The “often negative approach” towards teachers “didn’t work”, says ex-schools minister who seemed to understand that most top-performing countries work with teacher unions

Janet Downs's picture
Teachers are “key players” which must be in the front of ministers’ minds when education policies are decided, said ex-schools minister, Gillian Shephard, quoted in TES.

Shephard became Education Secretary at the tail end of the last Conservative Government when she replaced John Patten who refused to talk to teachers. She knew the Conservatives weren’t likely to win the 1997 election so concentrated on building bridges.

“My priority, for which I was criticised in the right-wing press, was to restore good relations with teachers. Ministers, and indeed anyone, can say what they like about what teachers should do, but in the end teachers are on their own in the classroom and therefore they are the most important component in education…If you have not got teachers working and relatively comfortable, you can’t deliver anything.”

Shephard criticised the “often negative approach” of her Ofsted chief inspector Chris Woodhead. This approach “didn’t work”.

But her conciliatory approach didn’t go down well with more hard-line colleagues. The then Conservative chairman, Dr Brian Mawhinney, urged Prime Minister John Major to replace Shephard with an “aggressive right-winger”, reported TES at the time.

Before the last election, Michael Gove said in an interview for a book about Tony Blair’s education reforms that he was “very much in favour of a new partnership with the professionals” and there was a “particular role for the voice of professionals in improving standards.” But since he became Education Secretary this has changed. Among other things:

1 He’s attempting to introduce a new national curriculum which ignores the advice of his own expert panel. When the draft curriculum was attacked, he labeled his critics as Marxist “Enemies of Promise”.

2 His spelling and grammar tests for Year 6 pupils will go ahead despite the concerns of the DfE appointed experts.

3 He head-hunted Sir Michael Wilshaw, who was on record as saying you know when you’re doing a good job if teacher morale is low, as Ofsted chief inspector.

4 His Department faces allegations of bullying schools into becoming academies, offering bribes and using tactics from the “Vito Corleone textbook”.

5 He didn’t bother sending any minister to the third International Summit on the Teaching Profession which brings together policy makers and teacher unions from across the world.*

Gove’s antics play well with his supporters who see in him the “Rottweiler” instinct missing in Shephard’s approach. But Shephard realised what is now becoming obvious – top-performing school systems work with teacher unions not against them. The OECD found:

“… the fact is that many of the countries with the strongest student performance also have strong teachers’ unions, and the better a country’s education system performs, the more likely that country is working constructively with its unions and treating its teachers as trusted professional partners.”


*Gove attended the first Summit in 2011 although there was little publicity. This was probably because the Summit was publicised as being for “top-performing” countries in PISA tests. But back in the UK Gove and his supporters were braying how the UK had “plummeted” down PISA league tables. Ex-skills Minister, John Hayes, an honorary member of the ATL, attended last year’s Summit and produced a joint statement with teacher unions about the importance of seeking “to promote policies and conditions for teachers to be actively trusted and respected.” This year, however, no English schools minister attended.

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