Union conferences round-up: Inspections, capability, email abuse, strikes among issues on the agenda

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A wide variety of issues ranging from national education policy to problems at the chalkface were once again under discussion as the three main teaching unions held their annual conferences this Easter. Pete Henshaw looks as some of the key motions that m

Politicised inspections

A majority of teachers believe that school inspection operates in the interests of politicians – and not students or the public.

A survey of 2,800 teachers by the NASUWT, released in the run-up to a debate on school inspection at its annual conference in Bournemouth, found that 95 per cent of teachers believe the inspection system is designed principally to meet the interests of politicians.

Furthermore, 81 per cent said that current inspection regimes undermine levels of public confidence in the quality of education that schools offer.

The motion, which was passed by delegates, expressed “growing concern about the increasingly politicised, punitive and irrational approach employed by inspection systems and their inspectors”. It argued that a significant number of lessons are now being graded as unsatisfactory “unreasonably”, while there are also “increasingly unrealistic expectations as to what a teacher should achieve in a lesson and in the course of a working day”.

The survey also found that 73 per cent of teachers believe they are not able to use the most suitable teaching strategies for their pupils because they clash with inspection expectations. Almost 90 per cent have had to work in the evenings, at weekends and during holidays to prepare for inspection.

Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, said that inspectors are increasingly being seen as education ministers’ “hit-men”. 

She added: “Inspection systems should operate in the public interest. They should hold government policy to account, not be the agents of its implementation. Inspection is increasingly paralysing schools with fear. Neither the profession or the public can have real confidence in their judgements.”

The motion called on the union’s leadership to campaign for changes to inspection frameworks which would “ensure the independence of inspection bodies”. Failing that, it said they should campaign for the replacement of the current inspection frameworks.

Reacting to the debate, an Ofsted spokeswoman said: “We are independent and are not about furthering any political agenda. Our objective is to ensure that all children, regardless of the postcode they come from and regardless of whether they attend an academy, free school or maintained school, have access to a good quality education.” 

In Wales, an Estyn spokeswoman added: “Estyn is a non-ministerial, independent inspectorate. Estyn meets trade union bodies regularly and welcomes feedback. Any changes to the framework are always undertaken in consultation with the public. Estyn is currently undertaking a consultation with the Welsh government about proposed changes to the inspection cycle, the notice period and other aspects.”

Ofsted

Teachers have rounded on Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw for a string of disparaging remarks aimed at the profession.

In a survey, members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) were asked to “inspect” Sir Michael’s performance as chief inspector and 60 per cent of the 1,000 who took part placed him in “special measures”.

The findings were released before the ATL’s annual conference in Liverpool, at which delegates passed a vote of no confidence in Sir Michael’s leadership of Ofsted. In the survey, teachers and support staff singled out a number of Sir Michael’s more aggressive comments for criticism. These included:

  • December 2011: “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you will know you are doing something right.”

  • May 2012: “(Teachers) too often make excuses for poor performance – it’s just too hard, the children are too difficult, the families are too unsupportive, this job is far too stressful.”

  • September 2012: “There needs to be a commitment to working beyond the school day. It’s about recognising those people who go the extra mile.”

ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “It is clear that Sir Michael’s more inflammatory comments have seriously damaged his reputation with education professionals. His comments are unhelpful and demoralising.”

Respondents also expressed alarm at the close connections between the independent Ofsted and government policy, with many feeling the watchdog is too closely aligned to the government agenda.

Dr Bousted added: “A regulatory body that is not free and independent of party politics and ideology is not fit-for-purpose.”

An Ofsted spokeswoman said “pushback” from schools was “inevitable” when you “challenge the system to do better”. She added: “Sir Michael has said from the outset any provision that is less than good is not acceptable. That’s a tough message, especially for those schools that have been coasting.”

Email abuse

Teachers are being “bullied and harassed” by school emails which frequently intrude into their personal lives. Teachers at the NASUWT annual conference in Bournemouth described the impact on work/life balance of excessive use of email, management demands for immediate replies, and email use out of school hours.

The union is now to compile evidence of “email intrusion” after a motion was approved calling for “a strategy and guidance to counter the threat to work/life balance”.

Stourbridge teacher Paula Roe told the conference: “In the workplace, we as teachers are being bullied and harassed by emails which frequently intrude on their working lives, into their work/life balance dictating to them when and how to respond, even when to take your jacket off or not.”

The NASUWT says that in some schools if senior managers do not get a “read receipt” they have been known to visit the teacher in their classroom to ask why.

Devon teacher Nigel Williams added: “A new trend seen this year with unsolicited business emails is a follow up email demanding why a reply has not been sent back.”

A recent NASUWT survey on workplace bullying found that 17 per cent of members reported “incessant and demanding emails” being used to bully or intimidate staff. 

The union’s current campaign of industrial action includes instructions for teachers to only send and respond to work-related emails during directed time.

National curriculum

Teachers have slammed the government’s planned changes to the national curriculum, fearing that they will squeeze out creativity and skills such as critical-thinking.

Two thirds of teachers in a survey by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) said that an emphasis in the new curriculum on facts rather than skills would lead to rote-learning.

The findings were released at the NUT’s annual conference in Liverpool ahead of a debate which heard members’ fears about a narrowing of the curriculum.

Almost 2,200 teachers responded to the poll with 65 per cent rejecting the emphasis on “facts” supported by the Department for Education (DfE).

