Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)

MR PETER SMITH AND MRS MERYL THOMPSON

WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH 2002

Mr Shaw

  80. Continuing that theme, Mr Smith, the former Permanent Secretary at the education department said of the unions that they had an unrelenting negative attitude and had failed to provide leadership. What is your response to that?
  (Mr Smith) I do not accept that—I do not accept it remotely. I would say to that that many of the reforms led by Secretaries of State of either government would have been less glitch-free had the mood and temperament within the DfE, or DfES as it now is, been to listen rather than to say, "We will do this on one of two presuppositions: either that the logic is so obvious that no sensible teacher could ignore it, or it is so important that we will not bother their pretty little heads with it", but I do not accept that the teacher organisations have been lax in leading their membership: I would come back to you very robustly and I would say that the reforms which have been achieved have been achieved because of teachers and because of the responsibility of teaching unions, not despite it.

  81. So what would you say to a young graduate who was considering a career in teaching, and you have to meet them, saying "Mr Smith, potentially I am a new member of your union. Why should I become a teacher?"
  (Mr Smith) I have an application form in my pocket!

  82. Before this person takes that form, they obviously have to become a teacher. What words of encouragement would you give them, because the government has a target of 10,000 extra teachers, and if we can recruit those that will go some way towards resolving some of the problems your members are experiencing—or so you tell us. What words of encouragement would you give from the ATL?
  (Mr Smith) First of all, I would say that there has never been a better time to enter the teaching profession. Going back to something I said earlier, the demographics of the profession for young graduates—and I think you are referring to those—have never been better. The sense I also get is a sense of generational change which some of the reforms which have been introduced old lags find difficult to accommodate to, but that is the nature of human beings. I think there is a generational change going on there and consequently, if the issue is, "How do we talk up teaching as an important career and as a satisfying career?", I would be wholly in favour of that. I think I would have to balance that against saying that anybody who chooses teaching as a career in order to be rich is not clever enough to be a teacher, but that having been said, if the rewards do not compare with the rewards for similar qualified professionals, then you will get the fallout effect which we were talking about earlier, because people will look at their contemporaries five years in and say (1) I am not getting the job satisfaction I hoped for; and (2) I could earn more money easily elsewhere.

Mr Pollard

  83. In my constituency we cannot get any men in our primary schools—I think there is only one school. Have you any views on how we might address that?
  (Mrs Thompson) Obviously the Teacher Training Agency has initiatives in order to increase the intake of men into the profession. It is worth thinking about whether there are gender issues in terms of whether staff rooms in the primary sector are conducive to men working there, and I think that should be thought about carefully, but I think many men seem to be reluctant to join the primary teaching profession because of some of the issues there have been over dealing with children, and that has been of concern to some male entrants. It would be very good if we could remove that completely but it does appear to be somewhat inexorable because, of course, the gender balance in the secondary sector is also changing and fewer men are being recruited into the secondary sector. Above all, one of the emphases we ought to have is that the teaching profession has to be conducive to the female workforce because, if we deter women from entering teaching, then we do have even more serious teacher supply problems.

  84. We do not need super golden hellos for men to come in?
  (Mrs Thompson) With everything one puts into place one has to think about the impact on the other group that are not getting that. We are finding, for example, with the £6,000 award for graduates there is an impact on B.Ed. recruitment and on primary teaching. You will see a perverse impact on other groups.

