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Saturday, 22 April, 2000, 13:46 GMT 14:46 UK
Teachers' leader Doug McAvoy
The teachers' union conference season in the UK is in full swing. Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the biggest union, the National Union of Teachers, answers your questions and talks to BBC News Online's Sean Coughlan about the issues raised.
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Coughlan: One of the key issues at this year's conference will be performance related pay, which the government has been keen to introduce and which the NUT has been equally energetic in opposing.
Nick Dey wrote: "I will have little sympathy for teachers for as long as they are allowed to live in a world involving no performance appraisal, more holidays than anyone apart from MPs, 100% job security and one of the shortest working weeks around. Some of us have to live in the real world."
McAvoy: I think it's interesting that you've put those two questions together and I think it's right that you've done so - because if you take the second question of why teachers stand in the way of progress and improving things which will improve standards, teachers don't do that, they encourage change, when it's shown that the change will be beneficial to the pupils.
When it's demonstrated that it will not be, they stand in the way of that change and protect their pupils from things that would affect them adversely and would hinder effective education.
I could list a number of areas in which teachers have encouraged change - in the curriculum, provided it doesn't become overloaded and over-centralised and leaves them with little scope for professional development.
We've also welcomed the introduction of professional development, which will be beneficial for teachers and the pupils. So it's wrong to suggest they stand in the way of all change.
If we move on to performance related pay, this was a change imposed on the profession by the government. There was a consultation exercise which showed beyond doubt that teachers - not just NUT members - were opposed to performance related pay, because it would be divisive and would set teacher against teacher would destroy the teamwork which is central to an effective school.
One teacher helps another and teachers collectively work together to improve the performance and levels of achievement of the child. No one teacher can be identified as the sole person to have caused one child to progress or indeed a class to progress, they will progress because of the work of a team. But if you introduce performance related pay it doesn't benefit the team, it benefits individuals. It will be divisive and it will be bad for education.
Coughlan: How do you respond to the point that performance related pay has become part of most people's working lives and if teaching is to modernise and to keep up with practices elsewhere it will have to embrace this?
McAvoy: Well, first of all you have to look at the statistics. I would question anyone who said that most workers work under a performance related pay scheme, I don't believe that's true. A lot of workers do - therefore a lot of parents would be subjected to performance related pay - and in some industries it works, because you can measure performance.
You can measure how many goods are made and the quality of the goods, and it's usually undertaken by people in exactly the same circumstances, with exactly the same ingredients - and that's not a school.
Coughlan: Can I take up one particular point - in your opposition to performance related pay you have highlighted the claim that teachers will have to act as "informers" on colleagues, and you've gained a judicial review on this point, but we've had an e-mail from Austin Gavins, who writes:
"I do not see my appraisal as a spying exercise by my colleagues and staff, it just gives them the chance to tell me how I can improve. Surely teachers want to do better."
How do you respond to the suggestion that performance related pay is a way of making teachers perform better and raise standards for pupils?
McAvoy: Well, I think first of all you have to separate appraisal for the purposes of monitoring performance and trying to identify strengths and weaknesses - and in that form of appraisal or performance management there's no reason why one teachers shouldn't join with others in saying about their head of department 'we think things would work better if we did them differently' - that's about how the team is performing.
Performance related pay's not like that, it's about whether one teacher gains promotion and is paid more and whether other teachers should inform on that teacher in terms of their application.
It's a totally new concept in terms of employment and I don't know if in many other industries that would be acceptable, where you apply to be promoted and someone else looks at the application form and says 'that's not really true, because a little bit of that, I do' - and you could have one teacher saying I did more to help that child than he did and yet he's applying. That's not appraisal, that's someone snooping on someone else and informing.
Coughlan: Now this is going to be debated in the course of the conference - do you think that there will be calls for strike ballots and can you see the union going on strike over this?
McAvoy: I think on this issue, perhaps not, because what we're putting to conference from the national executive is that if we win the judicial review the government will have to go through all the consultation it should have gone through and we believe that that consultation will cause the government to change its mind and won't impose this duty on teachers. So we will be successful.
Coughlan: So a strike is unlikely?
McAvoy: I think a strike is unlikely on this issue, because the union is saying on the motion to be debated if we don't succeed through the law we will protect our members, so we will take whatever action is necessary in a school and say to our members 'do not inform on a colleague' and if the headteacher disciplines them - then we might take industrial action, which would be because of the discipline and not because of this imposed duty, because our members wouldn't be carrying it out. So there would be no reason for strike action - but it may be called for, such is the anger of our members.
