ATL president tells politicians to stop using education as a political football and leave learning to the professionals

29 March 2010

Education has become stuck on a merry-go-round, with the same policies and debates going round and round, according to Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) president Lesley Ward.  Looking back on four decades of teaching, Mrs Ward will tell delegates in her speech to the union's annual conference that 54 pieces of education legislation later she has an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.

Lesley Ward will say that the more politicians try to change education, the more it stays the same, as she calls for them to leave education alone and let teachers get on with it.

She will comment: "What was being debated in the 1970s is pretty similar to what is being debated four decades later. I am onto my 15th secretary of state for education and my 29th minister for education. I have lived through, endured, survived, call it what you like, 54 pieces of education legislation since I started teaching. One more and it would be one for each year of my life."

Highlighting some of the education policies over the last 40 years, Lesley Ward will say: '"One really good thing has happened in education since the 1970s.  Back then a quarter of schools had outside toilets, and now none do.  So we no longer have to say to our children in the winter: "Just sit there for a minute until the ice has thawed!"'

More seriously, she will say: "In January 1980 Mrs Thatcher was convinced there should be no difficulty in getting the essentials of a core curriculum on the back of an envelope. But at a conference a couple of years after the national curriculum was introduced someone brought with them several folders full of national curriculum documents.  So where on earth did the back of an envelope theory go?

Lesley Ward will say that in 1993 John Patten stated: 'By 2000 I want most state schools in this country to be centrally-funded and running their own affairs.'  "I bet he is surprised to see his dream coming true – and we haven't even got a Tory government!"

She will add:  "What can I say about Ofsted without raising my blood pressure? I can remember when HMI used to come in, actually spend time watching us teach. At the end of our feedback we actually felt good, even if we had been told that there were areas we needed to improve. It beggars belief that we now have a system that seems to have made up its mind about a school before it has seen any teaching."

Lesley Ward will recall that in 1995 Gillian Shephard, a Conservative Secretary of State, stated: 'There is no clear correlation between class size and quality and raising standards.' and now 15 years later the same political party is saying the exact opposite.

She will add:  "We have had the relentless rise of academies. We have had parent power. We have been told any failing school will re-open as an academy. We have been told anyone should be allowed to open a school.  There is the Swedish model, the faith model, and we will probably have the Lego model soon."

Turning to the current Conservative education policies she will say:  "Now they are saying to become a teacher you need a 2.2 or higher. I know of teachers who left university with a first, brilliant academics, but can't teach. I think it was Mae West who said: 'It's not what you've got – it's how you use it!"

Lesley Ward will conclude:  "But what should education really be about, when it is stripped bare of all the political, financial and philosophical layers? It's about the one thing that is rarely mentioned prominently by politicians. It's about children. It's about doing the best we can for the children in our charge.

"I don't think I would like to be a school child at the moment. I don't think I'd like to be a statistic. I don't think I would like to feel guilty for being poorly during SATs week if my absence brought the school's score down. I don't think that I would enjoy being a political football.

"So, who should the new government really be listening to? It's us. It's the teachers. It's the support staff. It's the lecturers. Trust us and leave us to do our job."


For further information please contact the ATL press office on 0161 827 7646 during the annual conference and otherwise on 0207 782 1589.

For the full text of the speech, see this page.

Notes to editors

  1. 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.

  2. ATL exists to help members, as their careers develop, through first rate research, advice, information and legal advice.

  3. 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.


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