Mary Bousted's speech to Conference 2011
20 April 2011
I became General Secretary of ATL in 2003. In the seven years I have held this important position I have learned much about the union, its members, its purpose and its values. And it is with these positives that I want to begin today. Why do members join ATL and why do they stay in the union? Why are so many so keen to get involved in the work of the union – through its policy development, through union learning and through work in the branches and regions? Other membership organisations would be in seventh heaven if they enjoyed the connection that we have with our members. So what is it that they value in ATL and what is it that I am so proud to be General Secretary of?
Let us look first to our objects as an Association. And first of these is education. We exist to further the cause of education; to improve education and to ensure that all children, from whatever background, receive the best education possible, regardless of their parent's ability to pay.
We believe that if teachers, lecturers, support staff and school and college leaders are to be able to work most effectively and to fulfil their mission as educators they need to be supported and valued – in school by school leaders; in society by parents and commentators; in the country by politicians. In making this statement I am not arguing that educators should not be accountable - of course we must held properly accountable for our part in raising the standards of education in the UK. No one, least of all ATL, denies this.
ATL values and believes in equality. We want education staff to be treated fairly and to succeed on their merits – not on who they know or where they come from or their sexual orientation. And this belief in equality for members is strengthened by our passion for equality of opportunity for children and young people. We know that a child's social class is still the main determinant of their educational prospects – this is as true in 2011 as it was a century ago, and this truth should shame us as a society.
ATL is independent of any political party. We consider the education policies of each and make judgements based on evidence and reason. We will support where we can and oppose where we must. And here I make a distinction. ATL is not party political, but it is political. Education is a political act, paid for by the tax payer and highly subject to political decree. We cannot afford not to be intimately acquainted with, and able to operate within, the Whitehall bubble and the local council. We cannot afford to despise the political process. We have to engage with it – doing what we can to further our objects in the political and economic circumstances in which state education is delivered.
Today I want to assess the year past and look forward to the year ahead in the context of the values I have just described, and especially from ATL's position as a politically independent trade union – ready to report without fear or favour.
The Coalition Government has now been in power for nearly a year and during that short time we have seen a frenetic wave of activity. Two education bills which, taken together, radically alter the landscape of state education. Bills which are entirely contradictory – the first cutting schools loose from the democratic control of education authorities; the second enabling the Secretary of State for Education to take huge powers to himself - including – remarkably, the powers to compel the closure of a school and the power to compel an employer to sack a teacher.
These bills have been accompanied by a frantic policy drive which has included the ongoing revision of the national curriculum; a major policy report on vocational education; a green paper on special educational needs (SEN); the tripling of higher education fees; the destruction of the education maintenance allowance (EMA); radical changes to school funding – I could go on and on…..
If you listened to the Coalition Government, and were swayed by their arguments, you would believe that nearly everything was wrong in the state of education UK. You would believe that the investment made in education by the last government – rebuilt schools; increases in per pupil funding; investment in CPD; better wages and terms and conditions for school teachers, were all wasted. Money thrown down the drain.
If you were at Conference last year you may be surprised by what I have just told you. You may remember Michael Gove telling us of the teachers who had changed his life and opened his horizons. He thanked us for the work we did with young people and said that there was no more important factor in educational improvement than the quality of the teachers. Could this possibly be the same Michael Gove who has also said:
'There are hundreds of primaries where the majority of children fail to get an acceptable level in maths and English. The majority of children leave these schools without the knowledge and skills required properly to follow the secondary school curriculum and make a success of the rest of their time in education.'
Michael Gove should remember that we live in an age of rapid media communication – you would think that he would have known this as a result of his training and experience as a journalist. What he says is recorded, and we are justified, I think, in asking him which Michael Gove is the real one? Will he stand up? Is he Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde? Does he love us or loathe us? Or is it that most dysfunctional of relationships – love hate?
Whilst we ponder this important question let us look at the coalition government's aims for our schools and children. This Coalition Government says that it wants all children, from every background, including, and most especially those who are disadvantaged to succeed. It is a noble aim.
At the same time this Government dreams up the English Bac and at a stroke privileges academic subjects and pits them against vocational subjects which motivate so many, particularly disadvantaged students, giving them a framework and rationale for learning. This Government downgrades and degrades the importance of music and the arts – subjects which are particularly important for, and valuable to, students whose home lives are fractured and who need a safe place to explore their feelings and to develop emotional awareness of themselves and empathy with others.
