Michael Gove issues a battle cry over teachers’ pay
By Peter Hoskin
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Two bits of evidence, today, to suggest that Michael Gove is escalating his fight against the opponents of schools reform, and particularly the teaching unions…
EXHIBIT A is the letter that he has sent out to schools about the industrial action currently being undertaken by two teaching unions, the NUT and NASUWT, over pay. This industrial action isn’t a traditional sort of strike, but involves teachers retreating to only their “core responsibilities” — and refusing to do things such as supervising pupils during lunch breaks, or covering for other teachers. In his letter, Gove is scathing about the practice. He calls it “highly irresponsible” and “threatening to damage children’s education”. But, most importantly, he also says that schools can — and, in some cases, should — dock the pay of staff members who take part in the protest. Detailed advice about the hows, whats and whys has even been published on the Department for Education website.
“‘Some things I never imagined we’d be able to accomplish alone, let alone in a coalition government, so relatively quickly,’ he says, when we meet in his office. His Academies Act has allowed most English secondary schools to be freed from government control. His next mission is to rewrite the rules for teachers’ pay, replacing the pay-by-time-served system with pay on merit.
This would give head teachers the power to poach a brilliant maths teacher, for example – or sack a bad one. It all sounds perfectly reasonable, but for the teaching unions it is nothing short of a declaration of war.
‘The trade unions have regarded this as their apostles’ creed,’ says Gove. “Look at the way they justify their existence to members. On the one hand, they justify their existence because they provide protection if you face unfair dismissal or an unfair allegation. Hopefully, employment law protects you from unfair dismissal and there are other ways – including a marvellous new organisation called Edapt – which can provide you with the insurance that you need. Okay, what else does a trade union do? Well it guarantees to a significant part of the profession that they will automatically get a pay increase simply by staying there, there is automatic or near automatic pay progression at every stage.’
This national pay bargaining, he says, is an insult to the skill of teachers.’ If you treat everyone as though they’re merely an interchangeable widget in a machine, then that robs the teaching profession of its sacred role.’ And he is supported by some unions. ‘The National Association of Head Teachers has welcomed these proposals because they know that we’re expecting them to drive school improvement. They’re thinking to themselves: ‘The only way we can measure up is if we reward good staff. So, thank heavens the government is giving us the freedom to meet that responsibility.’
The National Union of Teachers is rather less enthusiastic and is muttering about a nationwide strike. Gove spent 18 months leading up to this point – is he prepared for the battle royal that the NUT may now attempt to wage?’ I hope I am,’ he says. ‘And I don’t believe that it’s a winning argument for the trades unions to say: “We do not want to pay good teachers more.”’”
Why’s Gove going so big on all this? Simple: because it really matters. It’s no accident that Joel Klein, one of the key figures in American schools reform over the past decade, regards “merit pay” as one of the most important ingredients in a better education system.