I have invented one of these two news reports about the weekend’s annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). The other is an accurate account from the Sunday Times (March 11, 2018). It is not difficult to spot which is which:
‘Head teachers at one of the most moderate teaching unions yesterday heckled Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary . . .’
‘Head teachers at one of the most moderate teaching unions yesterday did not heckle Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary . . .’
That the second report is so obviously fake tells us a great deal about the status of the teaching profession. It has become predictable that education ministers will be heckled if they dare attend teacher union conferences. Last year Justine Greening was at the receiving end of jeering, heckling and general abuse from head teachers.
This year, ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton pleaded with the delegates for restraint: ‘If the story today becomes about head teachers shouting things out and deputies and other people doing it, then we lose the respect of teachers and of parents.’
How right he was! For that very reason, education secretaries have been reluctant to address any union conference. In 2016 Nicky Morgan was the first in over a decade to speak at the NASUWT’s, and found herself subjected to verbal abuse and jeering. Estelle Morris, Labour’s education secretary, suffered a similar fate in 2002 at the NUT conference, when she was heckled, booed and slow hand-clapped for opposing industrial action by teachers. Nor should it ever be forgotten that at a NUT conference in 1995 Labour’s education spokesman, David Blunkett, had to be locked in a side room for thirty minutes for his own protection. A howling mob banged on the door and on a glass partition chanting, ‘Sack the Tories, not the teachers! What do we want? We want to strike! When do we want it? Now!’
Disabled by his blindness and with his guide dog beside him, Mr Blunkett was eventually rescued. In response to what must have been a terrifying incident of intimidation he went on to tell a fringe meeting that industrial action by teachers was ‘damaging the educational future of children’. Remarkably, for a Labour politician, he also declared: ‘No teacher in our schools can play games with the futures of our children.’ In the long term, as education secretary, Mr Blunkett proved no more capable of taking on the educational establishment, the Blob, than his predecessors or his successors. His name sits alongside a lengthy list of failures. On that occasion, however, his honesty and bravery were admirable and should have provided a helpful lesson for future education secretaries.
The new education secretary is going to need such courage in abundance if he is to put back together the Humpty Dumpty that constitutes our education system. Sensibly, he promised the ASCL conference that he would seek to cut teacher workload. It is doubtful, however, if he understands that much of this is self-inflicted. Politically correct zealots and commissars, for example, patrol our schools, enforcing their psycho-sociological theories. These theories come with a lot of paperwork to verify that teachers and pupils are on message in terms of lesson planning, marking and the recording of data.
From the howls of protest about under-funding that emanated from the ASCL conference one might conclude that education budgets have been cut and cut and cut again. Studies by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, however, show that this is not the case. Between 1953 and 2009, for example, educational spending increased by almost nine times in real terms. Between 1997 and 2017 real-terms spending per pupil approximately doubled, as even the Guardian had to admit: ‘The biggest spending increases over the past 20 years have been on schoolchildren in England, with £4,900 currently spent on each primary school pupil and £6,300 spent per secondary student. In both cases, this is around double, in real terms, the amount spent in the mid-1990s.’
True, a 6.5 per cent real-terms schools spending cut across the life of this parliament is on the way, but one has to ask where has all the money gone from the huge surge in spending over previous decades?
The truth is that our school system has become exceedingly high-maintenance. The expansion in the number of teaching assistants, for example, has absorbed more of the extra money than anything else. Some of these staff do an excellent job but too many are employed simply to sustain fashionable but ineffective methods of child-centred group work learning.
We are amongst the highest per-pupil spenders in the developed world. Those head teachers who were heckling the education secretary have some explaining of their own to do. Meanwhile, expect some fireworks at Easter’s classroom teachers’ union conferences.