Speech by Hank Roberts, Immediate Past President of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) at his president’s reception in London, 6 September 2012.

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6 September 2012

Speech by Hank Roberts, president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) at the president’s reception in London, 6 September 2012

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Welcome. Grab a drink at any time, you’ll probably need it.

First why am I here? Not an existential question. I was elected. A huge honour. But a further answer is that, after many years of teaching, I believed teachers would be stronger if united in one union. In 1996 I and others set up an organisation (now called Unify – one education union) aiming to achieve this. I joined ATL (and NASUWT) to promote professional unity. As an open advocate of this I was first elected to the ATL executive in 2002, and the rest, as they say, is history.

A short history
The rich have always been able to educate their children. The level of education of the rich compared to the rest, has mirrored the long struggle of the people for democracy and greater equality. A process Tony Benn characterised as power being transferred from the wallet to the ballot.

After the First World War, returning troops were promised ‘a land fit for heroes’. Instead, inequality rose to a peak in 1921. However, despite the depression and large scale unemployment, over time equality actually increased.

After the second World War there was a huge determination to actually have ‘a land fit for heroes’. This led to the creation of a welfare state, a national health service and, even before the war ended, the 1944 Education Act. This reduction in inequality and the progress of ordinary British workers in health, education, and shorter working hours continued until around 1980.

When I was doing A-levels in the late ’60s I remember unemployment was the lowest ever. It was a question of what job I wanted not whether I would get one. My college education was free. I wouldn’t have gone if it had required loans and indebtedness.

Increasing inequality, its effects on education and child well being
Since 1980, inequality has increased – recently exponentially. It is now higher than 1921. Some say, agreeing with the Government, that after the crash there isn’t enough money. Education must be cut.

What do they mean – there isn’t enough money? Has it been incinerated? Given to banks – to use for wallpaper? No, it went into individuals’ pockets. It’s the con of the century, actually the biggest con so far in human history.

UK companies are sitting on £750 billion they consider too risky to invest. Not wanting to pay tax, companies and individuals hide huge sums. In his book ‘Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World’ Nicholas Shaxson exposes the practices and quotes an estimate that wealthy individuals hold perhaps $11.5 trillion offshore, much of course in British-controlled islands like Bermuda, where I come from. I’d like to make it quite clear, however, that my accounts are held in the high street bank in Harlesden and not offshore in Bermuda, alongside a yacht.

I am sometimes accused of being a Cassandra or Jeremiah, warning of worse to come. In John Lanchester’s best seller ‘Whoops!’ he says: “It is now two years since the moment when the banks nearly took themselves and the rest of the global system over the edge of a cliff. The following paragraph … summarises the laws that have been passed to prevent a repetition”. This is followed in the book by a blank space. “That’s right”, he continues, “nothing”.

Between 2000 and 2008, the FSTE All-Share Index fell by 30%. Payments to executives increased by 80%. In the last 10 years the pay of CEOs has gone from 69 to 145 times the average wage. The money is there. The question is, who’s getting it?

In education a similar process has developed. In 2010-11 the best paid vice-chancellor, Andrew Hamilton of the University of Oxford, pocketed a total package of £424,000. The gap between the richest and the poorest working in schools is wider than ever, with some heads on salaries of more than £200,000 – 20 times the average pay of a teaching assistant.

Does inequality matter in educational outcomes? This is an area recently highlighted by Mary and which, quite rightly, she will continue to focus on. The New Scientist recently featured a special report ‘The Age of Inequality’. It said; “Growing evidence shows that greater inequality brings …more … social ills that affect every tier of society”. It quotes Professor Sir Michael Marmot of UCL saying “The whole argument against a service for the poor and a different one for the rich is that a service for the poor is a poor service. That really says we are not one society.”

Gordon Brown said he would bring state funding per pupil to the same level as private education. A noble aim. Harder achieving than saying, but who can gainsay it. The proportionate over representation of the privately educated in the higher echelons of our society is well known. I note for example 37% of our Olympic medallists were privately educated, although private schools educate just 7% of British children.

Charles Ferguson in his book ‘Inside Job’, says, “Improving educational opportunity and equality is fundamental. … There is a fairness issue that not even a bank CEO can openly deny. If a child is born in a poor area, or to drug addicted parents, it isn’t the baby’s fault.”

