Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. He is a retired head teacher and a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street.
School closures represent yet another victory for the teacher unions over government. They have long called the tune when it comes to decision-making over schooling, albeit they represent only a minority of the education workforce.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton’s observation is as apt for teacher union bosses as it is for political leaders. Much of the explanation for the relative decline in recent decades in educational standards in the UK can be laid at their door. They consistently act only in the interest of the producers, not the consumers, of education. Time and again, they have got their way, to the detriment of children.
If you seek the legacy of union power in education, look around you. David Cameron told the 2015 Conservative Party Conference that, ‘Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world.’ This is the legacy of our union-promoted, British version of comprehensive schools.
Even Margaret Thatcher was rolled over by union power on this battlefield. She did, though, understand the toxic impact of a politicised school system. Her husband, Denis, once told me that, instinctively, as education secretary, she opposed any proposals coming from the former National Union of Teachers.
As Prime Minister she was, nevertheless, hoodwinked into agreeing to the replacement of the grammar school O-level exam by the all-ability GCSE exam and a knowledge-lite national curriculum. Thus, was comprehensive ideology made flesh.
According to Charles Moore’s biography of Thatcher, she worried that her reforming education secretary, Kenneth Baker, was ‘too centralist, even socialist.’ She certainly made her exasperation clear to me during an informal discussion we had during John MacGregor’s period as education secretary.
According to the OECD, our 15-year-olds now trail those in the best education systems around the world, such as Singapore, by up to three years. Singapore, needless to say, has retained the O-Level. It is still produced by the Cambridge exam board but effectively banned in schools here. Comprehensive schooling in the Asia-Pacific superstar education systems has little in common with the UK version. It is Japanese Toyota v British Leyland, the Corolla v the Marina.
Pointing this out is educational heresy, of course, as myself and colleagues discovered once upon a time in Lewes.
These days there are few, if any, within the profession, who dare to rock the educational boat. Non-conforming, anti-lockdown, head-teachers have been under particular pressure. Kevin Courtney, the joint head of the National Education Union [NEU], made the threat clear back in May. Courtney said that as part of an “escalation procedure”, the NEU would ‘threaten’ to name and shame on social media head-teachers who it believed were putting lives at risk.
The bully-boy tactics have extended to silencing the recalcitrant views I am expressing here as Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. We have had to take down some of our website contact details in order to protect committee members from intimidation.
Having taught for 35 years I have much sympathy for the plight of teachers. Many have, and are, performing heroically. I have even more sympathy, though, for those many deprived and less-privileged children who, according to Ofsted, have been suffering hugely under lockdown as the so-called ‘social justice’ gap widens. These are the children for whom the school is the one source of security and hope in their lives.
Since retiring as a headteacher I have worked alongside these children in re-habilitating a failing primary school. Providing children with a breakfast was the first priority. In addition, too many of these pupils come from homes where family support for online learning is limited not only by a lack of computer hardware but by parental illiteracy and innumeracy, by unemployment and poverty and sadly, in some cases, by problems of drugs and criminality.
Union bosses say that schools will, once again, remain open for ‘vulnerable’ children. The stigma attached to that label, however, meant that few turned up for school during the previous school lockdown. It is completely unacceptable that the ruination of any child should be regarded as acceptable consequence of the battle between the unions and the government.
A teaching assistant delegate told the 2018 Labour Party Conference to much applause that, ‘If we give [children] a proper education . . . we’ll probably not have any Tories because we will have brought up our kids properly.’ This is the current, politicised background against which the current debate over school closure rages.
Given the current reality of school closures we need to put aside the anger and ask what can be done to help the children. The obvious answer seems to have been overlooked. We need to claw back the weeks that are currently being lost. A start can be made by cutting back the forthcoming Easter break and by shortening the summer term holidays.