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Educational inequalities will deepen with apprentice style hiring and firing policies in schools

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If the Government is committed to tackling educational inequalities in our schools, why the Education Secretary Michael Gove  made recruitment of good teachers for inner city schools even harder than it already is?

The Conservative Education Minister Michael Gove has been really busy. He has restored the prestige and worlds trust in our GCSE’s and A levels by making them more rigorous  (with more students failing?), encouraged academies to employ non-qualified teaching staff for their ‘real life experience’ and still wants to bring army boots into classrooms because of course they can restore discipline (that is all that is needed isn’t it?).  Another of his flagship successes has been to destroy the humanities and arts by continuing his crusade to make only his core subjects have any value and the results have been the poor take up of these subjects by students throughout the education system.

Like Lady Thatcher before him, he appears to believe that not only have exams got easier under a Labour government but that the education system no longer teaches the curriculum required for Britain to compete in a globalised aged driven by technology, science and foreign languages. Instead, the argument suggests, as Thatcher herself argued in the 1987 Conservative conference, Labour has presided over an “ideological curriculum” which values political correctness and has turned everything into an academic subject. In order for Britain to once again reindustrialise and hold its bowed head high, Mr Gove is unapologetically stating that education must reflect real life in that there must be competition for success and there must inevitably be clear winners and losers. 

The attack and funding cutbacks in higher education to the Arts, Humanities and some of the Social sciences in favour of the more economically productive subjects means that while the rich still get the opportunity to enjoy Shakespeare, Orwell, Plato and Huxley, the poorer students must gear their entire higher education choices on a future career which they may not enjoy or even secure after graduation.

What would a working class boy do with classics, Philosophy or English? What’s the purpose of literature when you won’t have time to enjoy it? Why we must learn Engineering so that we can work on the assembly lines. Leave the thinking to us, appears to be what Gove is encouraging, we can afford to study the finer subjects that do not necessarily lead directly to a career because we are wealthy and do not need to work at all. Even if we do, father already has an internship lined up for me with his friends firm.

The crown jewels of Gove’s achievement has been the vilification of the teaching trade unions and the profession itself for harbouring poorly performing teachers who he wants to see kicked out of all school gates permanently. While the Labour government has spent the last decade improving central government’s relationship with the profession through greater funding and extensive recruitment and investment in new schools, the Conservatives appear to be starting a fight that will have nasty consequences for the most vulnerable in society.

The Conservatives have always seen teachers as hard leftist infecting young inner city minds with socialist values. Lady Thatcher’s 1987 speech makes this clear and perhaps this is one of the key reasons why this Party deeply mistrusts teachers and continuously undermines the profession. The need to control teachers and decentralise school management is built on the idea that they are self-interested, risk averse and resistant to change even if it is in the student’s best interest.  And of course they are heavily unionised.

Mr Gove’s proposals, if they come to fruition, will mean that underperforming teachers will be sacked in the space of a term rather than the year it currently takes.  Parents will be encouraged along with head teachers and other staff members to identify these poorly performing teachers and then if these teachers do not improve within the given term they will be asked “to move on” from the profession.”  Of course within this term, Mr Gove stated in a BBC interview in January this year, all efforts will be made to help the teacher improve in the spirit of fairness but there will be nowhere for them to hide. The sole responsibility of sacking underperforming teachers, whether new or an old time experienced coaster will fall to the head teacher who will be incentivised by the simple fact that if they refuse to act they will be labelled a bad leader and also unfit to lead. In addition to this there will be annual performance reviews for all teachers and performance related pay.

At a time of more coalition U-turns than one can remember and dwindling public support for most of their policies, the education Minister Mr Gove appears to be popular with parents who feel like him that schools do not do enough for their children and that teachers need less job security to do a better job. Mr Gove has cleverly positioned himself on the side of parents who always are anxious about their children’s education. Unlike the benefits cap and high unemployment, his education policies, in theory, will have absolutely no negative effects, only positives outcomes that empower parents by providing them with the choice and voice they need to influence their children’s education. But on closer inspection, many future challenges suddenly come to light.

No schools should tolerate poor teachers. Every child deserves a good education led by inspirational head teachers who do their best to prepare them for the challenges of adult life to come. In many cultures teachers are seen as so critical to a child’s development that they are deemed a second parent. However, despite the enormous funding over the last decade in education, the teaching profession is still undervalued, over regulated and regularly lambasted by politicians in Britain. As is the norm, blame is shifted and attention deflected from central government failures to individuals and there shortcomings. When simplistically speaking of good and bad teachers, Mr Gove is totally ignorant to the complexities of student needs, required innovative strategies of engaging them and the process of confidence building in students through continuation. Have we not got enough supply teachers in inner city schools already?

The saddest of all facts is that many parents are been sucked in by all this imaginary choice and voice on offer. Even some teachers are warming to the idea of performance related pay because they feel they can do a better job than their colleagues. Perhaps they feel if the regional public sector pay scheme is implemented then they can increase their salaries. Whatever their reasons, teaching already is a poorly paid profession for most involved and the bureaucracy and regular professional political pistol whipping drives more talented people away from it than it can afford to lose annually. Performance related pay may not only accelerate the departures, but it could lead to teachers refusing to teach those students that need the most support simply because they won’t be paid properly for it. They even could lose their job in the process if they took this risk as performance will inevitably be based on student results rather than their academic journey.

The toxic combination of performance related pay and one term sacking policy could create the kind of inequalities Gove claims to wants to tackle. It is common sense. Which teacher would risk poor pay and a bad reputation by teaching in some of the most difficult inner city schools that need the most inspirational teachers and leaders to drag them out of mediocrity or worse, failure? Which profession would not protect itself against such possibilities with standardisation and rules of practice that limits innovation as insurance against member job losses? How much more professional cheating and grade inflation will there be if grades are to equal better pay? More worryingly, how much more selective will “good” schools become and how easier would it be for difficult students to be expelled for fear they may reflect badly on both the image of the school and its league table scores?

Mr Gove should be concerned about education. It is his job. However, he should leave ideology aside and think just for once, what is in the best interests of children, parents and schools themselves. Yes, we want better teachers but we want them to be supported and trained properly so that they become better educationalists and provide our students and communities with the continuity required to strengthen the schools. We want all our teachers to be paid well and for their social status to reflect their important contribution to our society. We want to work with our teachers and schools to give them the confidence and support they require to do their job properly.

What we do not need are divisive policies that create suspicion and mistrust in our schools and between those whose co-operation is crucial to the success of every student, school and community. We would also benefit from a State that leads with more funding and political support for our teachers and schools rather than one whose appointed minister with responsibility for education spends his days passing the buck and blame in equal measures to the very professionals he wants to restore the educational success of the country.

Teachers are not born great; they learn to be through practice. Schools should foster a communal spirit and not be a permanent boardroom where pin stripe suit wearing head teachers with the recommendation of poorly informed parents can just sack teachers within a term.

If Mr Gove is truly concerned and cares about inner city schools progress, why make recruitment of good teachers for them even harder than it already is?

Liban Obsiye libanbakaa@hotmail.com

@LibanObsiye (twitter)

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