in the best-performing systems is rigorous selection at the training stage and good starting pay. England has the latter but not the former.

When Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, insists that teachers in England who are given training bursaries should have at least a Lower Second degree and all trainee teachers must pass tests in literacy and numeracy within three attempts, the National Union of Teachers condemns these conditions as "superfluous". Yet the top-performing systems recruit teachers from the top third of graduates only. In Finland, they must be in the top 10 per cent; they complete a 300-question multiple-choice test and are evaluated for their ability to process information, think critically and synthesise data.

The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Russell Hobby, says that the real deterrents to new entrants are pay and cuts to pensions. Yet teachers' pay in the UK, at secondary level, is among the highest in the world. Official data suggests that teachers in England are among those with the fewest working hours, too, at 32.5 a week, but international comparison is impossible, given the different definitions of a teacher's working time. Some studies have shown average weekly working hours for teachers in English schools to be nearer 50 hours, including preparation time at home.

Having worked in both primary and secondary schools in England, I would say that, on average, primary school teachers work signi­ficantly less than 50 hours a week. They also spend an astonishing amount of time, even within a short working day, faffing around in PE lessons or during playtime. Meanwhile, teachers in secondary schools - effective ones, at least - work more than 50 hours a week.

I have shadowed people in many challenging jobs: accident-and-emergency doctor, pest controller, social worker, undertaker, online paedophile police. Teaching at a secondary school, in a reasonably demanding but not unusually difficult comprehensive, was easily the toughest of the lot. The skill, energy, commitment, imagination and emotional (as well as physical) strength it requires were unmatched.

Pay is not the issue. Stress levels among teachers in England are high, in large part due to their lack of autonomy and the burgeoning bureaucracy accompanying their work. Professionalism has been replaced by form-filling and creativity by box-ticking. There is an appalling level of line-by-line, jargon-filled curriculum dictation that sucks the life out of skilled teaching. It is the bad teachers who persuade governments that this bureaucracy and level of scrutiny are necessary.

Aim high

In the world of the teachers' unions, engaged in a war against market liberalism, bad teachers do not seem to exist. Instead of fighting for greater professionalisation of teaching, with higher entry standards that would allow for more autonomy, they fight to have privileged pension arrangements. Instead of backing individual contracts that enable good teachers to be paid their due, they want more pay for everybody, including the woman who couldn't get a class of six-year-olds from "pat" to "tea". Including, too, the deputy head who once told me not to look at the work of a group of assiduous year-five students because "that's the thick table" - within earshot.

Peter Hyman, a former strategy adviser to Tony Blair, left No 10 seven years ago to become a teacher. Today he is a deputy head in Southall, west London, who is applying to set up a free school in Newham, east London. Not uncritical of free schools, which have not been proven
to raise standards across the board in Sweden, Hyman has nonetheless decided to take on the challenge of raising aspiration and opportunity in one of the most deprived areas of the country. After all, why should only middle-class areas have free schools, with teachers liberated to have high ambitions for their pupils?

The terrible achievement of the teachers' unions, with their apparent belief that good and bad teachers should be treated the same in the name of equity, is that, in the name of "comprehensive" education, they have allowed the school system to be captured by parental choice, which causes segregation and inequality. How sadlyunintelligent it is to strike for higher pay and pensions rights, rather than addressing the real deficiencies.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan