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Guest blog: teachers' unions have a 'leftist' academic agenda - what do you think?

(129 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 05-Apr-13 15:11:23

In today's guest blog Munira Mirza, London's Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture, defends the government's planned changes to the national curriculum - and says that teaching unions who oppose the plans are still in thrall to a 'leftist' academic agenda.

Do tell us what you think - and if you're interested in this subject, you might want to have a look at yesterday's guest blog from the NUT, on why they're calling for reduced teaching-hours.

"Last week at City Hall, we held an event to launch a £24m London Schools Excellence Fund which aims to drive up standards in state schools and support better practice amongst teachers.

Amongst those present, there was particular excitement about the idea of teaching a more rigorous, knowledge-based curriculum. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm is not shared by some activists in the teaching unions who have reacted with hostility to the new national curriculum proposed by the Government. At the National Union of Teachers' Easter conference last week some delegates attacked what they described as a 'pub-quiz style curriculum', claiming that children didn't need to be taught facts anymore as they could simply Google them. Additionally, a hundred left-leaning education academics wrote a letter criticising what they claim is an "endless lists of spelling, facts and rules" that demands "too much too young".

Reports in the media can give the impression that teachers are unanimously hostile to the new curriculum. Perhaps that's because some journalists conflate the highly politicised and often unrepresentative teaching unions with ordinary teachers.

In fact, I believe many teachers on the ground have a more positive attitude.

They know that state schools in Britain need to improve. Even in London, where schools have made big strides over the last decade (thanks to the efforts of many great school leaders), one in five children still leaves primary school unable to read and write properly and four in ten students leave secondary school without five good GCSEs. Many more could be stretched further, getting As and A*s rather than Cs and Bs.

The problem is not the quality of our teachers but the way they have been instructed to teach. Britain's schools remain very much under the influence of ideas of certain leftist academics from the 1960s and 1970s (though certainly not ideas shared by all left-wing people). These so-called experts had a view of education which emphasises vaguely-defined 'skills' over concrete knowledge, play over rigour, and child-centred approaches instead of teacher authority. They claimed that the emphasis on subject knowledge throttles young people's creativity and disadvantages poorer children. This thinking has spread through state schools since and unintentionally damaged the life chances of generations of children. Not, of course, the offspring of the wealthy whose private schools give their pupils a huge advantage by teaching hard facts and avoiding the dumbing down of the all-must-have-prizes approach.

The education establishment today can't bring itself to acknowledge these problems. Instead of engaging in a constructive debate about the right balance between knowledge and skills, rigour and creativity, it has a knee jerk reaction to anything that sounds vaguely traditional. It peddles assorted myths about the new curriculum: it's too "prescriptive" (it's actually slimmer than before); it promotes only facts and "rote learning" (no, it lays out broad areas of core knowledge that all children are expected to know, but doesn't prescribe teaching methods); it ignores the views of "teaching experts" (it was, in fact, drawn up in consultation with an expert advisory panel chaired by Professor Tim Oates, plus wide consultation with subject specialists), and that there is no evidence that an emphasis on "core knowledge" works (there is plenty of international evidence, from the US, Singapore, Finland and Sweden among other places).

Very few people want a full-blooded return to the 1950s classroom, but some aspects of it - a grasp of core subject knowledge, a commitment to rigour and discipline, and yes, even some memorisation - do have their place in the twenty-first classroom. Tellingly, many people in the elite of society - politicians and lawyers, artists and journalists, businesspeople and academics - who choose not to educate their children privately nevertheless go to great lengths to get their kids into the kinds of state schools which insist on 'old-fashioned' standards.

Many state school teachers also disagree with the educational establishment. The head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, who ran one of the best comprehensive schools in Britain - Mossbourne Academy - has praised the new curriculum for bringing much needed rigour back. Many of the new generation of free schools are now demonstrating how a knowledge-based curriculum is perfectly suitable for poorer children. In one I visited recently, two experienced teachers - both Oxbridge graduates - told me of their determination to teach a more rigorous curriculum and challenge the low expectations they'd seen whilst working in other state schools.

Rather than reacting defensively, shouldn't teaching unions and academics welcome a proper debate about the value of knowledge and how schools can impart it? There are plenty of teachers and parents who have looked at the evidence and come to a more favourable conclusion about the new curriculum; they deserve to be heard too."

Munira Mirza is London's Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture - more info here.

exoticfruits Sat 06-Apr-13 13:15:22

Actually exotic teachers HAVE been rubbish at teaching my ds.

You can't write off the entire teaching profession because of that!

ouryve Sat 06-Apr-13 13:20:09

The lack of grammar teaching in the 70s and 80s has been addressed since then. I taught summer schools in the early 00s for children moving up to secondary school who were deemed to need some help with their literacy and the curriculum for the summer school for children who had left primary school at level 3 included aspects of grammar and sentence construction which I had never been actively taught.

And be assured that my DS in year 4 knows all about verbs, nouns, adjectives etc. He's known his times tables since he was in reception, but his class are expected to learn them by heart, just as I was in the 70s.

Feenie Sat 06-Apr-13 14:53:49

The 80s are relevant because the theme is the leftist agenda from teaching unions

As has been discussed already, teachers' only agenda is what is best for the children. And, incidentally, it's worth noting that the Conservatives were in government throughout the 80s - anything on the curriculum at that time must be attributed to them.

mercibucket Sat 06-Apr-13 14:55:07

Isn't that precisely the point about Gove, though? That he has his eyes set on a higher up job and this is his way to make a mark?

moondog Sat 06-Apr-13 17:10:16

Love Gove.
I'd be delighted if he was pm.
It would be a sad loss to education thoguh.

partystress Sat 06-Apr-13 17:43:29

I left a successful career and retrained as a primary teacher in my late 40s. I did it because I could see from my DC's experience that teaching was a hugely important job and I felt I had the skills and qualities to be a good teacher and be a positive influence in some children's lives. Being able to pursue some kind of leftist agenda did not come into the equation and at no point during my training did I feel there was any bias - left or right wing.

3 years on, my experience is that most teachers (primary at least) are extremely compliant and non-political. They change their practice because they are told to, and they do it without question. They may grumble among themselves, there may be a little bit of passive aggressive jobsworthing if the change has a big impact, but actually they get on with it. The kind of changes I have had to implement have all been apparently on a whim, because the school down the road is doing it or the head believes it to be what Ofsted want to see. Not one of the new ways of working has been presented with an ounce of evidence or even any attempt to justify it. It all appears to be fear-driven: if we do all this stuff, we will show that we are tackling the problems that Ofsted will seize on and so immunise ourselves against a poor judgement. This is where more 'rigour' would be refreshing - let's really look at what works in what context and encourage schools to learn from one another rather than compete.

I don't know who the Deputy Mayor has in mind as 'the educational establishment' who are 'peddling myths'. Teachers are working together to try to work out how they will implement the new curriculum. Some subjects are indeed slimmed down, but overall there is significantly more to be packed into the primary years. Teachers are anxious about how this can be achieved because already children are not experiencing the breadth of curriculum the last couple of generations enjoyed: high stakes testing of maths and English and the overnight introduction of a new grammar test means that many Year 6 pupils do nothing but English and maths.

Never mind live on £53, how about any politician who wants to spout off about education needs to spend half a term as a teacher first? They are removing the need to be qualified, so there is no real obstacle to them taking a little sabbatical from politics (though the CRB check might be an issue for some...)

JakeBullet Sat 06-Apr-13 17:45:40

Personally I'd trust a teacher over a politician any day.....however leaving politics out of it...interesting that an opposing view is dismissed as "leftist" hmm.

FWIW I would just be grateful for an education which recognises that children have different needs and where a SENCO (or several) does NOT tell me their school "will struggle" to meet DS's needs when what they ACTUALLY mean is "your son wont help our league table results and we are in competition with the school up the road so don't send him HERE"!

Interestingly my DS knows his time tables and some of the "fact based" teaching appears to have gone on in his primary school. He is not "academic" though and too many secondary school want to put me off applying while the local authority with it's scarcity of special school places deem him "too able" for anything BUT mainstream. If Gove can sort THAT situation out (faced by far too many of us) then he will have my support. Sadly all I can see are cuts to budgets.

CrikeeThree Sat 06-Apr-13 17:54:06

I've got to say, I'm baffled by all the references to 80s education!
As people have pointed out, the Conservatives were in power then, and the education system has changed since, anyway.

If we're talking an 80s education here, I went to the local comprehensive that other parents moved house to avoid sending their kids to. Yet I was taught grammar, punctuation, spellings and times-tables. Maybe, there were just bad teachers in the particular grammar school that was talked about? Maybe I was just lucky?

But it seems to be a theme in this whole debate to harp back to past times with either rose-tinted spectacles or with personal experiences that supposedly represent an entire system.

I think that Gove is a misguided Zealot, who fails to listen to people around him. Luckily, I don't believe that he represents the entire cohort of the House of Commons, or even of the Conservative Party.
I don't believe that my dislike of Gove is a reason, for example, to write off the entire democratic process....

CrikeeThree Sat 06-Apr-13 17:57:59

partystress - I can really relate to everything you say (and I teach in a secondary school)

'As has been discussed already, teachers' only agenda is what is best for the children'

Now this IS rubbish. I don't doubt that what is best for children is high up on their agenda for many, but it is downright nonsense that this is their only agenda.

' Not one of the new ways of working has been presented with an ounce of evidence or even any attempt to justify it. It all appears to be fear-driven: if we do all this stuff, we will show that we are tackling the problems that Ofsted will seize on and so immunise ourselves against a poor judgement. This is where more 'rigour' would be refreshing - let's really look at what works in what context and encourage schools to learn from one another rather than compete.'

Yes yes.

Wishiwasanheiress Sat 06-Apr-13 18:23:23

In answer to the question, yes, I do think this view has some merit to it. Unions by their very nature tend to be more left leaning don't they? Kind of goes together there. When I was at school in the 80's teachers were known as NUTters. Basically because they went out on strike / off work at every sneeze in the news. I was in my early teens but this tendency was well noted by myself and my peers.

Interestingly also people site teaching methods being better from the 50s onwards as being better neatly forgetting the Tories were also in there as well for, well, quite a time or long enough depending on your persuasion.

Finally, all of the teachers and tutors now would have been taught by those 'indoctrinated' so to speak as they grew up and were trained during these periods so the leftist agenda is actually ingrained so deeply that its not even noticed it, just is. You site these as the best ways to teach, really? Isn't it more likely that its just the way it is, has always been, and you don't want to try something else? I realise its difficult, but teaching is in danger of stagnating some things don't alter.

chicaguapa Sat 06-Apr-13 18:57:41

I suppose it comes down to what your idea of education is. I do think education is more skills-based than fact-based because it's providing an all round education. And I agree that this is how it should be. But the two aren't mutually-exclusive.

Some people clearly value bare facts and knowledge and others recognise the importance of being able to apply that knowledge in different situations. Some might think being able to memorise facts and figures makes them clever and others that being able to approach tasks from different angles is a product of a good education.

As a linguist I think of it this way: what is better to have - a huge extensive vocabulary or the ability to be able to communicate effectively?

partystress Sat 06-Apr-13 19:12:05

Wishiwas 'all of the teachers and tutors now would have been taught by those 'indoctrinated''? confused I trained in 2010, but was at school in the '60s, being taught by people who may well have trained themselves before WWII. Teachers of a similar age to me but with much longer experience do indeed look back on an era where they had more freedom, but it is not some Marxist paradigm they long to return to; rather they wish they were back with the freedom to depart from the script, be occasionally opportunist, read a whole book rather than an extract or 'exemplar', teach something because it is interesting and/or useful, rather than because the children need it to achieve some contrived 'level'.

