The Sunday Times

April 10th, 2011

Rejoice, those striking teachers are making education better

With the beautiful spring weather last week some of the first green shoots of recovery burst out, not in the world of economics but in the world of education. At last. We may be about to see a new education spring of revolutionary reform. This has nothing to do with Michael Gove’s proposals or Whitehall’s disposals. It has, strange to say, to do with workers at the educational coalface, supported and organised by their unions. About 70 angry teachers at Darwen Vale high school near Blackburn, Lancashire, actually went on strike for 24 hours, complete with picket line, against the dreadful behaviour of their pupils.

The striking teachers say a small minority of violent and abusive children is making teaching impossible and classrooms unsafe. Worse still, they say, the head teacher and the school’s management keep undermining teachers’ attempts to impose discipline, and their strike was in large part a protest against that. Hallelujah, is all I can say, odd though it feels to be cheering on trade unions.

Darwen Vale high, according to one teacher, is a school “on the brink of a nervous breakdown”. Not all the children behave badly, but those who do are every teacher’s nightmare. Apart from pushing and shoving and swearing at teachers, challenging them to fights and throwing chairs around, they film them and their chaotic classes on their mobiles and post them on Facebook to humiliate the staff. They smoke, drink beer and deal openly in weed, watch porn on their mobiles, torment other children and carry knuckledusters and knives. One teacher in the past few days was headbutted and seriously injured by a pupil and another was assaulted for trying to stop children throwing food trays in the dining room.

The usual response when hearing of schools like this is to blame the teachers for anti-authoritarian views — with some justice perhaps in the past. But in this case teachers say they are anxious to try to impose discipline. The problem, the NUT says, is that Hilary Torpey, the new head, and the school’s senior management do not support the teachers but tend to side with the misbehaving children. “She is draconian with staff and namby-pamby and inconsistent with pupils.”

Since Torpey’s arrival in September she has suspended 10 members of staff over claims that they had used excessive powers in disciplining pupils — claims made by children in a process all too easy for wised-up young troublemakers to abuse.

Stories such as this are usually more complicated than they seem. Even so, if teachers (and pupils) are terrorised in the classroom, someone should stop it. Someone should protect them. In this case it seems management can’t or won’t. The head teacher’s behaviour is at issue, one of the school governors has actually blamed the wet and windy weather for the pupils’ terrible behaviour and the local education authority calls the strike “disappointing”. Given all this, it’s only right and proper that the unions should move in. That is what unions are for, or at least what unions were originally for.

In the bad old days of the industrial revolution, unions were created by cruelly exploited workers who came together in places such as Blackburn to stand against the overmighty power of the factory owners. Men, women and even children were forced to work 12 hours or more in noisy and dangerous conditions and were given little more consideration than useful animals.

Since those early glory days, unions have gradually brought about their own demise by trying to do quite different things — bullying prime ministers, overturning governments, cosying up to the Soviets, protecting lazy or incompetent employees and turning a blind eye to extraordinary workplace abuses called Spanish practices, to name just a few. They ignored their primary purposes, not least safe working conditions for teachers.

In the early days of sensible trade union leadership, if coalminers were forced to work down pits where conditions were unsafe, their representatives would tell the boss class, and rightly so.

Yet for decades now the union movement has shown little interest — or at least little success — in standing up against the dreadful conditions that all too many teachers have to face in their classrooms. Two-thirds of teachers say bad behaviour is driving them out of teaching. In 2009 more than one teacher a week received hospital treatment after being attacked in school and almost four in 10 members of school staff faced physical aggression from pupils. Even lenient Ofsted inspectors concede that pupils’ behaviour in 21% of schools is not good enough.

Still, the prodigal son is always welcome and if teachers’ unions are beginning to see that teachers must unite against bad behaviour, one can only be grateful. This short strike — the first of its kind in Britain — is a hopeful sign even to those who, like me, grew up at a time of overmighty unions. It would be even better if the unions could find the generosity of spirit to accept that Gove’s reforms, aimed at making discipline easier for teachers, are a good thing, even though they were dreamt up by a member of the Conservative party.

In the same spirit, one can only hope against hope that the NUT and the NASUWT will come out publicly in support of the redoubtable Catherine Jenkinson-Dix, head teacher of City of Ely community college. Perhaps the new education spring is not yet well enough established for that. But the unions should show support. Last week Jenkinson-Dix introduced a zero-tolerance policy at her school to improve standards.

In four days she was brave enough to hand out 717 detentions, in which children had to go at once to the school hall for five hours and read a book about good behaviour. On Monday she imposed 230 detentions. The figure fell the next day and was down to 115 by Thursday. Children are not allowed to smoke, chew gum, drop litter, wear the wrong clothes, carry IT gadgets, turn up late or be rude to staff and so on.

Most parents support her but a dissident few describe her rules as turning the school into a prison. One can only say that if that is a prison, then prison is what pupils need if teachers are to teach and children are to learn, unless they are prepared to behave well without such rules. If not all the parents support the courageous Jenkinson-Dix, at least the teachers do.

A few green shoots of change like this do not, perhaps, make a spring but they are at least signs of hope.