CHRISTINE BLOWER tells Luke James that teachers are prepared for a tough fight against the Tories’ free-market fanatacism and to go all the way for quality education
ENGLISH schools are understaffed, there is a crisis in school places and chaos in the curriculum.
Teacher training schemes have gone unfilled for the past three years and class sizes have soared, forcing headteachers to rely on poorly paid supply teachers.
State schools, particularly in London, are struggling to cope with a population boom because the government has banned local authorities from building new schools.
Children have been bombarded with new tests, for which the government has given teachers little time to prepare.
Faced with these three substantial challenges, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has set out her vision for the next five years in a white paper called “Education excellence everywhere.”
Her solution: force every school to become an academy, scrap qualified teacher status and get rid of parent governors.
That’s why, when NUT general secretary Christine Blower closes the union’s conference today, she will speak of “wrong priorities.”
“There is absolutely no evidence that forcing schools to become academies raises standards,” Ms Blower emphatically tells the Morning Star on the eve of her speech.
“In fact, there’s significant evidence that schools that remain with their local authority are much more likely to improve.
“This won’t happen in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
“Apart from Chile, under a particularly oppressive regime, there is nowhere else that has ever tried to do this. We are now a laboratory for experimenting on children and education systems.”
Michael Gove, Ms Morgan’s predecessor as education secretary, was often heard parroting the phrase “parental choice” as the stock justification for his evangelical academy expansion efforts.
That fitted neatly with both the Tories’ market ideology and appealed to parents.
“People are perfectly entitled to be ideological — the problem is that Michal Gove’s ideology is wrong,” Ms Blower says.
But Ms Morgan has ended any pretence of parental choice by forcing all schools to become academies and ditching parent governors, saying being a parent is not a sufficient qualification for running a school.
Ms Blower believes that will breed an “adversarial” relationship that will limit parental involvement in their children’s education to making complaints.
And taking on the Education Secretary’s “astonishingly patronising manner,” she pointed out that as a politician with no background in education, Ms Morgan is definitely not qualified to run schools.
“It’s absolutely clear to us she does not understand how schools really work or the strength of feeling she has provoked,” Ms Blower says.
“She has done her best to alienate practically everybody in the education community.”
That includes Melinda Tilley, Oxfordshire County Council’s cabinet member for children, education and families, who this week signed a letter against the academy plans.
Not quite as damaging to David Cameron as his own mother and aunt protesting against council cuts, but another significant act of dissent from a Conservative politician in his own patch.
Ms Blower also reports that councillors in Kent and Hampshire are standing up for local schools and says that the union has “caught wind” of half a dozen Tory backbenchers threatening a rebellion over the issue.
“We haven’t been in contact with them, this is a spontaneous outburst about the absolute stupidity around what the government is suggesting,” she says.
“They genuinely believe there should be local democratic oversight of education. They know this is an untried and untested measure.”
And given that mass academisation was not in the Tories’ manifesto, it opens the prospect of the policy being blocked in the Lords, where the government does not have a majority.
Ms Blower said: “While I’m not on the edge of my seat waiting for the government to be brought down, I think there could be further reversals in what they want to do.”
Does she miss the Lib Dem ministers round the Cabinet table at times like this? She shoots back with a single word answer: “No.”
“They didn’t manage to obviate the worst excesses of what happened under Michael Gove and I don’t think they would make a difference now,” she adds.
The NUT is enjoying an improved relationship with Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who spoke at the union’s conference on Friday. Mr Corbyn was not invited by the union, but requested the chance to address teachers, Ms Blower reveals.
There’s no prospect of NUT affiliating to Labour though, she insists, pointing to a vote against the proposals at the conference in 1919.
But teachers can be assured of Mr Corbyn’s support in the campaign of industrial action the union called over academisation this week.
Ms Blower compares the mood of her members to the junior doctors, ready to fight for the future of the post-war welfare state.
“The junior doctors are saying this contract that Jeremy Hunt has imposed on them will make the health service much less safe,” she says.
“And what we’re saying about this attempt at academisation of our whole education system is that this demolishes and dismantles the model we have of providing education.”
Teachers could be hampered in their fightback by the Trade Union Bill, which Ms Blower brands an “appalling and regressive piece of legislation.”
But the union has been boosted by its High Court victory over the government this month after ministers tried to stop a strike over sixth form funding, which they claimed was political rather than industrial.
“It isn’t lost on High Court judges that funding is obviously connected to how many people you can employ. If funding is cut, people lose their jobs and conditions are worse for the remaining staff.
“Trade unions don’t generally speaking do all that well in the High Court, so that was a significant victory for the whole trade union movement.”
Ms Morgan warned teachers that she has “no reverse gear” when she became the first Tory education secretary in decades to address a union conference last week.
But Ms Blower points out that Chancellor George Osborne “thought the same about his cuts to personal independence payments for disabled people.
“The outcry about that again came from lots of different quarters was sufficient to save that benefit,” she concludes optimistically.
“We hope the coalition of people who are coming together will be enough to make a difference for education.”