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The other day I was on the radio discussing my new free school —Michaela Community School ( — 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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Adam Creen 2
June 3rd, 2011
2:06 PM
Unions in general serve a valuable service, they protect the interests of there members from forces which might normally overwhelm a lone individual. However, when it comes to education it is essential to keep in mind that the continued employment of any one teacher is of relatively little importance. This is because in education the teacher is not what is important, the student is. If a teacher is crap they have no business being, it does not matter if you fire them and they loose they house and their family go hungry because they as a person are not the most important thing. Anything which detracts from the experiences of the students should be rooted out and and that goes for unions which hold the jobs of their members above the education of the students. Also, in response to Adam Creen, anything bellow a C to my mind should be considered a failure. Any grade which future employers consider to be a fail is a fail.

Steve Sarsfield
May 30th, 2011
10:05 AM
Why does KB feel so hostile towards teaching unions? As a fully paid up Daily Telegraph blogger and self confessed darling of the right she might just be forgiven for having a slightly myopic vision of her former profession. Where in this article is there ANY evidence of bullying? It’s all anecdotes and hearsay and completely self serving nonsense. In short it’s what we have become to expect from KB. I would like to ask KB.... WHO, exactly, compelled YOU to join a union? And when you where suspended your union was obliged to defend and support you. I feel your account of this episode is deliberately misleading and those of us who have half a brain can see through this fictitious drivel for what it is. Bullying? Currently, Gove is framing new laws that will help head teachers to fire their staff by removing safeguards and procedures. Can we have similar legislation for Ministers MP’s and HT’s? Gove handed back £7K in fraudulent expenses claims recently. No teacher would ever stay in post if they flagrantly fiddled their expenses in such a spectacular fashion. KB is an attack dog of the right and this article should be read in this context.

May 30th, 2011
7:05 AM
Teachers were foolish enough to go for the trade union model instead of the professional model several years ago. Then they wonder why they are paid less than barristers, solicitors, doctors, and even accountants. Professionals do not go on strike; they control the entry to their own profession; they have no fixed hours. The teaching unions have little power in the independent schools: inter alia, that is why the independent schools are the best, so much so that research shows that teachers in state schools would prefer their own children to attend independent schools.

May 29th, 2011
4:05 PM
Teachers on this planet will recognise this as a rambling, incoherent and inaccurate attack on the teacher unions. It combines the right wing hysteria on the influence of trade unions with more than a little personal bitterness. But for all that, as a contribution to the rise and spectacular fall of Katherine Birbalsingh its compelling reading. Mainly for her complete failure to understand the meaning of 15 minutes of fame.

May 29th, 2011
11:05 AM
I have spent a long time in the perimeter of Conservative politics and the Unions in a number professions. The political power wielded by the unions in the 1970's told me that the 'tail was wagging the dog' then Leadership telling the members what to think and do. As a teacher I joined a union not to protect me from my management but to protect me from a claim following an accident in the workshop or a malicious accusation by a student. My current school became an Academy in the New year and the Unions were 'invited' to address the Staff, just two turned up to the first meeting and the head put us on a '3 line whip' to attend the second because the unions accused him of not publicising the meeting. Our staff were simple not interested in them or their view, though all are members of one union or another. Our head is at pains to put his staff first and as a result the pupil performanced is outstanding. One Regional Union rep accused our management of wanting to line his pockets through the Academy, at this point most of the staff stood up and walked out. Some heads are like that but as I invited them, 'get on side with us here and lets do an academy in the right way' no reply, they are just opposed regardless of the obvious, that they cannot stop the Academy programme. Teaching unions need to move away from being 'trade unions' and start representing the 'professionals' that good teachers are, and a piece of paper does not make a person a good teacher I know several qualified teachers who should be encouraged to 'consider other careers' and TA's who get a pittance for outstanding work in the classroom.

Adam Creen
May 29th, 2011
9:05 AM
Ms Birbalsingh has covered all the bases in this article. If I disagree with her opinion (as I do), then by her argument, I must be a highly-paid incompetent teacher in search of protection, or a self-centred unionist who doesn't care about children. Neither of these are true. I am a head of department (which already, in her school-world-view, means I have been promoted beyond my competence) with 2 decades of teaching experience, and have belonged to a union all that time, with no efforts to 'radicalise' me or make me live in fear of 'evil management'. I disagree with her opinion in the following ways: I do not believe that good teachers are paid significantly less than poor teachers. I do not believe free schools and academies should be allowed to employ unqualified teachers. I do not believe that a D grade in a GCSE is the same as failing the exam, and Ms Birbalsingh knows this not to be true. I do not believe that quoting 5 sentences out of context from a speech given in March 2007 is enough evidence that unions do not speak in the interests of teachers or children. And I do not believe that children are left to rot in chaos.

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