Chairman

  85. The unintended consequences?
  (Mrs Thompson) Yes, indeed.

Mr Baron

  86. Mr Smith, can I take you back to comments earlier when you talked about this fundamental tension between schools wanting more autonomy and a basic sort of central control, because as we all go round the classrooms we are finding more and more that obviously the subject is of concern to teachers about excessive workload, a micro management from Whitehall, the number of initiatives that keep hitting head teachers and governors' desks almost on a daily basis. What is the answer, do you think? Most of us want schools to have greater autonomy and for teachers to teach but how do you get that balance right? Government has a certain responsibility at the end of the day and standards for other functions, but it does seem as though the pendulum has swung too far in the Government's favour at the moment and that we need to redress that balance, surely?
  (Mr Smith) I think you are right and I wish I knew the answer to the question. It seems to me that from its inception the national curriculum was over prescriptive and rolling that back is difficult, particularly if the Government stands accused of abandoning standards and resiling from that particular reform. My own view is that we need to return to an atmosphere, if you like, a climate, in which what I would describe as "permitted eccentricity" of teachers is allowed. I do not think you can legislate for that, incidentally. I can certainly recall the slogan, "Everybody remembers a good teacher"—equally everybody remembers a bad teacher, but I can certainly remember good teachers who had a powerful impact upon me who would probably be disciplined now and probably would not come into the profession, or, if they did, would be rebuked because they were not following, jot and tittle, the national curriculum. I think the other thing to be said is, and I know this is all a bit airy fairy and will not lead you away, that it is cultural rather than legal. I think you need to create an atmosphere in which experiment is not heresy but is part of the business of educating children, young people, and, indeed, adults for a very different society. If I can just deal with an issue which you did not raise, one of the concerns I have is that the present government is over-emphasising the contribution which information and communications technology will make to improving the education service. No doubt it will contribute but, at the end of the day, it seems to me that the education process is all about people interacting with people, teachers with parents, teachers with pupils, head teachers with governors, teachers' schools with the outside world, and if I had one top priority—top priority—it would be for there to be a huge investment in ICT hardware and software but with continuing ancillary support and trouble-shooting.

  87. It is interesting to hear what you have to say about basically creating more flexibility from the school's point of view with regards to the national curriculum. As you say, experimenting is not a heresy and I personally would agree with that, but is another way of looking at it the recent initiative introduced by the Government, and that is to help with the support staff and more technical support like laptop computers? There is an experiment going on there. What is your feeling about the chances of success with regards to that?
  (Mr Smith) I wholly support it, and for two reasons: first of all, I think that there are a large number of things that teachers are doing at the moment which routinely they should not be expected to do and arguably are being overpaid to do, and I think that contributes to the collapse of morale. Secondly, if the Government's ambition is to have a cohort of adults, 50 per cent of whom will be graduates, then it seems to me the difference between a qualified teacher and somebody who works and facilitates young people's learning inevitably blurs. I have a third reason: the teaching force is highly unrepresentative of the community at large in ethnicity terms. It seems to me at least possible that, if we increase the number of learning support assistants or para professionals—call them whatever you will—that will provide a very powerful pool from which the teachers of the future can be trained.
  (Mrs Thompson) The question was about innovation and professional autonomy which is critical to the future. We have made two points and one is that we would hope that the Department's own innovation unit would involve more professionals in the process of developing innovatory ideas, and also that it is wrong to believe there is no innovatory practice in the schools. The other part of the Department's strategy, of course, is the idea of professional learning communities and networked learning communities and teachers learning from each other, and that is another way in which the availability of time becomes very important because you need that time to work with your colleagues in schools internally and also with other schools, so that what you are doing is spreading best practice. Innovation in one school then becomes commonplace in a wide range of schools.

  88. But you need more time for that.
  (Mrs Thompson) Yes.

  Mr Baron: And if we had more time I would like to explore this idea of a national curriculum.

Ms Munn

  89. Moving on to another area, what sort of relationship do you have with the Department for Education and Skills?
  (Mr Smith) I think that relationship has improved enormously. Civil servants, of whose fan club I am not naturally a member, are authentically listening more whereas previously I sometimes felt it was like throwing grit to stop an armoured tank. That was the level of consultation. First of all under Sir Michael Bichard's leadership and, now, under David Normington's leadership I think civil servants are listening more; I think the relationship is good; and I think the relationship with ministers is immeasurably better than at one point it was.

  90. So are you saying that there is a recognition in terms of your role representing teachers and school leaders, and that you are properly involved in planning and consultation and processes?
  (Mr Smith) I am not sure I would go that far.

