Labour must choose on education: the unions or reform

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg should not base policy on the need to keep the NUT or NASUWT happy, says Isabel Hardman. This is an extract from the Telegraph…

“There has been one, unwavering roadblock to reform: teacher union leadership.” You might expect to hear those words tripping from the lips of Michael Gove, but in fact they come from someone on the other side of the political divide. Antonio Villaraigosa is the Democrat Mayor of Los Angeles, and his enthusiasm for standing up to the Left-wing educational establishment could well teach his Labour counterparts in Britain a thing or two.

Mr Villaraigosa has every reason to bow to the teaching unions: he used to work for them and enjoyed their support as he climbed the political ladder. On taking office, though, he set himself on a collision course with his old allies by trying to link pay to performance and make it easier to sack bad teachers. The battles were bitter enough for him to dub the unions a “roadblock to reform”. And he’s not the only Democrat to stand up to educational vested interests. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel tussled with his teachers’ union over plans to lengthen the school day, which prompted a nine-day strike last September. The Democrats are even keen to learn from Right-wing politicians in the UK about how to reform schools: President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, visited Mossbourne Academy in London with Mr Gove in 2010.

However, the Democrats’ natural allies in Britain, Labour, seem to lack any enthusiasm for a similar showdown with the unions. Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary, has, to his credit, opposed this week’s strike by the NUT and NASUWT in the North West. But many of the policies the two most reactionary – and popular – teaching unions oppose are ones Twigg could yet adopt, such as performance-related pay, and changes to pensions and working conditions. Pay rises based on merit is a seemingly innocuous reform, to which Mr Twigg privately has no objection. But if he does back this change, he will find the unions breathing down his neck.

All indications are that Mr Twigg doesn’t want a battle with the unions. Currently he enjoys a relatively peaceful relationship with them simply by virtue of not being the hated Mr Gove. But as he unveils more of his actual policies, he will have to choose between the unions and reform.

So far Mr Twigg seems to have chosen the unions. He recently announced a confusing about-turn on his party’s free schools policy. Labour’s “parent academies” are a bit like free schools, only without all the good bits the unions hate. He sweetened this policy by briefing the press that he would sack more than 5,000 unqualified teachers working in academies and free schools. But his apparently tough stance assumes quality can only be measured by the presence of a PGCE on a teacher’s CV, whereas independent schools have long employed staff without qualified teacher status. Clearly, Mr Twigg’s plans to sack unqualified teachers and his new free-schools policy are both sops to the unions, rather than part of a drive for better education…

Workers’ organisations do not have some automatic right to be listened to. In the case of teaching unions, their primary aim, understandably, is to get the best pay and conditions they can for their members, not the best teaching for schoolchildren. Mr Twigg should not be basing every education policy on the need to keep them unions happy. What matters is whether parents are happy with rising education standards. The Democrats in America have realised that, and so should their Labour counterparts over here.

More at:  Labour must choose on education: the unions or reform

Do you agree with the premise of this article? Does Stephen Twigg need to decide between what’s best for teachers and what’s best for children? Tell us where you think the conflicts are likely to arise in the comments or via Twitter…

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Categories: Overseas and Policy.


  1. changepatriot

    SchoolsImprove StephenTwigg Twigg must accept that only the unions can speak up for teachers John@changepatriot
    negotiate for them

  2. changepatriot

    SchoolsImprove Mr Twigg must know that teachers need listening to where reform is needed because politicians are just not trustworthy

  3. SFionaT

    SchoolsImprove is there not a middle way? Reform with Union support, compromise to benefit the children & young people?

  4. kenkenholmes

    SchoolsImprove the resounding silence from Stephen Twigg suggests they have chosen ‘reform’. Not the word I’d use mind you.

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