My letter to Lucy Powell: time to put teachers’ collective bargaining back on the agenda

October 1, 2015 — 4 Comments

Dear Ms Powell

Congratulations on your appointment as Shadow Secretary of State for Education. I have no doubt you are receiving considerable advice at the present time, but I hope you don’t mind if I add my own policy suggestion to the many others you will be receiving. I suspect that there will not be many making the same suggestion as me, but perhaps that reflects how far English education has departed from the mainstream of what is accepted orthodoxy in many other countries – many of which consistently out-perform the English school system.

You clearly know by now that education in England is in a mess. You made that apparent in your speech to the Labour Party conference. An ideological commitment to market-driven solutions is producing a system characterised by poor governance, a serious shortage of school places and a teacher supply crisis. In response I am aware that in your early public statements you have already indicated that you see recruiting and retaining high quality teachers as central to your priorities for a future Labour government. This is most welcome.

There is currently a rhetoric about the importance of teacher quality but without any clear strategy for recruiting and retaining high quality professionals, for developing teacher capacity and for establishing teaching as an attractive and sustainable career. Market-driven solutions have resulted in the de-regulation of teaching as a profession – teacher education is chaotic whilst the teachers’ contract fails to provide the framework required for teachers to perform their job properly and to develop themselves professionally. At the same time headteachers waste their time administering unnecessarily complex and divisive school-by-school payment systems. The proof of the pudding is in the eating – teacher workloads are unsustainable, access to high quality CPD is at best patchy and the crude application of performance related pay is causing inequality, division and demoralisation. Add to the mix the drip, drip, drip of ofsted-inspired teacher criticism and a crisis in teacher supply should hardly be a surprise.

Your conference speech clearly showed you appreciate the urgent need to address the fundamental problems that currently bedevil the teaching profession. Teachers need the pay to make a career in teaching attractive, the working conditions that make the job sustainable, the opportunities to develop professionally and, finally, the trust and respect that are essential for professional fulfilment. However, what is as important as the solutions are the means by which such solutions will be generated. Current problems extend far beyond technical details about particular policies but go to the heart of how such policies are developed. The culture of conflict, confrontation and imposition is as much a part of the problem as the hopelessly inappropriate policies that are the inevitable outcome of such an approach.

There is therefore an urgent need to establish a wholly different type of relationship between government and the teaching profession – one based on mutual respect and trust. Such a relationship would aspire to consensus, but also recognise, respect, and be able to accommodate, different perspectives. In my view there are currently three different ways of developing teacher-government relations available to a future Labour government, of which only one has the possibility of securing the radical change required to meet Jeremy Corbyn’s bold and inspiring aspirations for a national education service.

The three options are:

College of Teaching – this body is now established with the claim, supported by the government, that it will raise the status of the teaching profession. In so doing it promises to address directly many of the concerns you have identified. Whilst the aims of many of its advocates are laudable there is no doubt that as it is conceived the College faces a number of problems. In its early days the College was endorsed by Michael Gove in a speech in which he quite explicitly presented the College as an alternative to the teacher unions. Many of those who advocate the College would not support this view but it is becoming increasingly apparent that a College of Teaching cannot act as an independent voice for teachers whilst at the same time teacher unions are attacked and marginalised by government. In those countries where similar bodies are well established and respected by teachers they co-exist with teacher unions that are similarly well respected by government. The College of Teaching has been created within the paradigm of a system that is broken and requires transformation. It is almost certainly too associated with that system to be capable of transformation itself. As such it is struggling to assert its independence and it is recognised that the organisation is having difficulty gaining any meaningful traction with teachers. Either way, it is increasingly apparent that the College of Teaching is incapable of generating sufficient support within the teaching profession to develop the consensus around reform and progress that is required.