This Government says it wants to revise the national curriculum to improve children's learning. It then sets in train the production of a revised national curriculum which explicitly ignores skills and skill development, in the false belief that all a national curriculum has to do is focus on concepts and knowledge, and that skills will come along as a natural by product of teaching and learning. The scale of Nick Gibb's ignorance about pedagogy and about learning is frightening, really frightening. Consider our conference speaker yesterday, Nick Gibb who has said the following words:
"... education is about the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next... The facts, dates and narrative of our history in fact join us all together … "
Well, do they? Do they really? Or do we interpret the same historical facts very differently based on our points of view, our culture and our life histories? And is it not the interplay of these interpretations which makes history so interesting, so endlessly fascinating? It is within the limits of reasonable, rationale interpretation that historical narratives, and literature, and art, and music, come alive. The role of education is to enable new generations to look afresh at what is already known and provide new explanations and interpretations which fit with the knowledge and conditions of the times. Education cannot be frozen. We cannot, despite this Government's desperate desires, fix a national curriculum once and for all time. Education will not be frozen in aspic – however much the government wants to look forward to a rosy past.
And then there is the issue of who teaches and who learns the national curriculum. Because if you work in an academy or a free school (which is, of course, an academy by another name) you will not have to follow the national curriculum. You will, despite the assurances by Michael Gove proscribing the teaching of creationism as scientific fact, be able to teach just what you like.
Remember, these schools are not free; they are paid for by tax payers money. The children who attend them are going to live and work in the same 21st century as their peers. It cannot be right, surely, that their education is constrained and controlled by the whims of their parents or by the beliefs of the schools' sponsors?
As a former pupil of a convent grammar school I would never be so naive to say that education should never have an element of indoctrination – but there have, surely, to be checks and balances which secure the right to a broad and balanced curriculum which, at times, poses uncomfortable questions to the firmly held beliefs of your parents or to religious authority? If we are to expect our pupils to participate in a democracy we have to equip them to question, to dissent and to articulate opposing views.
What on earth is the Government, with our taxes, doing in funding schools where the state, democratically elected, has no say over the curriculum? Where the state has no say, and parents have no guarantee over whether those working in them are qualified to teach?
Most people know that the Government's health reforms are in deep trouble. Far fewer realise how much of a piece their education reforms are with health. Much has been made of the phrase 'any willing provider' of health services. What is not widely recognised is that education is now open to 'any willing provider'. But do not expect to see hundreds of parents groups setting up schools – expect to see private providers coming along and 'doing it for them'. They are there, waiting in the wings, ready and willing to provide not just the back up services – finance, HR, IT etc. They are also there ready to provide the curriculum, the performance management, the CPD. We have to understand. Free schools and academies are not about autonomy and localism; they are about big business and its take over of the state education system. And if you want more evidence just look at the example of further education colleges, incorporated by the Tory Government in 1993 and how much those colleges now spend on consultants. We have been down this road before.
We should understand something else. This Government is not just determined to transform the landscape when it comes to who runs our schools; it has ambitious plans for you and your pay. It is not, I think, insignificant that Anne Wright, Chair of the School Teachers Review Body has left her post early. I expect her to be replaced by someone who will be sympathetic to the Government's expressed desire to 'free up' national pay and conditions for teachers.
ATL knows better than most what the break up of national pay and conditions means; we have watched with dismay the salaries of our FE member fall behind those of teachers. Each college having its own pay structure and without binding national pay negotiations. Be in no doubt. Freeing up is a euphemism. Substitute 'tear up' for 'free up' and you will be much nearer the mark, because that is this Government's intention – to tear up national pay and conditions for teachers.
This Government was very fond of saying that we are all in it together. We are not. Only last week the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that after whilst the top 1% of earners was hit hardest by the budget with the (temporary) 50% tax rate, it was then the bottom 10% who suffer most and the next 10% next.
We should be afraid, very afraid about the scale of the devastation that is to be visited on our public services and upon the poorest families whose children so many of us teach. It is starting now and it's going to get worse: £81 billion of cuts, including Sure Start, the Connexions service, Citizens Advice Bureaux, the health in pregnancy grant, child tax credit, freezing child benefit for three years and so on and so on. Only now is the scale of the cuts and their effect on civil society being realised, and only now are the electorate waking up to the fact that supporting cuts in the abstract is one thing; seeing their effect on you and your family is another.
