The growing number of disputes in the UK between the various teaching unions and the Conservative Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is attracting much attention from the public. Gove’s education reforms, which are “radical”, “novel”, or “reckless” depending on which source you ask, have attracted opponents from several sections of society, including universities, employers, parents and students. The main issues centre on the following policies:

• The introduction of performance-related pay, to be set by headteachers

• Reversion to linear assessment of A-level students, removing a valuable indicator of students’ ability upon which universities currently make placement offers

• Cuts to pensions and below inflation pay rises, in line with other public sector jobs

• ‘Backdoor privatisation’ of schools by forcing them to become Free Schools, independent of local authority control, and exempt from many regulations

• A controversial new National Curriculum which is based more of the memorisation of facts than a holistic understanding of the topics
In light of what is the fastest and most hotly disputed politically-motivated restructuring of the education system since Labour’s reforms of the late 1960s, it is unsurprising that relations between the Department of Education and the major unions, the National Union of Teachers (NUT); National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) have cooled, to put it mildly.

Indeed, Michael Gove attracted ire from union leaders in 2011 when he urged parents to break a one-day strike held by the moderate ATL, which he accused of taking “militant” action. It is unclear what his reaction to March’s union conferences, in which a number of delegates chanted “Gove must go” after passing a No Confidence Motion in the minister, was. The atmosphere of hostility seems very similar to that of the 1980s when the Thatcher government worked hard to undermine organised labour in most of the country’s economy.

This is not to say that this hostility is unjustified. There will come a point where politicians must realise that it is the professionals, who actually work with children and teenagers, who are likely to have the better ideas about how educations should be provided. The clumsy political interventions we have seen in various curricula and practices from governments of all parties have often been the source of intense damage, but it appears that Gove’s proposals are the most extreme case yet.

Do 8-year-olds benefit from being able to recite poetry, or should they learn about interpreting the poem’s message and structure first? How much can a typical 6 year old understand about weather patterns? Is calculus a worthwhile topic to cover in Mathematics before A-level? These are all questions to which the Government appears to have the wrong answers. Of course many teachers (and let’s not forget that they will have different opinions), if they are being asked to do their job in a less effective way, and will have their living standards attacked at the same time, are likely to resist. But, like doctors, they realise that their job is too important to cause too much disruption through industrial action.

Many will applaud the mature decision to limit strikes to no more than one consecutive day. It is, however, important that the media do not adopt the dated ‘militant trade unionists’ line, which is fuelled by the rowdy (but no doubt satisfying) behaviour displayed by some at the conferences. Nevertheless, there are other groups in the community who should also organise to put pressure on the Governments. Is it not time that the young were a little more vocal in illustrating the deep flaws that exist in Government policy?

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