The government says reduced programmes of study will allow teachers the freedom to teach how they judge is most suitable. However, only eight per cent of teachers in the NUT survey agreed and more than 70 per cent thought that the fact-led curriculum would disadvantage SEN pupils.

One teacher said: “I am concerned that children with additional needs will struggle with so many elements of the proposed curriculum due to the high demand for them to learn and recall so much information. I can see so many children becoming isolated.”

The motion, which was approved by delegates, instructed the NUT to work in opposition to the curriculum. It stated: “The proposed curriculum promotes traditional hierarchies, including the primacy of ‘academic’ learning over the practical and vocational; ‘hard facts’ rather than ‘enquiry’ and ‘critical-thinking’; and there will be little room for developing skills that promote personal, social and emotional development or encourage collaboration and self-confidence.”

NUT general secretary Christine Blower said: “Teachers are genuinely fearful that pupils will be forced to learn in a way that is inappropriate. Rote-learning is the antithesis of experiential learning, learning through doing. It doesn’t promote the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that are essential for good quality learning. Many children will be left feeling a failure by a curriculum that will not recognise vocational subjects and contains an excessive amount of inappropriate testing.”

A DfE spokeswoman said: “This could not be further from the truth. The draft national curriculum is challenging and ambitious and will give every child the broad and balanced education they need to fulfil their potential. We are giving every school more freedom and trusting teachers to use their creativity to shape the curriculum to the needs of their pupils.”

Industrial action

A rolling campaign of industrial action looks likely after members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and NASUWT backed strike plans.

The two unions are currently engaged in a joint campaign of “action short of strike action” in protest against changes to teachers’ pensions, pay and conditions, as well as wider education policy.

Last month, they announced plans for a rolling programme of regional and national strikes if education secretary Michael Gove did not meet with them to discuss their concerns. Priority motions at both unions’ annual conferences saw members back the action. 

It means that a series of regional strikes is now scheduled to commence with a walk-out in the North West on June 27. Further strikes will then take place across England and Wales up until the October half-term, after which a national one-day strike will be held during the second half of the autumn term.

The NUT motion called on education secretary Michael Gove to commit to a series of meetings with the two unions during the summer term in a bid to avert the strike action. It also demands that he suspends proposed changes to teachers’ pay and conditions. It stated: “Because the secretary of state has shown no willingness to compromise or negotiate, there is now a need to move to the next phase of our industrial action.”

The NASUWT’s motion backed the union’s partnership with the NUT and the decision to “initiate a further phase of escalated industrial action across England and Wales to intensify the pressure on government in response to the further assaults on pay, pay progression and pensions and the lack of progress towards dispute resolution”.

NUT general secretary Christine Blower said that plans for performance-related pay would be “disastrous”. She added: “Time in schools should be spent on children’s learning, not on determining the detail of teachers’ pay in 25,000 separate institutions.” 

She said that the strike action was “avoidable” and called for Mr Gove to enter into “meaningful discussion” with the unions.

The Department for Education said it was “disappointed”. It added: “We think giving schools the freedom to reward good performance is much fairer than current arrangements which see the vast majority of teachers automatically getting a pay rise each year. We have met frequently with the NUT and NASUWT to discuss their concerns and will continue to do so.”

Capability

Black and minority ethnic teachers, those with disabilities, and older professionals are much more likely to be threatened with capability procedures, NASUWT has claimed.

The union’s annual conference in Bournemouth heard evidence that the abuse of appraisal and capability procedures is affecting the health of all staff and creating a climate of fear. A motion passed by delegates criticised the link between appraisal and capability, which it says has turned the process into a “bully’s charter” which is being used to force teachers out of their posts. It instructed the union to investigate the impact of the new capability procedures on teachers’ mental health.

The union’s figures show that 46 per cent of all capability/competence cases it has dealt with recently involved teachers aged over 50, when such teachers comprise 32 per cent of the UK teacher workforce. Furthermore, nine per cent of cases involved disabled teachers, when only 0.3 per cent of teachers are disabled.

The motion called for independent observation assessments to be accepted by all involved before formal capability procedures can be enacted.

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said: “There is a climate of fear in too many schools, with capability procedures being used to intimidate staff. Our research shows that older teachers, Black and minority ethnic, and disabled teachers are frequently the victims of the abuse of capability procedures. In many of the cases the union deals with, it’s not underperformance of teachers which is the issue, but ineffective leadership, lack of support and training, inappropriate deployment and, all too often, just because a teacher’s face doesn’t fit.”

Financial stress

Livings standards for teachers and support staff have worsened in the past few years, a snapshot survey of the profession has found. Teachers said they struggle to afford essentials such as petrol and food, with some pledging to leave the profession if things don’t improve.

The survey of 800 professionals was conducted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and released at its annual conference in Liverpool. More than 80 per cent said they had less disposable income since the 2008 financial crisis. The main pressures on income include petrol (cited by 61 per cent), rising food costs (60 per cent), and rising utility bills (54 per cent). Almost one in five are increasing their debt to cope.

The survey found that 12 per cent of respondents are looking for higher paid work outside of education, while a further 12 per cent were taking on additional paid work. One member admitted to working on the tills at Sainsbury’s in addition to their role in school.

ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “We have concerns that staff taking on extra work may be too tired or distracted to perform to their best ability. Of course this is to the detriment of pupils because teaching is a demanding job which requires their full concentration. Michael Gove needs to stand up for the profession.”

CAPTION: Voice from the chalkface: Teachers vote on a motion at the NASUWT annual conference in Bournemouth


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