It's a class war, but not as we know it PDF Print E-mail
Howard Stevenson, 10 December 2012

This article was originally published at Howard Stevenson's online blog

DfE on ‘war-footing’

On the 9th December, a few days after the STRB report had followed Michael Gove’s exhortation and swept away national pay scales for teachers, the Sunday Times newspaper (no doubt briefed by an informed source) announced that the DfE was on a ‘war-footing’. The government is, apparently, in preparation for a conflict with teacher unions.  There can be little doubt that as this issue escalates (as it is meant to) it will be teacher unions cast as villains. However, it is important to remember, and in due course remind others, that it is the government that is picking this fight.

It is necessary therefore to pose the question – why? Why court confrontation (Ministers know this is a ‘line in the sand’ issue for teacher unions) when there is no compelling reason to introduce the changes?  Before seeking to answer this question it is worth rehearsing some of the arguments relating to teachers and performance-related pay...

• There is no clear evidence that performance-related pay for teachers improves the quality of teaching and learning.
• The scheme presented by the STRB will be very complex and must surely be a distraction from what headteachers’ should be focusing on – teaching and learning (in a different context, this argument brilliantly put by headteacher John Tomsett, in his blog here).
• There are already considerable pay flexibilities in the current pay structures (many not used by headteachers, see next point).
• There is no evidence that anything more than a small minority of headteachers want the type of system proposed in the STRB report. In all the research I have done over 20 years, including recent research relating to Academy Schools (forthcoming) headteachers generally value national pay and conditions and show no appetite to depart from this approach. They appreciate the equity within it, the endorsement of unions and they do not see further performance-related pay as a priority.

So... why is it happening here (unlike very many other countries, including most of the highest performing systems), and why is it happening now?

Why here? Why now?

My immediate response is to argue that this has nothing to do with improving teaching and learning and everything to do with an ideological attack by the political Right on state education. The political Right have long argued that state education exemplifies values (collective provision, community control and commitments to equity), which they oppose. They would much rather an education system reinforced market values and hierarchies by both reflecting the market and reproducing it (this argument is best articulated in Milton and Rose Friedman’s classic 1980 text Free to Choose, in which they devote a whole chapter to education – the only ‘single issue’ to receive such attention, itself significant).

However, current reforms are about more than a values shift, but rather represent a fundamental re-engineering of the system so that the ‘education market’ can be opened up to private capital. This was predicted very accurately by educational historian Brian Simon, in 1987, when he argued that the Education Reform Bill (later the 1988 Act) was fundamentally about breaking up the school system so that at some point in the future it would be ready for privatisation.  ‘At some point in the future’ has become ‘now’ [see my article in Forum on this - with full Brian Simon reference].

Only when the real aims of government policy are analysed is it possible to understand why the government is picking this fight with the teacher unions now.  This is because the political Right recognise that what lies between where we are now (still a largely publicly provided, collectively financed system of state education) and where they want to be (a predominantly privately provided, taxpayer/feepaying school system with for-profit providers) are the teacher unions.  Whatever one’s views of teacher unions (and unsurprisingly there are many diverse views), the political Right know that the principal obstacle to their vision of the future of schools is unionised teachers, effectively organised. That is why, in countries such as the United States, where the private capital and for-profit sector in schooling is much more advanced, there are such considerable resources devoted to trying to defeat the US teachers’ unions (the picture with this blog shows a huge billboard in New York’s Times Square, and highlights the organised nature of the campaign against teacher unions in the US – see also the recent book by free market advocate Terry Moe for another perspective).

Teacher unions stand for the defence of their members’ interests, and the promotion of professional values, as part of a twin-track strategy to advocate for high quality education.  At the heart of their vision is the notion of the experienced, well-qualified professional, with working conditions appropriate to the task and a commitment to public service values.  Such an approach is inconsistent with the business model of education favoured by companies seeking to make profit from schooling.   This is because this model depends crucially on driving down the average costs of labour.  A small number of ‘super-professionals’ may receive additional pay (performance-related, of course), but more widely, ‘expensive teachers’ (experienced, highly qualified etc) find themselves replaced by cheaper alternatives (witness the growth of ‘alternative credentialing’ in the USA, and the removal of QTS requirements/downgrading of teacher education in England).  Further down the line, but already well advanced in the USA, is the use of technology to replace labour (google the term ‘virtual charter schools’ to see how schools in the US operate with the need for fewer qualified staff and without school buildings).

