After six weeks of meetings between the education unions and the Department for Education (DfE), the education secretary has set out the areas in which he will allow his officials to “take forward” suggestions.
However, the letter, which was sent to the general secretaries of the seven unions involved in the weekly talks, agrees to joint work on just three areas.
Furthermore, with the direction of government policy having been firmly off the table since the talks began in February, these three areas only relate to the implementation of existing policy.
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) cited Mr Gove’s letter as justification for its strike action last Wednesday, March 26, and warned that unless there was “movement” summer strike action was likely.
The three areas covered by Mr Gove’s letter are aspects of the implementation of performance-related pay, pension reforms, and changes to the accountability regime.
Mr Gove wrote: “At this point in the talks, I thought it would be helpful if I set out in writing the areas where I am happy for my officials to take forward your suggestions.”
On accountability, Mr Gove said he was happy to work with the unions in the coming months to consider “the impact of schools’ responses to the accountability system on teacher workload”. The aim of this work, he suggested, would be to reduce bureaucracy.
Also, responding to fears that the move to the new Progress 8 performance measure in 2016 could artificially place some schools below the floor standard, Mr Gove added that his officials have spoken to Ofsted about the need for some “transitional protection”.
He wrote: “When a school falls below the floor, Ofsted looks at a range of data to see whether an inspection should be triggered. Ofsted will ensure inspectors are properly briefed so that they understand why the Progress 8 measure might place different schools below the floor from 2016.
“Inspectors will use their professional judgement to determine the extent to which variations in results relate to transitional issues as opposed to school performance.”
On pensions, Mr Gove said he was happy to work on a joint study into the “health and deployment implications of working until 68, with the aim of considering what more can be done to support teachers working to this age”.
On the issue of performance-pay, Mr Gove agreed to produce additional departmental advice to schools and said he would be happy to “explore the viability” of conducting joint monitoring and evaluation of the pay reform implementation. For more on the comments on pay, which made up a large part of the letter, see our report here.
Mr Gove has not attended any of the weekly meetings and has refused to allow his officials to engage in discussion about specific policy or direction of policy, but only about its implementation.
SecEd understands that workload has become one key area of contention that is now being discussed on a weekly basis during the talks. It comes after the DfE’s own workload survey recently showed that teachers are working 55 hours a week and school leaders 63 hours a week on average. The NUT accused Mr Gove of refusing joint union requests for “immediate action” on this issue.
Mr Gove’s letter came one day before the NUT’s strike action across England and Wales saw thousands of schools close for the day. General secretary Christine Blower said: “Mr Gove’s letter shows how little he listens to the concerns of teachers and how little progress has been made in the talks process. His letter confirms why we are right to strike. The secretary of state has attended none of the talks, nor have other ministers. The talks are with civil servants who are forbidden by Mr Gove from straying into areas of policy. The talks are only allowed to discuss how Mr Gove’s policies are implemented.
“However, far from listening, Michael Gove has rejected many of the suggestions the unions have jointly put forward on pay policy implementation. We are also very disappointed that Mr Gove has refused the joint unions’ requests for some immediate action on teacher workload.
“As a matter of urgency the government needs to address the real concerns of teachers by engaging seriously in the talks with the NUT and other teacher unions. Issues of excessive workload, performance-related pay and unfair pension changes need to be discussed and we need to move forward constructively. If there isn’t movement in the talks there could well be further strike action this summer.”
The NASUWT, which is also undertaking industrial action alongside the NUT, has pledged not to strike this term. It will however be reviewing its position over Easter.
Other unions were more reluctant to comment on the letter given that talks are ongoing and look set to continue at least until Easter.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It’s still all under discussion, the meetings are ongoing. The opportunity for all of the recognised unions to engage in extensive discussion has been really welcome and useful.”