McAvoy: Well, what I was answering was the question relating to informants - and we will have a further debate on the pay structure, when there might well be a call for a one-day strike to demonstrate the anger and resentment of teachers to the imposition of a scheme which the profession, not just the NUT, says is flawed. But that would be a strike for a different reason and not about informers, but about the whole principle of performance related pay.
It would be a one-day strike - but my own view is there's no need for that, we can demonstrate our anger through different and more effective channels, and would have less risk of alienating parents if we avoid strike action.
Coughlan: On a related subject, part of the argument about performance related pay from our e-mail questioners has talked about the images of teaching and how teachers are seen - and they're often seen in a negative light.
We've had a question which says: "When I was at school teachers were highly regarded and were respected as important people in the community. Nowadays the profession has a poor image, pupil discipline is a problem and teachers are often criticised. What has gone wrong and what plans do you have to reverse this?"
McAvoy: The questioner is right - in that the image has certainly changed for a number of reasons - and it's changed in a personal way. A lot of parents will still hold in high regard the teachers of their children, they will consider them to be excellent.
They will see what they do, they will know the difficulties that teachers face, either in lack of resources or problems in the environment of the school, and they will say they're working hard, dedicated people, trying to lift the level of achievement of their children. And by and large, if you ask parents they will be more than satisfied with the teachers they come into contact.
So the image has changed, not because of the individual teacher but because of how teachers are represented. Part of that is because of how teachers have had to present themselves - and part of that has been because of the NUT. We've had to take action in order to defend the interests of teachers - so there has been limited industrial action.
Coughlan: Has that brought you into a position of disrepute?
McAvoy: I think it's been used by government to bring teachers into disrepute. But what I think we've had from 18 years of Conservative government and sadly from the early years of this government is a deliberate attack on teachers, denigrating them and labelling them as failures. This government still speaks of weeding out poor teachers - even that expression suggests you've got to dig for this, it's not something that is apparent.
There's nothing that should be used to denigrate teachers, because the more you do that the less you make the job attractive. But governments have done that because they've not wanted teachers to have the high regard they used to have, because with high regard comes more pay. If you can erode the high regard that the public has for a body such as teachers you can get away with paying them less. And that's been the approach of government.
Coughlan: You mentioned that the current government has been a source of disappointment, how do you think that the current administration compares to its predecessor?
McAvoy: In some ways you'd hardly spot the difference - you know, you'd try and find the join. It's similar New Labour/Old Tory, which is the description we've given to some aspects.
But in other ways, it's totally different. It's invested more in schools - although sadly not all the money has yet got to schools. It's trying to get rid of dilapidated buildings and it has agreed there should be a limit to class sizes, even though that limit is only for five, six and seven year olds. That's a tremendous breakthrough, the acceptance that a class size limit is right.
It's trying to improve the professional development of teachers - and in answer to the previous question - what are we doing to counter the lack of status, that developing continuous professional development, so that teachers are seen as fully-qualified members of staff, always able to enhance that qualification and move with the times, use new technology and try to develop all that's available to them that's of interest to the pupils, that will help to enhance the status of the profession.
Coughlan: The next question follows an issue that was raised at another union conference this week, that of malicious allegations being made against teachers by pupils:
"There have been several cases recently of teachers being falsely accused of attacking or abusing pupils? How serious a problem will this become for schools and how many potential teachers will it keep out of the profession?"
McAvoy: It's already a serious problem - and it's one of the difficulties of the job of teaching that they work in close contact with youngsters and they're advised never to be alone with one youngster and always to be in groups, but there are circumstances in which that is almost impossible and therefore the teacher is very vulnerable to false accusation.
And there will always be pupils who want to get their own back on a teacher for something that's been done and will invent stories of assault of one kind and another and the teacher is vulnerable to that, more so now than in the past because society wants to protect the child and its endeavours to protect the child removes some of the protection that was previously reserved for the teacher.
So more often than in the past, teachers will be suspended, there will be a question mark over their conduct and even when it becomes clear that the accusation is false, the damage is done.
Coughlan: Do you think the current balance is fair for the teacher?
McAvoy: No I don't. I think that before you get to a situation where proceedings begin and the police start serious investigations there ought to be some efforts to see whether or not the pupil's story has any element of truth. There should be some earlier stage for the examination of the accusation before formal proceedings begin - because if that was the case, many claims would not go further beyond that. Of course the serious problem is not just in terms of their career, although sometimes their careers are finished even though the accusation is false, but what it does to their family life.
