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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.

FactOfTheMatter Sat 06-Apr-13 09:49:53

How utterly irresponsible to pretend that teachers don't teach 'facts' in schools at the moment. By shamelessly misrepresenting the current situation in state schools, you're inflicting irreparable harm on teachers, but more importantly the pupils who are currently going through the system, which is in tatters thanks to the misguided efforts of people who seem to know very little about it, but have their own agendas and appear to be using state education as a little more than a career stepping stone.

You can't separate skills and knowledge - and it's ridiculous to pretend anyone can or does. Teachers are completely demoralised - every week seems to bring more changes, while pay and conditions are eroded, demands on our time outside the classroom are higher and higher, goalposts are changed constantly, nothing can be embedded, developed or improved. And yet teachers repeatedly rise to the challenge and DO deliver a decent standard of education in the most ridiculous circumstances - IN SPITE OF, not BECAUSE of the government's ham-fisted interference.

FactOfTheMatter Sat 06-Apr-13 09:50:41

And please stop saying "rigour" as if it's an actual thing. It's a meaningless soundbite.

Feenie Sat 06-Apr-13 10:17:28

Simply dismissing everyone that disagrees with the government as "leftist" is so insulting and patronising. People disagree with Gove from across the political spectrum.
We don't care about politics here. Politics gets in the way of teaching. We just care about our pupils.

This ^

Brilliant post, CrikeeThree.

pollypandemonium Sat 06-Apr-13 10:33:42

The teaching unions particularly NUT have always been defensive about change regardless of which government is in power.

This has nothing to do with political leanings and rightly so.
In fact Mirza is being defensive in assuming it is.

The NUT represent a voice for children and if government won't hear them they are ignoring the welfare of children and students.

moondog Sat 06-Apr-13 10:42:00


moondog Sat 06-Apr-13 10:43:10

'The NUT represent a voice for children and if government won't hear them they are ignoring the welfare of children and students.'

Rarely, even on Mumsnet have I heard a more hysterical statement. Pass the smelling salts.

EuroShaggleton Sat 06-Apr-13 10:59:05

starlight - same here. 80s education. "Experimented on". Definitely missed some crucial bits as a result.

Grammar was a particular lacuna. We were apparently supposed to pick it up by some form of osmosis rather than learning it. hmm Language teachers in later years used to despair at the lack of basic grammar teaching in English before pupils started learning another language. I remember someone in my French A-level class being unsure what a verb was. History was all about exploring the processes by which history was "proved" rather than learning about what actually happened.

I was at one of the better state grammar schools. I now work in a professional environment and am sometimes embarrassed by my lack of knowledge, particularly of historical events (thank for google!).

We need to stop experimenting on children and teach them the skills and information they need in later life.

purits Sat 06-Apr-13 11:07:44

Interesting. So, when talking about pupils, teachers complain that Learning facts has its place, but learning how to acquire knowledge, evaluate, transfer knowledge from one sphere to another, and understand how facts fit into a system or continuum is more important. But, all of a sudden when talking about themselves, they say How are teachers supposed to inspire if they are constantly having the rug pulled from under them so that they have to struggle just to keep up with the pace of change?
You can't ask for stability for yourself but deny it to the children. You can't insist that they learn transferable skills but refuse to be flexible yourself.

purits Sat 06-Apr-13 11:10:09

Can I win the pedant's prize for snurking at the teacher who puts "enormous emphasis on the importance of learning number skills and spelling rules" who thinks that the changes are "rediculous".

HumphreyCobbler Sat 06-Apr-13 11:10:50

"Grammar was a particular lacuna. We were apparently supposed to pick it up by some form of osmosis rather than learning it."

This is exactly my experience.

moondog Sat 06-Apr-13 11:10:56


FactOfTheMatter Sat 06-Apr-13 11:30:18

I teach - and have always taught - grammar, spelling and punctuation. Let's not pretend schools are the same as they were in the 80s, please.

Feenie Sat 06-Apr-13 11:36:29

I have always taught them too - and tables - and all have always been on the curriculum in the last twenty or so years.

No idea why education in the 80s is relevant to this thread.

FactOfTheMatter Sat 06-Apr-13 11:41:43

It's not. However, some people who were educated in the 80s (and possibly 70s?) know they weren't taught formal grammar, and therefore appear to assume that this is still the case now. It's not, but it's the kind of casual assumption which means Gove's claims about a woolly "skills based curriculum" gain credibility, despite being a misrepresentation of the truth.

SuffolkNWhat Sat 06-Apr-13 11:54:40

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

StarlightMcKenzie Sat 06-Apr-13 12:00:24

Yes Fact. 80's education IS relevant now because those who were educated in the 80s make up a large proportion of parents of school age kids who think teachers are rubbish and who vote.

exoticfruits Sat 06-Apr-13 12:00:34

I was teaching in the 70's and I taught grammar and tables. The great difference was that back then you had greater freedom -now you have to teach the way you are told to teach, even in some cases down to what you actually say!! It wouldn't be so bad if wasn't then all changed-the 'old' was all wrong and it is in with the 'new'.

exoticfruits Sat 06-Apr-13 12:03:42

* large proportion of parents of school age kids who think teachers are rubbish and who vote*

With views like that you really will get the teachers you deserve! If they are continually told they are 'rubbish' they leave and you get left with the ones who can't get jobs elsewhere. Is that really what you want-overworked, undervalued teachers? hmm

Feenie Sat 06-Apr-13 12:04:29

But the curriculum now bears no resemblance to the 80s, and has changed around a million times - that's the point.

StarlightMcKenzie Sat 06-Apr-13 12:10:22

I know that Feenie, being one of the few in my family that didn't go into teaching but probably should have. But I don't think the voting population do. And even if they know it has changed, why would they think it was 'better'?

StarlightMcKenzie Sat 06-Apr-13 12:25:58

Actually exotic teachers HAVE been rubbish at teaching my ds. Nothing to do with capability, everything to do with attitude.

EuroShaggleton Sat 06-Apr-13 12:34:29

suffolk I have said - in my case, ironically, one of the best state grammars in the country!

The 80s are relevant because the theme is the leftist agenda from teaching unions (see the title). I was posting about the impact that leftist agenda had on my own education, in the 80s.

FactOfTheMatter Sat 06-Apr-13 12:44:27

But regardless of what did or didn't happen in the 80s, the government and associated bodies (yes Ofsted, I mean you) and currently misrepresenting the truth of the situation to push their own agendas. And that's not acceptable. So teaching unions oppose it, and can only be seen as left-wing, because they're opposing the policies of the right. Is it possible to take the politics out of it? Probably not - but the very thing they are claiming to be getting rid of (this "content-lite" curriculum) doesn't exist.

It doesn't exist for a number of reasons:
a) the national curriculum is not national, whatever percentage of schools are currently free/academies/private are exempt from it.
b) facts are being taught (of course!) It would be near impossible to teach 'skills' in isolation - it's just that there isn't currently a centralised list of Facts that someone deems it crucial for all pupils to know, and in what order/at what age etc.

So what are they doing? Nothing more than undermining support for schools and teachers. If there is a 'grand plan' behind this, then I can only imagine it's a very bleak one for state education as a whole, regardless of politics.

ProphetOfDoom Sat 06-Apr-13 13:07:29

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

ProphetOfDoom Sat 06-Apr-13 13:08:08

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

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