||Volume 22, Number 5, March 2010
Across the pond
By Ritchie Kendrick
Converstaions with the National Union of Teachers
In this second of two articles on conversations with the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in the UK, you will see that the BCTF is not alone when it comes to issues that are of particular importance to teachers. Issues such as Standardized Assessment Tests (SATs) and class size and composition are also hot-button topics with NUT members. Ritchie Kendrick discussed these with Andy Wooley, Regional Secretary of the NUT, Southwest Region.
Kendrick: Are there any controls over class size and composition?
Wooley: Well, the government introduced at Key Stage 1 (7-year-olds) a maximum class size of 30 with the opportunity for parents to appeal under certain circumstances. Ironically, I just came from a school where that appeal has happened and the teachers are not very happy about it. Unfortunately, they have to accept it for this year and then have it rejigged. So that limit is there, but we were hoping to have that limit extended all the way up. The union has had a policy for years that the limit be 30 for a normal mainstream class and that where there are special needs and practical classes, that be reduced. What we are prepared to do is take industrial action [job action] to enforce that, but it has to be on a school-by-school basis. That is partly because of the way the law works, and the fact that the dispute has to be with that particular workplace or employer. Industrial action in the UK has to be linked directly with the employer and can’t be secondary or taken in sympathy. Unfortunately, in the UK, not all schools have the local authority as employer; many have their local school governors as the employer and any action has to be with them.
Kendrick: Our teachers in BC have felt at times that we are the lone voice fighting for the integrity of our public education system. It is only in recent times that trustees and other educational partners have started to speak out against the chronic underfunding of public education. Is it the same for teachers here, do you feel you stand alone?
Wooley: Sometimes yes, but sometimes you get different alliances. For example, we have a disagreement with a rival teachers’ union over the issue of SATs (Standard Assessment Tests). [SATs are the UK version of FSAs and they are used in the same manner to rate schools.] They feel that the alternative would be more work for teachers so they don’t support our campaign to end the SATs. We, at the NUT, say that it is possible to get rid of them and put assessment back in the hands of the teachers where it has always been…and in a way that is helpful for the kids and helpful for the teacher. We have parents who will potentially boycott the tests and the possibility of industrial action is there. Because of the way the law is we have two focuses to it—one, it’s bad for the kids... and two, it’s bad for the teachers. We can only take action if it’s an issue that creates an extra workload for teachers and it causes them to focus their work—their day-to-day work with kids—in a way they wouldn’t normally choose to do.
Kendrick: In many BC schools we have situations where students are being given practice FSA tests and teachers are encouraged to specially prepare their students for these so-called snapshots of their achievement that are then used to rate schools.
Wooley: It is a problem here as well. It is quite clear people teach to the test because that is what they are forced to do. Finance comes with the results and there’s the pressure for the school to do well…they are practiced well in advance, even all of the time in some circumstances. Publishing the figures is unhelpful because it doesn’t take into account where they come from, their demographic, their difficulties, etc. Although we’d like to get rid of all of these tests, our primary concern currently is with the SATs at Key Stage 2 (10/11-year-olds) where they are externally moderated and used in rating schools.
Kendrick: It is quite remarkable how similar our battles are. I hear that the NAHT (National Association of Head Teachers)—one of the UK’s larger administrator associations— is partnering with you in your call for a boycott of the SATs. How is that going?
Wooley: It is working quite well… we’re creating literature and much, much more. For example, there’s a newspaper that will go out on the street Saturday mornings to get parental support, and so on, and we’re working together to gain support from other trade unions. The fact that many head teachers are willing to support us in this campaign gives our members confidence in terms of the campaign. So we’re very keen to have that working relationship.
Kendrick: It must be fairly critical to recruitment for the NUT to be able to deliver on some of the more controversial issues.
Wooley: Absolutely, from our point of view we have always seen ourselves as a union with progressive educational policies and of course the usual condition of service issues. A rival union leader once famously said, “We’re not interested in the education side of it because pupils don’t pay union sub.” But our members do care, I mean, obviously they care about bread-and-butter issues such as salary and conditions of service, but they care greatly about the quality of education, so we campaign on those issues in a general sense as well as school-by-school.
Ritchie Kendrick is an assistant director, BCTF Field Service Division.