Coughlan: Isn't it a great source of sadness that it has come to it that teachers are advised not be on their own with a pupil in a classroom.
McAvoy: It is, but we've been advising that now for a number of years, before the change in balance regarding the protection of the child, because of the difficulties that can arise from that situation. We've also had to give advice on things like holding and touching. Whereas in the past the teacher would stop a child from doing something by putting their hand on the child's shoulder or whatever, now they're told only do that if there's an emergency.
Coughlan: That must create great ambiguity though. If you had a very young child who fell over and wanted to be comforted, it would be instinctive for any parent or teacher to want to hold a child and to support and reassure them.
McAvoy: You're absolutely right in what you describe, but it also illustrates the difficulty that teachers face - and one that has grown significantly in recent years and the normal reaction of the teacher would be to stop and hold the child, but in the back of their mind they have to think what will the story be afterwards - will they be accused of assaulting the child?
Coughlan: Is there need for greater clarity here, particularly say in primary schools where you're dealing with very young children who are very tactile and are used to being held. Should there be greater clarification of what teachers can and can't do?
McAvoy: Well there is guidance, it's joint guidance produced as a result of working group set up by government and including teacher organisations such as the NUT. But like all guidance, it's fine if you can consider the guidance and apply it in a reasoned way - but this all happens quickly, you respond quickly.
But what is clear that years ago, a teacher would once have sat a pupil on their knee to read them a story, now no teacher would do that because of the concern that there could be false accusations of molesting a child.
"Do you feel that teachers should be held totally accountable for students' performance when it is so clear that they often have little or no support from parents? Would it not be wiser for the emphasis to be on both teachers and parents and not just the teacher when the children fail?"
McAvoy: Years ago it was recognised that the teacher was the person responsible for the development of the child and might have been held responsible for that child's performance.
But the questioner is absolutely right that now you have to have regard to the support that parents give, so that's dependent on parents helping the child at home. The more able the parent is to help the child, the better the child can perform, the better the child performs the more the likely the teacher is to gain from performance related pay. What a nonsense.
So one of the reasons we're so against performance related pay is that all these factors impact on pupil achievement. And there has to be a bond between parent and teacher and the most effective schools are those which are able to engage parents, advise them what the school is trying to do and alert them to the problems that the school has - and let the school set its targets with the parents and the head, so that the school grows as a community.
Instead this government is wanting to impose targets without any evaluation of whether they are achievable or not and of course that sets up schools to be failures. So the more that schools can be involved with its parents, not just to get them to fund raise, although many schools depend on that, but more to get them to understand what the school is trying to do and to appreciate what the targets are and to understand how they can help the child at home.
Coughlan: Is there sufficient trust between the school and parents?
McAvoy: I think the more a school involves the parent, the more the trust grows. Where there is a lack of trust, it can be because the parents don't know what the school is doing. That can be because the parents haven't chosen to avail themselves of information that's available - and where there is a lack of understanding there tends to be a lack of trust.
Coughlan: Another question relating to workload. Teachers have often complained that they are overburdened with red-tape and bureaucracy and there have been various initiatives to try to relieve them. And we have a question from someone who after 17 years working in industry has now transferred to the classroom and Eamonn Keating writes:
"As a newly-qualified teacher, I was not prepared for the paper mountain of administration required on a day to day basis. Having worked in industry, I now feel swamped by the amount of trivial material that crosses my desk and interferes with my preparation for lessons.
McAvoy: One of the issues that will be debated at the conference is the continued and excessive workload demands on teachers. The job of teaching is itself demanding and then there is the work they have to take home to prepare to teach - marking, recording pupils' progress and identifying the needs of pupils. If you just take that package, there's more than enough there for anyone.
Coughlan: Has that workload grown?
McAvoy: Yes it has, over the past 15 years the greater bureaucracy has been increased - so as well as the workload being excessive, the nature of the work is seen as being unnecessary. Teachers are expected to do things which are not supportive to their teaching - and that adds to their frustration and stress.
Coughlan: You mention stress. How much does this extra workload contribute to teachers concerns over stress?
McAvoy: Significantly. We've done research which shows that stress is caused when someone has planned to do something and can't. So a teacher plans a lesson and then a number of factors occur so that the lesson they've planned carefully they can't give.
Now often that's because of the bureaucracy. It's a very big feature in terms of stress and it can be addressed by management, or government - we have a commitment from government to address it but it hasn't done so yet - and it can be addressed by local authorities.