What is also known now is that the Big Society won't fill the gap – as the very charities upon which this hazy concept is, to put it loosely, based, lose their funding as councils face cuts of 27%.
What does this mean for those on the ground, in reality? It means savage cuts to minority support services, psychological services, pupil and parent services, behaviour support services access and inclusion, teenage pregnancy strategy, teams after school care, the connexions service, looked after children, disabled children's service and the children and adolescent mental health services.
Let me give just one example – Hull. A local authority in an area of stark deprivation which has clawed its way up to become third from the bottom when it comes to GCSE league tables. As a direct result of cuts in its central grant Hull is going to make 599 redundancies in its children and young peoples services. It is making swathes of deletions in its connexions service; it is making its music service and sports development service completely self financing; it is reducing its educational welfare officers from 15 to 3; it is deleting posts in its school girl mums unit; in its youth and community service.
Of course, the Coalition Government does not think that local authority services are important, particularly if all schools become academies who will choose to buy, or not to buy (if they can skew their intake) services where they please. Indeed, the biggest contradiction in all that is being visited upon us is this: local authorities are charged with the provision of good local schools, but any power to enable them to build such schools, or to support them effectively, are taken away from them. They are denied any authority and denuded of resources.
So I say to this Government, and to Sarah Teather the hapless Children's minister, it's all very well to publish a green paper on special educational needs, calling on professionals to work together to support children with SEN – team working is great and teachers are good at it. The problem is, by the time this government has finished there will be no team – as educational psychologists and speech and language therapists lose their jobs, it will be teachers left doing what they can – and it will never be enough. In the words of one mother, Stacie Lewis, writing in the Guardian about her profoundly disabled child, May: 'May is beautiful, her progress inspiring. Now we have a new struggle. Even as we marvelled at May drinking from a cup, we learned that due to government cuts, the speech and language therapy team who made her success possible will have a significantly reduced presence at children's centres.' And the same is true for parents of children with SEN, all over the country who live in growing fear for the future of their children.
It is absolutely at the core of ATL's values that all children receive the best education possible, and that those who are most vulnerable – either through a special educational need, or through disability, or through poverty, or through family dysfunction, are the most protected and receive the best resources – so that they can, through their education, realise as much of their natural potential as possible. We know that teachers cannot do this alone. We know that poverty is the biggest indicator of poor educational progress. We know that as more families are thrown into poverty the more children from disadvantaged backgrounds will fail to achieve and gain the qualifications which will open life's doors to them. We know that the abolition of the EMA will have profoundly negative effects on staying on rates post 16 – with disadvantaged youngsters – being forced to join the ever expanding Not in Education Employment and Training (NEET) population. We know what happens to NEETS. They live lives which are financially insecure; emotionally insecure; physically insecure; they are more unhealthy; their family life tends to be fractured and fractious – and they pass on the effects of their poverty onto their children, who pass them on to their children, and so on…
So, we fear for our pupils and students. And, if we are honest, we fear for ourselves, for ourselves as professionals and for our profession as teachers. What do we fear as we are invited by the politicians to look forward to a bright future – a shining world of educational autonomy where schools are freed from the dead hand of local authority control – indeed – for outstanding schools from any form of control whatsoever? For school leaders autonomy means their role is established as captains of their ship – steering their school towards open seas, unknown horizons and brave new worlds. It means different types of ships on different shipping lanes – free schools, academies, community schools, all (to mix my metaphors – and why not, it's my speech?) ploughing their own furrows.
The Coalition Government purports to have made a pact with the teaching profession. It signals the end of the 'done to' approach, to be replaced by the 'done with'.
But will teachers and support staff in schools really feel any difference? Will they feel empowered? I think the answer depends, very much, on the school they are working in. If they are working under the leadership of a good head teacher and a strong leadership team then they will be protected – but the protection will last only as long as the leadership team remains in place.
That is why it is so important that ATL has established its leadership section AMiE and has seen it grow from strength to strength. And it is significant that only AMiE, of all the leadership unions, will be balloting its members over the attack on their pensions.
Across the UK ATL is representing its members and fighting for their rights. In Post 16 ATL has seen increased membership in universities, sixth forms and in further education (FE). In FE we have seen an astonishing rise in membership. Let me tell you why conference.
We consider our position before we act and risk the livelihoods of our members.