Academies, free schools and accountability
On the day the Olympics opened, the decision that academies, as well as free schools, would no longer have to employ qualified teachers was announced. Michael Gove wants all state funded schools to be academies. If he gets away with this, all schools will be able to employ unqualified teachers. This is a massive attack on teacher professionalism and, taken with severe spending cuts, would lead to an ever greater proportion of teachers being unqualified to teach. And this is meant to raise standards?

If academies are such a good idea why has he had to resort to blackmail and bribery to get them? As schools resist, Gove resorts to compulsion. Where here are parental rights, parental power, parental choice? The real agenda becomes ever clearer. It is not just to give people like hedge fund managers the ability to peddle their ideology through control of schools and the curriculum, but to enable them and others to make a direct profit out of running them. The first has arrived; the Breckland Free School in Suffolk is to be run by the private, profit-making Swedish owned company International English Schools UK. And more will be coming.

Chairman Mao said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom”. This is more like let a thousand weeds proliferate.

In schools, teachers are working longer hours than ever, have less control than ever, there is more bullying than ever, less job security than ever and schools are more hierarchical than ever. A regime of fear exists in our schools.

Which brings me to Sir Michael Wilshaw; Her Majesty’s chief inspector, the Head of Ofsted. When a person in such a position says: “If anyone says to you that staff morale is at an all time low you know that you are doing something right”, they should be instantly dismissed. Wilshaw should go and his whole Ofsted system should go with him.

Accountability means people with power cannot do exactly what they want – without consequences.

When I found evidence of a £60,000 bonus secretly being paid to my former headteacher (at Copland Community School in Brent) I blew the whistle, was subsequently suspended, as were, for good measure, the NUT and NASUWT reps. It was unimaginable then that the headteacher and others had, allegedly, taken £2.7 million from the school. It is even more unimaginable that he has been charged with money laundering. How could such a situation conceivably arise? What were the accountability processes to safeguard public money?

The Audit Commission has indicated that of all public expenditure, education is the least scrutinised and controlled. In the light of Brent Council originally giving Copland’s finances a clean bill of health, we demanded that procedures be improved. Brent, to its credit, did precisely that. It is for that reason the Council uncovered four more cases. It is not because there is something special in the air in Brent.

Last week the TES reported that, of the 44 schools audited by Brent since September 2010, none had received a completely clean bill of health. A recent Council report includes shocking revelations; non existent posts, financial declaration forms uncompleted, high value purchases not tendered, quotes not obtained, financing leases entered into without the Secretary of State’s consent, headteacher’s card purchases not presented to the governing body, failure to adhere to national rules on headteachers’ pay, etc, etc.

A middle tier of local governance is absolutely essential, both from a democratic and accountability point of view. This is ably explained in ATL’s recent position statement ‘The Middle Tier – a view from the Profession’, which I recommend to you. I am not saying that management of all state schools are corrupt. The large majority are hard working and honest. However, if you multiply the opportunities for wrong doing you will get more wrong doing.

In my view the abuse and downright theft of tax-payers money is much more widespread than anyone suspects. It will amount to millions upon millions of pounds of public money. I call on Michael Gove to abandon his plans for every academy and free school to be financially autonomous and overseen by him. I further call upon the Government to fundamentally strengthen its auditing and oversight procedures and set up an independent inquiry as to how best this should be done.

Here briefly I’d like to commend good journalism – honest, investigative, pursuers of truth, believers in evidence – which has exposed much of this. Unlike the Daily Mail which had to apologise for saying that I bullied teachers into going on strike over pensions. In reality, one could not have bullied them hard enough not to have gone on strike.

Science and lost opportunities
The scientific method has been used to probe the nature of matter and the universe from the astronomical scale to the quantum level. How exciting and marvellous this year for the scientific method to have triumphed after decades of work, effort, and development in finding the Higgs Boson.

How and why is it that we can explore so successfully the microscopic nature of matter, but we, particularly this government, are so loathe to apply the scientific method to the nature and practice of learning?

Take phonics. In ‘The Geek Manifesto – why science matters’ Mark Henderson comments: “… the government asked (Professor) Carole Torgerson, … to examine the evidence….Robust evidence was lacking….Torgerson advised, the government should roll it out gradually, the first areas being chosen at random…. “That was never done,” she says. “It just became policy…a real opportunity to do a randomised study that might have settled this issue, … was missed.” Carole Torgerson also said this approach should have been adopted with academies.