  91. How far would you go?
  (Mr Smith) I think what I would say is that the DfES apparatchiks need to be sufficiently confident to consult and involve at a formative stage of creating policy, rather than saying, "There it is, what do you think about it?", because the history of the last 20 years whether it has been Conservative government or Labour or whatever, has been that teachers retrospectively have said, "We do not think this will work" but Government has said "Get on with it".

  92. So how would you suggest that was done? If that is your one improvement that you want—and I am assuming it is your top priority because it is the one you mentioned—how would you suggest that the DfES practically do that?
  (Mr Smith) A very good template for it is the work which is currently being done which I hope will come to fruition on reducing workload, where the Government commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers to conduct a survey and established a working steering group to be involved in the design and shape of our programme throughout, and that seems to me to be an excellent model.

Mr Simmonds

  93. On that point of reducing workload, do you think that the way the Government currently funds schools, using different funding streams and ring-fenced money, adds to the workloads of teachers who should be doing other things in an unnecessary way?
  (Mr Smith) If you do not mind my saying so that is possibly a question better posed to my head teacher colleagues.

  94. In your view?
  (Mr Smith) In my view, an enormous amount of time, it seems to me, is sucked up in a bidding process.

  95. And you would like to see that changed?
  (Mr Smith) I would like to see it reduced.

Chairman

  96. Very often, when I go to a good school, I find that they work innovatively and challengingly and do all sorts of interesting things within the constraints. They understand the bidding process and they are good at it, but you go down the road to a school that is not so well led and managed and you find people frightened to innovate and do things, and within the same context there are very successful schools who do not seem to be concerned and constrained and down the road there they are. That must say something about the quality of leadership and the quality of management, must it not?
  (Mr Smith) I am sure that Mr Hart and Dr Dunford will enlighten you on these issues, but I think you are quite right—the quality of leadership is important. The quality of followership is important as well and one of the things that concerns me is that far too many teachers—and some head teachers; no doubt very few and none of them represented by Mr Hart and Dr Dunford—have become risk averse: they are not willing to display the creativity which, Mr Sheerman, you rightly say is at the heart of a good school. Some experiments will work and some will not, and when an experiment is not working you kill it, and when an experiment is, you fertilise it and develop it.

Valerie Davey

  97. The other body which the Government set up to recognise the professionalism of teachers is, of course, the GTC, which has not been going for long. What is your relationship there?
  (Mr Smith) The GTC started its life against the background of some controversy. I think there was a twin controversy—first of all, the level of the registration fee and, secondly, what was it that the registration fee should be used for. I can give you an example which I felt very strongly about—the GTC's first annual plan—and, frankly, I felt it unacceptable that I should have tabled an annual plan in front of me and to be asked to comment upon it within half an hour. That is not acceptable from a public body. One element in that plan which I objected to was the suggestion that there should be a joint venture with the BBC over educational broadcasting, and I objected to it for this reason: that the BBC was one of only a number of bidders, and that seemed to me to be improper. Having said that, I do believe that there is a continuing lack of clarity about what should be properly within the scope of the GTC and what the GTC should not do, and this will sound a bit vague—forgive me—but I think the GTC, certainly in its early days, got its body language badly wrong and appeared to be moving into areas which it was not necessary for it to move into.

  98. Can you explain that?
  (Mr Smith) It is entirely legitimate for the GTC to represent teachers as a profession, and a profession crucially which was self-policing rather than being policed by the DfES or whoever. Once the GTC affects to represent the sole voice of the teaching profession, you will not be surprised to learn that I, and other teacher unions, feel disaffected by that because we have spent an enormous amount of time attempting to do just that. I am not a member of the NUT, but I will say this: the NUT has a proud, honourable record—

  99. You are speaking to a member, which I perhaps ought to have declared at the beginning. I apologise.
  (Mr Smith) I did know that. I do not agree with the NUT about everything otherwise I would not be general secretary of the organisation I am, but what I am saying is that the NUT and other teaching unions have a proud, honourable record in representing not just the interests of teachers but the interests of children and to suggest that that somehow never occurred or is not occurring is something I find very difficult to live with.


 
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