Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 76-79)




  76. Good morning. Thanks very much for coming in. As you know, when I became Chairman of the former Education Sub-committee, I thought it was rather strange that we had an awful lot of people coming before the Committee to talk about the state of education but not the teaching unions, and you remember—it must be 18 months ago with the General Election—you came before us, or most of you did, and that started a new, good dialogue between this Committee and the teaching profession. I hope everyone is now fit and well because I know two of you who are giving evidence today were not too well five or six weeks ago when we had the NUT and others here.

  (Mr Smith) Thank you, and can I thank you for inviting us. My scars are healed—at least the physical ones. The psychic scars remain, however, and possibly we can explore those!

  77. Do you want to say anything to open up the discussion? I am going to be really hard on time this morning because we are going for a record in that last week we finished this Committee on time at 11.30, and my team is asking me to see if we can do that again. Perhaps I should say that Meryl Thompson's CV came in late and some of the Committee will not have seen it, but Mrs Thompson is head of the policy unit of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and joined the ATL after 10 years of teaching. Would you like to open our session?
  (Mr Smith) Yes. I think almost all the problems which confront the education service flow from three things: the first is that it is going through an intense period of reform and that period of reform has taken place over a very long period, and certainly the sense I get from many of my members is that, increasingly, they are unconfident about their ability to soak up the punches. That is the first point, and there is a sort of paradox there where people want change but also want things to stay the same, and that I think is difficult. That is the first point. The second problem is that the issue of recruitment and retention of teachers—and I am going in a moment to emphasise retention—is absolutely crucial because, if you look at the age structure of the teaching profession, the teachers who are now 45 or so are the teachers upon whom the education service will critically rely over the next 10-15 years. If they are alienated or disaffected or become a cynical rump, then it inevitably follows it will be increasingly difficult to recruit able young teachers—or indeed mid-career switchers—into the teaching profession. That is the second point. The third point I want to make is that there is an acute tension, it seems to me, between Government's central macro policy setting of parameters and the autonomy which I think a cross-party consensus wishes to confer upon schools. It seems to me there are two kinds of tensions: there are tensions you can resolve and they are easy, and there are tensions which you have to manage and they are difficult.
  (Mrs Thompson) May I add that the retention also extends to younger teachers, because the Ofsted Report has just shown that 20 per cent of young teachers are leaving within the first three years of teaching, and there is some concern about the recruitment into the primary sector too. So in other areas it is not simply teachers in their 40s but earlier in their careers where retention is an issue.

  78. The Committee listened enraptured to your colleagues in the other teaching unions something over six weeks ago and we thought it quite remarkable that there was a very different tone coming from the NUT and Doug McAvoy and Nigel de Gruchy—much more positive than the 15-18 months before. They seemed to think that the environment in which teaching was taking place and the way in which the education service was moving all looked rather good. We all of us I think were rather impressed by the change in tone, yet these few short weeks from that date we now see two kinds of industrial action threatened—one from the head teachers and one from the NUT in London. What is going on? Why were we lulled into feeling that the teaching profession was better and here we are, six weeks later, in a very different situation?
  (Mr Smith) I am very reluctant to comment upon what the head teacher representatives, whom you will speak to later, will want to say but, going back to a point I made earlier about retention, it does seem to me without remotely being judgmental that you cannot have both sides of the coin: you cannot say, "We want the freedom and the autonomy to manage but, on the other hand, we walk away from the difficult decisions involved in managing". That is not to say, however, that I do not think that head teachers are not faced with very difficult arbitrary decisions in what are, often in primary schools particularly, quite small employer/employee environments so I think there is a difficult issue which the Secretary of State and, indeed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have to address when they make very difficult balancing decisions in the comprehensive spending review. As far as London is concerned, which was the second point of your question, I have been around long enough to know that the volatility of property prices and, indeed, transport prices in London have sometimes led to acute staff churning or staff shortages. I am heretical enough to think that where, in London, schools have been poor, that has not been because of younger teachers moving out of London because they could not afford to remain working in London: it is the teachers left in London who are often the beneficiaries of increasing property prices. Now that is a dilemma and I do not have an easy answer to it, save to say that spraying money at it is not necessarily the solution. I think the solution may be for local authorities—and some are—to adopt very creative approaches to how you import and keep key workers in core services.

  79. Mr Smith, you have been fighting with the other unions for a long time to have this whole profession regarded as a profession. Many people, all of us interested in education, know that the one thing teachers will tell you, and many parents too, is that the time of strikes of the 1980s did great damage to the profile of teachers teaching as a profession. Here we are now, back in the old groove, with teachers who want to be regarded as professionals going on strike. Surely you as a trade union leader must regret the damage that this will do to the image of teachers as professionals?
  (Mr Smith) I agree with you wholly. It seems to me that the general public will not readily understand the profession which appears to be saying, "We care for your children's education so much that we are not going to teach them on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or whenever". I agree with you. I believe that the troubles way back caused deep damage to the teaching profession, and a return to those days is not something about which I, or indeed my organisation, will be enthusiastic.

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