And it can be better managed by head teachers - some do, some don't, some just churn out the forms for teachers to fill in - so it's more and more bureaucracy and more and more form filling, which is burdensome and interrupts their teaching.
Coughlan: The government has made efforts to reduce red-tape - do you think this has been effective?
McAvoy: It has made efforts in terms of agreeing with us on a working group on bureaucracy - but not all that has been implemented. And it's just published a report on red-tape affecting head teachers - but I hope it won't stop there and will address the red-tape that affects all teachers.
And I think it's interesting that the person who has asked the question has come into teaching from industry - because in industry they wouldn't waste a person's time in unproductive work. In education, it's as if you can ask teachers to do whatever you like - and if it affects their teaching of course it matters and it ought to be addressed immediately.
Coughlan: The conference will certainly be covered widely, how would you hope the conference would be seen? Because there's an impression of oppositionism often drawn by the newspapers and other media. Would you want to be always seen to be in opposition, because a comment in many of the e-mails we've had has been that no sooner does the government announce a scheme, than the NUT is seen to reject it. Is that the impression you'd like to give - or is there a more positive image that you'd like to promote?
McAvoy: I wouldn't want that to be the impression that conference gives and I wouldn't want that to be the impression that I give. I don't think in either case it would be fair analysis. I hope that those who have come to Harrogate to represent their members will represent them. If they do, there will be occasions when they identify the anger that teachers feel at being let down by the government - having things imposed on them by government that they have made clear are not in the best interest of teaching.
There will be times when the concerns of teachers will come across, concern not just about what the government is doing, but the inadequacies of the support they will get from a variety of agencies that will allow them to do their job.
I hope there will also be some optimism from the delegates that things have changed a little, if not as much as we wished with a change of government. There is more money, there is a class size limit, there's professional development, there's nursery education. So there is a move to teachers' professional judgement more than there was before - so there are elements on the credit side of the balance sheet.
The sadness is that the government has been so anti-teacher and so critical of teachers that the benefit it could have got from the things that are positive - it hasn't had, because they've been more than balanced by the things that teachers resent and which teachers are angry about.
I think it's right if the conference has a mixed expression - there'll be anger, concern, resentment and there will be some optimism that there are things there that we can support. And what I would argue for - I know that conference is projected to a wider audience than teachers - but the main thing for me is that it is a National Union of Teachers that is representing the profession.
Coughlan:Another e-mail: "What is the single biggest improvement that could be made to teachers' working lives and - what so far has been the worst imposition?"
So if you can imagine David Blunkett as the fairy godmother appearing at your bedside at the Majestic Hotel in Harrogate tomorrow morning and he gave you one wish - what would it be?
McAvoy: It's a fascinating vision - although I'm not sure I would want a sight like that at my bedside in the morning.
I find it difficult to think of just one, and I'll tell you why. We've just conducted two surveys of our members - one in primary and one in secondary. The wonderful title for the primary survey is Let Us Be Suns Again - they want to light up the child's world and they believe the best thing they could have is some teaching support time - some time during the school day when they are not in front of a class of 35 youngsters. Just so they can prepare for the next class. I don't think that's too much to ask and it would change their working lives dramatically.
In the secondary school, a little bit different - they want class sizes addressed and more technical support - such as IT, science and craft - various areas where they want to teach rather than do the technical work.
Now in both of those examples the teacher wants help to teach, in order that they can be more effective for the pupil. The worst thing that's happened to them is the regime of testing which now bedevils them at almost every age now, I think there are only two ages when I child can go through the school year without being subject to tests, as if by testing you add benefit to the education, which you don't.
And teachers are burdened by that, so they'd love to be - not to get rid of tests, but they would love to have more control, to have diagnostic assessment rather than these external tests which are used for league tables. Get rid of that, give teachers more time and more technical support.
Coughlan: Do you share the parental concerns about testing that stress is being put on the shoulders of young children, seven-year-olds who have been reported to have been crying over their preparations for tests?
McAvoy: I think it's bound to be a feature - it will depend on the parents and on the school - and if as we all predicted would be the case, some schools coach pupils weeks in advance of when the tests will take place - so that they teach to the tests rather than the kind of teaching that parents might want - then the pressure grows on the child.
And if the parents are involved in the preparation and the homework the pressure is then on the parent. And if the parent transfers that pressure to the child you're bound to have that as a consequence.
So it's a mixture of how good the school is at protecting the children and how good the school is at ensuring the parents don't put that pressure. If the school fails - then the parents put the pressure on, and the school puts pressure on, there will be some pupils who will be adversely affected and distressed by it.
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