A pilot with a properly constructed sample and control group is the only scientific way to assess the validity of any new education policy. A pilot without a control is as bad as an aeroplane without a pilot.

We as a society should not tolerate this unscientific approach.

ATL supports Stephen Twigg’s proposal for an Office of Education Improvement. But it would have to be completely independent of government. I would like ATL to make an approach to the other teacher unions and professional bodies, to the learned societies and academics of relevant university departments, to form a united campaign to demand proper reliable evidence based research evidence before any new education initiative is implemented. Further, if this is not done, teachers should assert their professionalism by refusing to implement any untested initiative.

Removal of Asbestos from educational premises
Before I conclude I come to the issue of asbestos. Michael Lees’ wife, Gina, who was a teacher, died of mesothelioma. He has dedicated his life to trying to stop others suffering this injustice. Michael was key to setting up the Asbestos in Schools (AiS) Parliamentary group to campaign for its total removal. Carole Hagedorn, NASUWT, and I put motions to our union conferences calling for unions to work together on this issue, which led to the formation of the Joint Unions Asbestos committee, JUAC, which, alongside AiS, has done excellent work.

In Brent an ex-pupil, Sarah Bowerman, is facing death from mesothelioma. It was with enormous satisfaction that documents I wrote, and letters and reports that I had kept from 30 years ago, relating to cover-ups about asbestos being secretly removed from my previous school Sladebrook, have come back to haunt and are now helping her in her legal case. Should asbestos be in our classrooms murdering our teachers, support staff and giving an early death sentence to our pupils? We should not still have to be asking this question. The Australian Government has recently taken the decision to remove asbestos from all its public buildings including schools, and has set a deadline. I call upon the British Government to do the same.

What is the way forward?
There should be no place for sectarianism in teacher trade unionism. Brendan Barber said: “Having worked with the (teacher) unions quite closely on different issues over the years, it seems to me inexplicable why there should be this organisational difference… The people they serve are pretty much identical… there are some differences but the common issues absolutely overwhelmingly outweigh their differences.” This is from NASUWT magazine Teaching Today in 2003.

November 30th was our greatest show of teacher union unity ever, and showed our potential strength if only we unite to use it. Michael Gove had a nasty shock at the degree of public support we had, shown by opinion polls, during the pension strikes. His urging of parents to break the strikes by coming in to teach classes didn’t even make it to becoming a damp squib. More like a drowned squib.

Michael, what with your call for a return to O-levels, suggesting your friend Rupert is given one of our schools, that academies shouldn’t have to meet minimum nutritional standards, selling off playing fields, the GCSE marking fiasco, and your free school that closed before it opened, I think you are in danger of becoming education’s Mr Bean. Perhaps it is time for a career change. May I suggest stand-up comedy.

If we think that the effects of the austerity policy on education in the UK are bad now, and they are, look at the effects in Greece. A June TES article ‘Teaching in a climate of despair’, paints a bleak picture. “How would you feel if your salary had already been halved in the past two years …? where some teachers struggle to afford to feed their own children, … pupils have fainted … from hunger … Schools … shut for days because no one can afford the heating. … more than 1,000 schools closed? This is not some fictional nightmare, a disaster in the developing world, nor a grim vision from history. This is Greece in 2012”. This is spreading. Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland – where next?

Wilkinson and Pickett in ‘The Spirit Level’ and others, have shown a more equal society is a better society, not just for the poor but for the rich, and gives a better environment for educational attainment for all those who are not the super rich, the overwhelming majority of our country. We make our own history. It is within parameters but it is not predestined. Science teaches us that nothing is certain and therefore nothing is inevitable. In looking forward, we have not just to realistically assess what this government and the financiers are leading us into, but to do something about it.

I would like to conclude with verses from my favourite poet Shelly.
Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Wherefore feed and clothe and save,
From the cradle to the grave,
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat -nay, drink your blood?

The seed ye sow another reaps;
The wealth ye find another keeps;
The robes ye weave another wears;
The arms ye forge another bears.

Sow seed, but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth, let no imposter heap;
Weave robes, let not the idle wear;
Forge arms, in your defence to bear.

I take “forge arms”, of course, metaphorically.

Finally a piece of music of which the chorus, I feel, sums up the attitude we should all take.

(We’re Not Gonna Take It, by Twisted Sister)