Teacher unions stand between where we are now, and this privatised vision of ‘public’ schooling, and that is why teacher unions are the target of this deliberate attack.  In my view it was an attack that began in earnest as long ago as 1987 (indeed before), when teachers’ collective bargaining rights were removed, and the endgame of that strategy is potentially being realised now. What is clear is that Michael Gove is determined to take on this challenge so that his ‘single-term revolution’ will be complete, and that whatever the outcome of the next election the political Right will believe their reforms are irreversible.  Only this can explain why Michael Gove has pressed ahead so far and so fast on so many fronts, and often in the face of overwhelming professional advice, let alone evidence (see the Ebacc issue for the latest manifestation of this).

So… when the Sunday Times informs us that the DfE is on a ‘war-footing’ then we need to recognise this is Michael Gove’s class war.  It is class war in the very traditional sense that the central state (the government) is being mobilised against organised labour (teacher unions) in the interests of private capital (the new edu-businesses).  It is not fashionable these days to talk in these terms, or even to use this sort of language.  But in essence this is exactly what is happening. Can these deliberately confrontational policies be presented in any other way?

In conclusion: it doesn’t have to be this way...

It is important to recognise that the proposals to sweep away national pay rates for teachers have nothing to do with improving teaching and learning. They are not even primarily about the role and future of the teacher unions.  Rather they are, ultimately, about the future of state education.

One vision of the future is of a publicly funded, democratically accountable network of schools.  Schools are at the centre of their local community and have a mission to strive for the best for all children. Education itself is the subject of lively debate and discussion.  There is a collective pride in the system and the professionals who work in it are trusted and enjoy the confidence of their community.

The other view is a business model of schools in which chains of private providers court attractive (that is, high performing) students with glossy marketing in order to maintain ‘market position’. Education is a consumer transaction. There is a ‘what will you do for me?’ attitude in the system and professionals are treated sceptically as ‘vested interests’. Their motivation to perform has to be incentivised with payments for results.

The first vision has a strong, independent and confident teaching profession at its heart – teacher unions, with their emphasis on collective voice and democratic engagement are central to that. The second vision, with its need for a compliant, low-wage workforce has no place for an independent voice for its employees.

These choices are becoming stark... as John Tomsett identified in his blog:

‘There is a huge fork in the road for Headteachers: one route leads to executive headship and the other back into the classroom, teaching, coaching, mentoring, supporting, being the Headteacher.’

Business manager or lead professional? Chief Executive or Headteacher? It echoes a choice that has been identified in Andy Hargreaves’ and Michael Fullan’s recent book when they counterpose ‘Business Capital’ against ‘Professional Capital’. As they point out in their highly readable book – there are choices.

It can sometimes feel uncomfortable to reduce complex issues to a simple ‘either/or’.  But it is increasingly difficult to identify any other position.  It is Michael Gove who has shunned consensus and appears to have declared war, and it is now for the teaching profession as a whole, teachers and headteachers, to decide whose side they are on. Arguably now is the time that teachers must respond to the question posed by Hargreaves and Fullan in their 1998 book written for one of the Ontario teachers’ unions – ‘what’s worth fighting for in education?

What is however increasingly clear is that being on the side of the angels will not, of itself, be sufficient.  Now more than ever there is a need for teachers to become ‘the activist profession’ (Judyth Sachs, 2003) – teachers need to organise, within and beyond their unions, to form the coalitions necessary to halt, and ultimately reverse, the trajectory of current policy.  Not only do teachers need to consider what is worth fighting for – but how they will fight for it.

[For excellent analyses of how the new edu-businesses are re-defining the educational landscape, and crossing borders and continents - see these books by Stephen Ball - Education PLC (2007) and Global Education Inc (2012).]

Howard Stevenson is Professor of Education in the Centre for Educational Research and Development at the University of Lincoln.  You can read his online blog here.