Should the teaching unions change how they negotiate?


At such a time of change, unions are important says Deborah Lawson, but do they need to reconsider how they negotiate for their members?

A recent survey of teachers about what they think of their unions found that most joined a union for protection against disputes and allegations. Lower down the priority list was the political standpoint of a union or the right of individuals to participate in industrial action – indicating an appetite for alternative forms of negotiation.

It appears, therefore, that the service which teachers’ unions provide is as necessary as ever and that these unions have not “had their day” as some commentators and politicians would have us believe. If the appetite for alternative forms of negotiation is increasing, is that a signal to unions about what they do?

The education system in this country is experiencing considerable change. There is no denying that some change is necessary. First and foremost, what must be realised is what has gone wrong and why change is necessary. Teachers highlighted years ago, when the current system, along with league tables, was first introduced, that there was a high risk it would result in “teaching to the test”. 

That prophecy has come home to roost. Unfortunately for the profession, or conveniently for some it appears, the reason for this has been laid squarely on the desk of schools and teachers and not at the feet of those who failed to heed our warnings. 

This has allowed a culture of blame to fester and infect, casting education into the shadows and besmirching the profession. With such a high level of criticism, we should not be surprised that teachers are so disillusioned and reluctant to seek progression to senior leadership posts and headship.

The outcomes or results to be achieved by change have to be clear. Are the changes that are being imposed aimed at addressing the needs of students, improving their opportunities, raising aspirations and enabling them to make a contribution to society, including the wider economy? Or are the changes a knee-jerk reaction to our apparent drop in the world education league tables? Regaining or improving our ranking can, and no doubt will, be used as a political tool to catch votes. Is this therefore the reason behind the political meddling we are currently subject to? 

League tables demonstrate “outputs” not outcomes, and reduce students and pupils to a commodity. Is it necessary to create a market economy out of our education system to stimulate improvement and growth which meet the needs of students, pupils, employers and the economy?

At a time when trust in the system and teachers has been eroded and morale, like the economy, is at an all-time low, unions have a role to play. The cause they can take up effectively and efficiently on behalf of the profession is to regain that trust and question and challenge the constant finger-wagging that appears to be the current national pastime.

Little is done to promote positively the high level of achievement of both students and teachers, the preference being to concentrate on the headline-grabbing negatives which are generally about a minority and totally fail to recognise the achievements of the majority. It is clear to me that teacher unions are still needed and are, in fact, a necessity. However, with the appetite for industrial action on the wane, it appears that teachers may be looking for something different from their unions. 

They want to be able to do their jobs and receive individual support when needed. They do not want, it seems, to wear their political heart on their sleeve. They do want their collective voice heard – and this is what they want their unions to do. There is then an even stronger need for teachers to have a mechanism through which they can receive support at an individual level and collectively influence national education policy. Unions will then have a mandate to wrest back from politicians the responsibility for education policy, putting it back where it belongs – with the experts who can, and are doing the job every day.


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