Take the current issue of the fee raise by the Institute for Learning (IfL). The IfL needs to be self-financing if it is to continue as a professional and independent body. That is what the Government has decreed. But the IfL has set a fee that members don't think is right. 96% of members in ATL's survey said they disagreed with the fee. That is reflected across the sector.
They don't think it is right because they were never fully advised on what the IfL was set up to do. The Government wanted the IfL, and the sector wanted a professional body so details like job roles, how CPD would work, and where members would be supported to get CPD were forgotten. Well, now they are being remembered, conference.
We have constantly raised the issue of the lack of definitions around the assistant teacher role in FE. We have persisted with our view that CPD should be made more accessible to staff. We have always stated the unfairness and lack of consistency contained in the code of conduct.
We want to see an entitlement to CPD that colleges help plan. Not one that colleges can veto when staff want to shadow a colleague in another department or another workplace. Not one that can veto staff attending a university course or talk. Not one that can veto staff getting together and talking about professional matters for their CPD!
We want this because ATL is the education union. And our membership is growing because we address such issues. Members want us to solve problems, not create them. They want an independent professional body that gives them what they want; they don't want yet another dispute with their employer on dubious grounds.
Despite the continuing economic recession, in 2010 ATL's membership in the independent sector reached a record high, surpassing the symbolic figure of 20,000 for the first time ever!
The ATL's independent pay survey, now in its third year, has established itself as an authoritative voice. Once again, we had terrific membership engagement with 1,400 members taking part, with the survey receiving extensive national and local media coverage.
Members thoroughly enjoyed the 2010 ATL independent schools conference, described by one member as "the best INSET I have been to in a very long time!"
For our support staff members, however, 2010 was not a good year. The Government's decision to scrap the School Support Staff Negotiating Body (SSSNB) was a bitter blow to our support staff membership who were hoping to finally see a professional pay structure established to recognise and pay them for the essential work they do in our schools.
On top of this the two-year pay freeze and the refusal to even implement the £250 flat-rate rise for those staff earning less than £21,000 a year which was implemented in the rest of the public sector, has impacted sharply on our maintained sector members' standard of living. On a more positive note, and despite of the impact of redundancies and restructurings, ATL's support staff membership continues to grow in all sectors – it now stands at more than 14,000. And we are seeing particularly strong growth in the independent sector, where we have doubled the number of support staff members in just 4 years.
ATL organises throughout the United Kingdom. As a direct result of devolved administrations we have concrete evidence that there is, always, another way. So how is ATL faring outside the remit of the Westminster Government?
I'm delighted to report a growth in membership in Scotland both in the independent and maintained sectors since conference last met. This is particularly pleasing against a backdrop of cuts in each sector; as well as the ongoing problem of probationer (NQT) unemployment. Such is the waste of talent, and not to mention public money, in relation to probationer unemployment it is our top priority in our Scottish Parliament election manifesto and has been the focus of discussions when lobbying MSPs and the political parties ahead of next month's election.
Our ATL Future activities in Scotland continue to go from strength to strength with ever popular events, and last autumn we saw student reps assisting at seven of the 13 recruitment days across Scotland, which resulted in a 5% increase in our share of the student market from 2010.
Looking ahead post-election, structural change is clearly on the horizon following a plethora of recent reviews and consultations; these coming at a time when members are looking to bed-in Curriculum for Excellence and seeking clearer guidance on the new National Qualifications. One thing that seems to be constant, wherever teachers work throughout the UK, is their government's belief that change is a good thing and education must have more of it.
For our members in Northern Ireland, the core ATL policy to establish a Strategic Education Forum has been achieved. We hope this collaborative partnership will bear fruit in coming years. Our Director in Northern Ireland, Mark Langhammer, was part of the Ministerial working group on Higher Education, and also chaired the working group on educational under-achievement in Controlled schools, whose publication "A Call to Action" has been widely read and publicised.
In Wales ATL has been working with another Coalition Government, but one that is committed to maintaining the comprehensive settlement and has not gone down the road of rampant privatisation. ATL has developed an excellent working relationship with the Minister for Education, Leighton Andrews. A relationship which has paid-off in the difficult period that followed Wales' poor performance in the international PISA tests. These showed that the Welsh education system is not performing at its best. But there has been no orgy of teacher-bashing in the wake of their publication. ATL was the key player in ensuring that the focus is on the future, and the name, shame and blame culture beloved of some politicians did not feature. When the Minister came to deliver his state of the nation address on the way forward it was our Director in Wales, Dr Philip Dixon, who was asked to chair his speech and questions.
