THE National Union of Teachers cannot recall a time over its 144-year history when government policy has been so roundly condemned by the teaching profession and others. Many off the issues that are of most concern will be debated at our annual conference.
One of the key debates revolves around the definition of a teacher. This is a timely debate given the Government’s undermining of the profession and their championing of the use of unqualified teachers in our classrooms. Our recent NUT-commissioned YouGov survey shows that the majority of parents agree with us.
Primary education is also on the agenda. Despite the evidence to the contrary, Ministers and Ofsted continue to advocate earlier formal teaching of literacy and numeracy and earlier formal assessment of children. From 2016, the Government plans to introduce national compulsory tests for children as young as four starting in reception class. In Year One, children undergo the national phonics check and there is to be a new focus on targets and results in nurseries.
This is all too much testing too soon with little regard to the importance of emotional and social development of small children. We cannot start labelling children as young as two years old as failing.
Many European countries do not begin formal education until the age of seven. The difference of course is that, particularly in Scandinavian countries, there is high quality pre-school provision using a play-based curriculum as an entitlement which does prepare children well for more formal learning later. The educational outcomes for these countries are not affected and are often held up as an example of excellence by Michael Gove.
The needs of Special Educational Needs (SEN) pupils are being greatly affected by the coalition Government’s education policies. The fact that free schools and academies can employ non-qualified teachers is unacceptable for any pupil but does not bode well for SEN provision. All too often school and local authority cuts mean that the most vulnerable pupils in schools are not receiving the support they need and deserve.
Free schools act as their own admission authorities and analysis of their intakes show they are not representative of the communities they serve. Academies have excluded pupils and carried out fixed-term exclusions at a far greater rate than state maintained schools. This is a pattern that has been evident over a number of years and one which needs to be addressed.
Sixth-form colleges are facing severe budget cuts which will worsen the breadth of education they can provide. The ending of the Educational Maintenance Allowance and the raising of tuition fees has taken access to education and social mobility back half a century.
It should be everyone’s goal to develop a national curriculum that enhances learning and attainment unfortunately this has not been achieved by the new framework. This is a curriculum written by Government advisers and officials, not teachers. The timescale for implementation has been ridiculously short – in less than a year teachers have been expected to implement a curriculum in which they had no say. The NUT has stepped in to provide materials to help teachers where the Government has failed.
All this comes on top of reforms to GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications. All of which are also being rushed through with little thought given to the practicalities of implementation, never mind the content. We need a curriculum that makes learning the vibrant, relevant and exciting experience it should be.
The issue surrounding our dispute with the Government on pay pensions and conditions will also be debated. Two in five teachers according to Ofsted leave the profession within five years of starting to teach. That is a shocking statistic yet hardly surprising when you look at issues such as workload which has become intolerable.
The Government’s own survey shows that primary teachers work nearly 60 hours per week and secondary teachers nearly 56 hours a week. Every week, both primary and secondary classroom teachers work the equivalent of a day every weekend and a day outside the hours of 8am-6pm.
The Government is pushing ahead with performance-related pay despite all the international evidence which shows that it doesn’t work, and creates unnecessary bureaucracy.
With teacher morale at an all-time low and the potential for a severe teacher shortage, it is time we saw some change. There will be many debates and many suggestions put forward by NUT delegates. Our next challenge will be to get the Government to listen.
• Christine Blower is general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.