Undoubtedly there is a leftist agenda among teaching union activists (as there would be in any unionised environment, hardly a surprise), but it is not logical to infer from that that teachers or academics are influenced by a political ideology.

chicaguapa Sat 06-Apr-13 19:44:46

I do think that what motivates a lot of people to go into teaching is a sense of responsibility to society as whole and a desire to contribute to that. This probably subscribes more to a left wing ideology than right.

ravenAK Sat 06-Apr-13 19:50:26


Look, it'll be a bloody awful mess for a few years, until teachers learn to game the newest version of the NC effectively, & then it'll all settle down for a bit until the next ambitious idiot gets the job of Ed Sec & writes another version on the back of another envelope.

It'll be a load more pointless work for teachers, but at least that'll give us something to moan about, so we should be thrilled, no?

Good teachers will still do the best job we are allowed to, & crap ones will still bimble on.

I wish this wasn't happening when my eldest will be hitting secondary in 2015, just when we'll have kicked this lot out & it'll all be in even more chaos as we're trying to repair some of the damage, mind you.

Feenie Sat 06-Apr-13 19:51:03

'As has been discussed already, teachers' only agenda is what is best for the children'

Now this IS rubbish. I don't doubt that what is best for children is high up on their agenda for many, but it is downright nonsense that this is their only agenda.

What do you think is their/our agenda then, Starlight? Because it isn't nonsense to me, or to my colleagues.

Wishiwasanheiress, it's 'cite', not 'site'. smile

moondog Sat 06-Apr-13 19:54:21

Come, come Feenie
The principal agenda of any group is to look after its own interests.

Parkinson's First Law: Work expands to fill the time available.
Parkinson's Second Law: Expenditures rise to meet income.
Parkinson's Third Law: Expansion means complexity; and complexity decay.
Parkinson's Fourth Law: The number of people in any working group tends to increase regardless of the amount of work to be done.
Parkinson's Fifth Law: If there is a way to delay an important decision the good bureaucracy, public or private, will find it.
Parkinson's Law of Science: The progress of science varies inversely with the number of journals published.
Parkinson's Law of Delay: Delay is the deadliest form of denial.
Parkinson's Law of Data: Data expands to fill the space available.
Parkinson's Law of Meetings: The time spent in a meeting on an item is inversely proportional to its value (up to a limit).
Parkinson's Law of 1000: An enterprise employing more than 1000 people becomes a self-perpetuating empire, creating so much internal work that it no longer needs any contact with the outside world.

Feenie Sat 06-Apr-13 20:03:36

See, now bollocks to all of that, my interest is in making sure every child reaches their potential happily - much the same as you in your career, Moondog.

moondog Sat 06-Apr-13 20:05:46

The fact that you even have to articulate such a bleedingly obvious agenda speaks volumes.
It reminds me of those inane policing/council/PCT slogans.
'Making Wigan safer'

Gosh really? Thanks for reminding me in such insufferably smug tones that you are doing the job you are paid to do. hmm

Feenie Sat 06-Apr-13 20:09:30

I wasn't intending to be smug at all - just pointing out that that really is my interest, and those around me.

Most of my job revolves around proving that I am doing so, and that invariably takes me away from actually doing, as you so rudely put it, what I am paid to do.

ravenAK Sat 06-Apr-13 20:10:01

Apparently there are quite a number of people who need reminding that that's what we're doing, moondog.

chibi Sat 06-Apr-13 20:52:21

what's your agenda, moondog?

Teachers 'stagnating'? Chance'd be a fine thing grin

'What do you think is their/our agenda then, Starlight?'

You agenda, I would hope, is to do the best job for the children that you can possibly do within your constraints, but that isn't the same thing as wanting what is best for them.

I can tell you quite frankly that no-one wanted what was best for my child with SEN. They wanted what was cheap and easy and found ways of justifying the refusal to do anything beyond the bare minimum and to hide the fact they were not fulfilling his statement. Not just one school or one teacher. He was in 5 settings before the age of 6.

He supposedly had a 1:1. When I asked for a few simple measurable targets that required data collection I was told that his TA didn't have time as she was far too busy. Too busy doing what? Well, without fail, in all settings, the answer was too busy being the class TA.

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