Campaigning is now going on for the Welsh National Assembly and again ATL has played a key part in articulating the voice of the profession. Our hustings event – at which ATL and AMiE members grilled political spokespeople from the four main parties – has set the agenda for much of the education debate. ATL's manifesto contains pledges on narrowing the funding gap, ensuring a fair deal for support staff, a national contract for FE staff, more rational local education authority support, adequate CPD for all staff, and the eradication of child poverty.
So, on behalf of all of us here, ATL members and staff at Conference I'd like to welcome new members to ATL in whatever sector, role or country you work in. You have made the right choice. You know what you get with ATL (it says it on the tin as they say):
- We do not posture, when we should consider.
- We do not shout, when we can talk.
- We do not act, when there is nothing to be accomplished.
- And we do act when it is in your interest and with your agreement.
I started this speech with a reminder of our objects as an organisation – what makes us the education union. I finish with a reminder of our values – what makes our style distinctive. We are always described by the press as the moderate union, but we know what that means. It means we are reasonable people. It means we believe in the force of reasoned argument. Not for us posturing, aggression and instinctive opposition. No, it means for us being positive, looking for agreement and accepting compromise. These are our values; these are the values we encourage in those we teach. These are the values I take into my relationships with government and others. I am proud to lead an organisation committed to reason.
But the decision you have made this week takes us down a different path. Conference, I know your decision was not easy. It is not the ATL way. But having made it, I call upon you all, all of you here who are ATL's opinion leaders, to go back to your workplaces and branches and work to achieve a big vote in the ballot. Even now, some of our members are unaware of the threat. Many will not realise that reason has already failed. I cannot say what decisions will be made at the NUT and NASUWT conferences in Harrogate and Glasgow, but I can say this. At the start of next term, staff rooms will be buzzing. ATL staff will do our bit, making sure the materials are in workplaces, members' homes and on the website. But only you can ensure that if and when the time comes, members put their cross on the ballot.
Your decision answers the question, but what if reason fails? It is a sad commentary on our world, but a terrible indictment of our Government, when reasoned argument is shrugged aside in pursuit of an ideology. This Government's policy to dismantle at breakneck speed the frameworks which have served the nation well over the years is a dangerous experiment for which it has produced no convincing evidence.
And that was your judgement on hearing the proposals to make you pay more, work longer, and get less in your pensions. What hurts ATL the most is the lack of any evidence that any of it is necessary. We are left with what the Chancellor has told us in so many words: you, and all public servants, are to pay, and pay big time, for the profligacy of the bankers. Your President voiced on Monday the anger of people across the country, people who understand that our economic plight results from the global banking crisis. And now against the cynical mantra from Cabinet millionaires that we are all in this together, those same bankers are still up to the very same tricks which caused the crisis. The levels of reckless gambling on so-called assets with absolutely no basis in reality, the derivatives and all that, are almost back to 2008 levels. Insiders are talking of another crash, not if, but when.
So I am not surprised that ATL members have reached the limits of reasonableness. When reason fails, what is left? I say to the Chancellor, and to the Secretary of State: we prepare for a strike, for the first time in our history, more in sorrow than in anger. We do not want to strike. We want to avoid a strike. But when reason fails, what is left? The minute you convince ATL that you want to start again by telling us what is the problem with our pensions, and to negotiate as if genuinely seeking agreement on a way forward, we can put our preparations on hold. But I also say this to ministers: think on. If the moderate members of ATL are in this mood, what about the hundreds of thousands of other education staff? What about the millions of other public sector workers, facing massive cuts and redundancies as well? When middle England turns against you, where do you turn?
We never retreat from our object, to promote the cause of education. We never retreat from our values, our commitment to reason. And ATL will never, never retreat from its duty to support and defend the staff who provide education and transmit those values. At this historical moment, ATL demands of the government: respect those whose vocation is to serve the nation's learners.
Notes to editors
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) is an independent, registered trade union and professional association, representing approximately 170,000 teachers, headteachers, lecturers and support staff in maintained and independent nurseries, schools, sixth form, tertiary and further education colleges in the United Kingdom.
ATL exists to help members, as their careers develop, through first rate research, advice, information and legal advice.
ATL is affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and Education International (EI). ATL is not affiliated to any political party and seeks to work constructively with all the main political parties.