There is a scene in the old Marx Brothers film Horse Feathers where Groucho leads a bunch of academics in gowns and mortarboards in a song which goes:
Today’s teachers dress less formally, but Easter’s annual conferences of the NUT and the NASUWT have kept up the long tradition of almost total opposition to the educational plans of the government of the day.
This year’s conferences have been particularly critical, with disaffected teachers voting for strikes over the growth of academies and proposed changes to pensions, pay bargaining and staff workloads. Further rumblings have concerned marginally increased powers to dismiss incompetent teachers, the government’s plans to reduce red tape surrounding school trips, and headteachers who allegedly now ‘have more power than Roman emperors’ according to one over-excited delegate. NUT members have also called for the abolition of Ofsted, and instructed their leadership to consider the legality of refusing to allow inspectors to enter classrooms. In addition they aim to boycott the new phonics reading test for five and six-year-olds.
Seen alongside the ongoing oil tanker drivers’ dispute, where UNITE has sought to use the threat of strike action to turn back the clock on contracting out of oil companies’ deliveries and attempts to increase productivity, this increased union activism can seem threatening.
We could certainly do without it at a time when we are trying to get the economy back onto some sort of growth path. It might well make some sense to remind people of the limits of legitimate union activity.
The classical economists recognised the legitimacy of trade unionism: David Ricardo, Robert Malthus and J. R. McCulloch were amongst those who argued for the repeal of the anti-union Combination Acts. In more modern times Friedrich Hayek saw a legitimate place for unions carrying out ‘friendly society’ functions.
The UK, like all developed countries, is a signatory to international agreements which recognise the right to belong to unions. Nevertheless, as Hayek pointed out, the power which unions exert is predominantly the consequence of the legal protection given to unions which enables them to break contracts with impunity. All countries put some limits round this power, and from time to time these limits can be and are changed.
Teachers’ unions in the UK are further privileged by the relatively generous (in international terms) salaries and pensions which they are accorded by the taxpayer. The government sees changes to these conditions as necessary given the need to contain rapidly-rising pension costs in particular.
Unions can legitimately lobby against such changes to their terms of employment, though their claims can have no absolute priority. Strike action will be largely symbolic as members will not commit to lengthy strikes which would hit their pockets. It will achieve little except disrupt learning and inconvenience parents.
Where teachers’ unions are on much weaker grounds is in relation to educational policy. Teachers do have some claim to expertise in this area, though it is less than they like to think. UK teachers are poorly qualified in relation to their counterparts in France, Germany, the Netherlands and many other developed countries, and their record in raising schoolchildren to acceptable international standards is patchy to say the least. Parents, businesspeople and the professions, civil servants and academics – perhaps even some politicians – all have insights and concerns which need to feed into education strategy. Classroom teachers can have no legitimate veto against government policies, however wrong-headed they may believe them to be.
Nobody in the coalition is spoiling for a fight against the teachers, but the unions need to exercise a degree of self-restraint if they are not to find politicians and the public turning against them and looking more fundamentally at the role of unions in education and by extension the wider public sector.