Social Partnership – this was the tripartite model of state- local government-teacher relations that prevailed throughout most of the last Labour government, specifically between 2003 and 2010 (before it was summarily abolished by Michael Gove). The Social Partnership produced the national workload agreement (2003) and a raft of policies associated with workforce remodelling and the ‘new professionalism’ agenda. There is no doubt that there were many positive features of the Social Partnership – it recognised that meaningful change requires engagement with teacher and support staff unions, and it also recognised that the teachers’ contract is the key to addressing the issues required to make teaching an attractive and sustainable job. However, as it was constituted the Social Partnership contained a basic and fundamental flaw. As a model based on consensus it had no mechanism for dealing with conflict. Where consensus could not be achieved then those in dispute had no option but to sit outside the Social Partnership (this is why the NUT never joined the Social Partnership and why NAHT was both in, and out, at different times). This failure to develop an adequate mechanism for dealing with disagreement meant the relationship within the partnership was never one based on equality. The ability of the DfE, ultimately, to impose outcomes meant the balance of power was not even, a genuine consensus was never required, and that policy could still be imposed without teacher support (for further details see Carter, Stevenson and Passey, 2010). There was therefore a failure to develop a real consensus around the types of policy that could have made education reform pre-2010 much more resilient in the face of the Coalition’s attack post-2010. It was why Social Partnership ultimately failed under the last Labour government and why it should not be reconstituted in the same, or similar, form by a future Labour government.

National Collective Bargaining – this was the mechanism for negotiating teachers’ pay and conditions which existed from 1919 through to 1987 but which was abolished following the teachers’ industrial action 1984-86. At the time the argument was that the negotiating system was broken and that it had directly contributed to the industrial unrest of the mid 1980s. In reality, abolition of negotiating rights was always part of a longer term strategy to undermine and marginalise teacher unions as the independent and democratic voice of the mass of the teaching profession. The big mistake of the teacher unions was to allow their own rivalrous behaviour to make it too easy to turn a temporary suspension of negotiating rights into permanent abolition. The consequences have been costly for teachers and are now clear to see – a fragmented and divisive pay system, a contract that provides little protection against punishing workloads and the absence of any meaningful entitlement for teachers to access proper professional development.

Now is the time to put the restoration of a new, national system of collective bargaining for teachers back on the agenda. Only by addressing questions of the teachers’ contract can the really important questions relating to teachers’ work be addressed. First, the gross inefficiency (and injustice) of school-by-school payments systems can be ended. Second, workload issues can be tackled seriously (and if they aren’t there isn’t much hope for any quality education in the longer term). Finally, issues of entitlement and access to CPD can be addressed. Only collective bargaining can do this in a way that gets to the heart of the problem/solution (the teachers’contract) and with the active support of the vast majority teachers (the DfE’s own research indicates that teacher unions represent 97% of the profession).

The case for establishing a new system of collective bargaining therefore is that only collective bargaining provides the parity in the relationship between government, employers and teachers that is the real recognition of valuing teachers. Moreover, precisely because no one party can impose a solution on the other parties, there is a requirement to find a real consensus on which progress can be made. Conflict is always present, and disputes can arise. Inevitably. But ultimately consensus must be achieved. However, this is not a false consensus based on imposition and acquiescence but a more authentic consensus based on transparency and trust. The outcome, I would suggest, is a much more robust education system, based on the genuine and broad support of stakeholders. Such systems do not swing violently when governments change and there is no doubt that the dismantling of public education that we have witnessed since 2010 would not have happened if before 2010 the system had been developed in genuine partnership with teachers.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has an opportunity to present a much more positive and hopeful vision of education in England than that which is currently on offer. You have begun to articulate that in your speech to conference. The challenge will be to build a broad, and strong, alliance around progressive change – one that involves all key stakeholders and rejects imposition from above in favour of coalition building from below. Such changes will be stronger, more robust and more enduring as a result of this approach – and certainly much better able to withstand the pressures of those who seek to privatise and ultimately make profit from state education. My argument is that such coalition building cannot be achieved without national collective bargaining. It is by no means the whole picture – but it is an important part of it. It is an idea whose time has come. Many will portray it as anachronistic and seek to caricature it. Actually it is radical, dynamic and is absolutely about doing politics differently.

Yours sincerely

Howard Stevenson
Xaverian College 1979-81 😉


4 responses to My letter to Lucy Powell: time to put teachers’ collective bargaining back on the agenda


    Brilliant letter Howard Chris

    Sent from my iPhone


      Thanks Chris – reflects a few days spent doing research in Scotland. They wouldn’t say it was perfect – but there is so much to learn about policy development from Scotland, across all areas – from teacher development to curriculum. It is slower – but feels much more solid. Policy has broad support and there is little evidence of the ‘policy lurch’ that characterises England.


    Hi Howard. Can you change the reference to me as an ‘advocate of the College of Teaching’ please? I’m very divided on how I feel towards the project, and would prefer not to be counted in a camp, if that’s ok. Thanks


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