WE know our shit! This was the plaintive cry of Sarah Prior, a teacher from Bedford, at the National Education Union (NEU) conference in Liverpool a few days ago. She described herself as a ‘proud primary teacher in a deprived area’ but told delegates how she had lost ‘creativity and autonomy’ in what she was allowed to teach. ‘I felt shackled and have recently been signed off work with stress.’ She informed delegates that she ‘watched how my school changed from being inclusive and creative’.
The NEU is the new teachers’ union formed in 2017 through an amalgamation of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). With a membership of close to half a million, it is the UK’s largest education union.
Not only has the old NUT supplied the majority of NEU members, it has also defined the character and identity of the new union. This is evident in Ms Prior’s ‘shit’ speech. True, the word ‘shit’, in urban slang, has positive connotations, but should we not expect better from those who teach literacy?
The issue at stake for Sarah Prior is what she perceives as a threat to the independence of teachers in terms of the teaching methodology they deploy in the classroom. The NEU fears that the government is becoming more inclined to fund curriculum materials that are ‘knowledge-rich’ rather than, presumably, continuing with the ‘knowledge-impoverished’ but easier-to-teach curriculum of recent decades. What is more, the union is fretting that, horror of horrors, more ‘teacher-led instruction’ could be on its way.
In other words, we might go the way of those Asia-Pacific super-star education systems such as Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea where, according to the OECD, standards are up to three years ahead of ours by the age of fifteen. Teacher-led lessons are the norm in these countries. They are also much more cost-effective since they are not dependent on an army of classroom assistants and support staff, who now outnumber teachers in our schools.
UK schooling is much more expensive but much less effective than schooling in many other developed countries. Why? This is the question that does not get debated at union conferences. That even a developing country such as Vietnam, spending only a small fraction of what we spend per pupil, out-performs us via teacher-led lessons, is a ‘no-go’ territory for discussion.
Instead, the NEU conference passed a motion to support strike action should any school seek to ‘impose teacher-led instruction’.
We have come a long way since the late 1980s when the boot was on the other foot. What was then the new GCSE exam imposed new subject criteria on schools and thereby a ‘knowledge-lite’, undemanding and ‘child-centred’ teaching methodology. This was subsequently reinforced by the introduction of the National Curriculum.
In my subject, history, the requirement for children to imagine the past through fake exercises in politically correct empathy, not infrequently towards terrorists, and to investigate events via pseudo-detective work have diluted subject knowledge. And, of course, this redefined school ‘history’ restricts the choice of subject content to historical events and personalities that lend themselves to the new approach. For this reason lessons today on the 19th century, for example, are far more likely to focus on Jack the Ripper than on Nelson and Wellington or Gladstone and Disraeli.
Any teacher at the end of the last century who did not embrace the new dumbed-down approach to teaching was crushed. I should know, since I was one of a minuscule number of dissenters. A colleague and I at Lewes Priory Comprehensive School in East Sussex were what was euphemistically described as ‘redeployed’.
As the teaching profession sat by and did nothing to help, the House of Lords, at least, recognised the importance of the issue raised.
Their debate on the Lewes teachers’ ‘redeployment’ is worth reading for light it casts on the one-sided hypocrisy of the recent NEU strike decision.
Baroness Cox: Conservative (later cross-bench) deputy Speaker
Baroness Young: Conservative, Leader of the House
Lord Addington: Liberal-Democrat
Lord Beloff: Conservative, eminent historian
The Earl of Longford: Labour
Lord Peston: Labour leader in Lords (son = journalist Robert Peston)
Lord Henley: Conservative Government spokesman
Baroness Blatch: Conservative who became Schools Minister
The NEU’s decision to go on strike to preserve some professional independence for teachers applies only to those teachers who wish to use failed and expensive child-centred methodologies.