24 September 2018

Where have all the Conservative teachers gone?


When I was canvassing for the Conservatives a few months ago a woman answered the door. Would she be voting for the Conservatives? “I am a teacher,” she replied. Her tone made it apparent that she did not feel further clarification was required.

It’s no great revelation that the far left have had a dominant position in the teaching unions for some time. Between 2009 and 2016 the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers was Christine Blower, a one-time London Assembly candidate for the “London Socialist Alliance” – a ragtag Trotskyist coalition including the Socialist Workers Party. Howls of abuse towards Labour as well as Conservative Education Secretaries have long been a feature of NUT’s annual Easter conferences.

The rest of us would comfort ourselves that the NUT – now part of the National Education Union – was not representative of its members. For instance, while the NUT would angrily deny the existence of any failing schools – most teachers were only too well aware of the grim reality of such institutions.

But let’s face it – the Conservatives still have a problem. A poll back in 2010 found that only 18 per cent of teachers intended to vote Conservative in the coming General Election. That was bad enough but a poll for the General Election last year found that the number had fallen to just eight per cent. As recently as 1974 the Conservatives were ahead of Labour in the voting intentions of teachers.

What to do about this hostility to the Tories is another matter. Labour will always promise more spending and that will naturally be popular with teachers – although under periods of Labour Government disillusionment sets in that there still isn’t enough, or that it hasn’t been spent effectively. The Conservatives can try to placate “the sector” by trying to find an extra billion or two – but Labour will always outbid.

Worst of all would be the Conservatives giving up reform. The revolution in our schools started by Michael Gove and quietly continuing since then has been a triumph – albeit a generally unheralded one. What is needed is to press ahead in ways that benefit teachers as well as their pupils.

Surveys by the Sutton Trust and by Policy Exchange indicate most teachers favour performance-related pay. They agree that increases should not be purely determined by the length of service but also by the results of pupils they teach and the assessment of the headteacher. The Government should back teachers in providing a greater element of performance pay – even though the unions and the Labour Party oppose it.

Many teachers want to have more authority in the classroom to maintain discipline, without which they risk being undermined. Conservatives should be sympathetic to this concern.

Then there is all the paperwork. Often Conservatives think of cutting red tape in terms of liberating private business and individuals going about their personal lives. But public sector workers are the biggest victims of bureaucracy. Cutting down on needless box-ticking for teachers should be a distinctively Conservative mission.

A longer term challenge comes with teacher training courses which become so distorted by ideology some argue they are not merely useless, but actually harmful. Certainly a requirement to spend two years being immersed in a lot of sub-Marxist waffle before entering the profession is pretty off-putting – especially for Conservatives. It is welcome that Qualified Teacher Status is no longer required for academies (it never was for independent schools and results don’t seem to have suffered).

The ironic thing for all these Labour-supporting teachers is that a Corbyn Government would be hostile to a large number of the schools where they work.

For independent schools, imposing VAT on fees would be just the start. The hard left will not be satisfied until private schools are closed down. Many of them – including Corbyn himself – attended such schools. But they are unsentimental in that respect. Only last week Corbyn sent a tweet denouncing the opening, by Professor James Tooley, of a new independent school in Durham with low fees.

How would the 163 grammar schools in England and 69 grammar schools in Northern Ireland cope under Prime Minister Corbyn?

Then there are the faith  or “voluntary-aided” schools. Typically the Church of England and Roman Catholic primary schools have better results and higher standards of behaviour than the non-denominational “community” primary schools that are entirely within a local authority’s remit. As well as the 6,400 faith primaries  there are also secondary faith state schools in England.

Even under the last Labour Government the church schools were under attack. Ed Balls, as Education Secretary, sought to harass them over their admissions policies. Corbyn would like to go further with a complete ban. In 2013, he sponsored a Commons bill “to open up all state-funded schools to all children without regard to religion”. It accused these schools of “undermining community cohesion by segregating children”.

As far as academies are concerned (which include two thirds of secondary schools in England) the Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner has just declared to her party’s conference in Liverpool that they are “simply not fit for purpose”.

That simply does not tally with the fact that 1.9 million more children are in good or outstanding schools than in 2010. Previously failing schools were allowed to drift – now they are given a new start as “sponsored academies”. These forced takeovers involve a head, a new governing body and usually a new name.

The new free schools have been a source for innovation and competition. The initial evidence of GCSE and A-level results from those schools has been impressive. But Labour doesn’t want to open any more and they autonomy of those already open would be under threat.

When these categories are added together we see that a clear majority of our schools would find that their fundamental ethos would be an anathema to a future Labour government. The attack might be delayed. It might come in stages. But the Government would be out to get them. The objective would be where all schools were completely owned and controlled by the state with an ethos of drag, egalitarian conformity.

Autonomy and variety would be banished. It wouldn’t happen at once. It might never reach its final destination but that would be the direction of travel.

Will the schools that are on Labour’s hit list, and the teachers that are proud to work for them, speak out before it is too late?

Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist