The other day I was on the radio discussing my new free school —Michaela Community School (www.michaelacommunityschool.co.uk) — with a union leader who claimed: "The quicker teachers like Katharine Birbalsingh lose their jobs, the better!" Does he mean that teachers who vote Conservative should be fired? Or is he saying that teachers who criticise the system or hold opinions not endorsed by their union should be forced out of the profession? Somehow, we have moved away from the idea of unions protecting workers to one which allows unions to shove their political ideology down the throats of their members and insist that they fall into line. Far from unions protecting teachers from big bad bosses, it is big bad bosses who seem to run the unions.
Unions campaign for skill — based learning and against knowledge—based learning, in spite of the fact that children in private schools achieve better results with knowledge — based learning at the heart of their curriculum. Children in our state sector are failing partly because of a lack of academic rigour. The unions are the ones who ensure that unruly behaviour is accepted in schools, by denying that it is happening. Meanwhile their members are leaving the profession in droves — a third of them leave in their first term — not because of poor pay, but because of chaos in the classroom. Times Educational Supplement discussion forums show how bad the situation has become. Yet the unions, who should be protecting their members, deny what infuriates them most.
Some unions oppose reforms allowing teachers to search pupils' bags for weapons. It beggars belief that they should want to take such powers away from teachers. To top it off, the acting Deputy General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), Martin Johnson, says that we should abandon the national curriculum altogether and have lessons in walking instead. Yes, lessons in walking: "There's a lot to learn about how to walk. If you were going out for a Sunday afternoon stroll you might walk one way. If you're trying to catch a train you might walk in another way and if you are doing a cliff walk you might walk in another way. If you are carrying a pack, there's a technique in that. We need a nation of people who understand their bodies and can use their bodies effectively." If this isn't enough to convince people that unions do not speak in the interest of either teachers or children, I don't know what is.
But persuading teachers that their union may not be acting in their interest could be difficult. The culture in schools is such that rejecting the role of NUT representative or questioning the union mantra is considered to be letting the side down. At the free school I am setting up, I would be happy for teachers to belong to any union they may choose because I believe in freedom and actively encourage people to debate alternative ideas.
I only wish the unions could do the same. They are meant to do right by teachers. The irony is that if they did, they would also be doing a marvellous job for our children: staff would be held to account, bad teachers would be weeded out, the public would respect us, and both teachers and children would fare better in the classroom. The concept of a union defending the worker is one which we should seek to rebuild, instead of allowing current union political ideology to consume everything in its wake.
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