Philip Parkin, general secretary of teaching union Voice, condemns the government's free schools policy as "unplanned and haphazard."
Voice has described the Education Bill as 'chaotic and contradictory'. Why is this?
The bill is a jumble of competing policies, a mix of decentralisation and centralisation, raising standards and lowering them, that will lead to the fragmentation of our education system and undermine teaching as a profession by giving more power to ministers.
The Department for Education seems to be driven by competing and conflicting ideologies – centralise with inflexible targets, yet undermine national pay and conditions for school staff; raise teaching standards, but propose the employment of unqualified teachers in free schools; promote a traditional national curriculum but exempt its favourite type of school (academies) from following it; allow teachers freedom to teach but tell them how to do it – not so much a mass of contradictions but a mess of contradictions.
I am concerned that with unplanned, haphazard free schools employing unqualified teachers, and academies creating a two-tier education system that will damage the ability of local authorities to deliver central services, such as special needs support, to maintained schools, our education system will be plunged into chaos.
Changing the way schools are organised and governed is not a guarantee of success or better education, and the mixed results from the academies established so far supports this. The levels of pay and methods of progression at academies are variable compared to the maintained sector, and teaching assistants and other support staff may be particularly badly affected by the loss or erosion of national pay and conditions.
Voice believes that families should have access to a good-quality local education system that guarantees a good school for all, and that all schools should receive the levels of investment they need to deliver that quality education.
Focusing on some key aspects of the bill, what are Voice's views on greater disciplinary powers for teaching staff?
Greater disciplinary powers and clear guidance on their enforcement would be welcome, both to improve pupil behaviour and to protect staff.
However, it is essential that funded training is provided and that the training is consistent in terms of who provides it and what it involves. It is crucial that staff, pupils and parents know what the powers are, and that they are interpreted and used in the same away across the country, to avoid accusations being made against staff or litigation threatened by parents.
Searches of pupils should be undertaken by trained and willing staff – ideally security staff. The guidance needs to be absolutely clear that staff cannot be required to undertake searches. Widening the scope of searches could potentially lead to staff being put at risk of confrontation or even assault or injury.
While it seems that persistent low-level disruption in classrooms is probably not getting worse, incidents of extreme aggression, although rare, are increasing in number. Disability-related disorders, like psychiatric disorder or attention deficit disorder, are contributing to a deterioration in behaviour.
The DfE's policy of involving former soldiers in discipline could be counter-productive. Deeply disturbed children need specialist handling, not parade-ground-style screaming sergeant majors haranguing, intimidating and humiliating them. We do not believe that ex-servicemen have anything in particular to bring to education over and above any other group of workers. It's the quality of the person that matters, not their former employment.
Alternative arrangements need to be made when poor behaviour is linked with special educational needs. Appropriate assessment and early intervention should lead to an effective plan being developed, alongside the resources required for its implementation.
Effective systems need to be in place to support and reinforce positive behaviour. Sanctions and rewards need to be applied in a consistent way and supported by regular staff training. Challenging behaviour can be addressed most effectively through a multi-faceted approach, incorporating a ladder of sanctions, positive engagement with parents and assistance from external agencies.
Anecdotal reports from our members suggest that many teachers feel unsupported when they are subjected to challenging behaviour by pupils. In many cases, persistent low-level disruption wears down members of staff to the point where they have to take sick leave because of stress, anxiety or depression, and, in some cases, such staff become subjected to absence management or capability procedures whilst they are off sick.
The impact of pupils' challenging behaviour on teachers is such that some teachers experience a loss of confidence or self-esteem, become disheartened or lose their motivation to teach, feel that they may lose self-control and behave rashly in a way that they might later regret, apply for jobs in other schools, or even consider leaving the teaching profession.
What are Voice's views on the proposed reduction in bureaucracy within schools?
This could be seen as welcome, but our experience is that one person's bureaucracy can be another's protection. The presence of guidance can control how things are done and how staff are treated. We will be very concerned if a reduction in the guidance given to schools increases poor treatment of staff by senior managers.
However, a less bureaucratic and burdensome inspection system would be welcome. Ofsted's remit has become too broad and lacking in proper focus.
All schools should be subject to regular inspection – and no schools should be exempt.
The Education Bill announces the abolition of both the Training and Development Agency for Schools and the GTCE. How will this affect the teaching profession?
The abolition of the TDA raises a big question about the future of the professional development of teachers and its possible politicisation through direct departmental control.
With the abolition of the GTC, there will no longer be an independent regulator with a graduated range of sanctions, depending on the seriousness of each case, as there is now, and there is the danger that arrangements to replace it will create a crude system, unresponsive to the merits of each individual case. It will significantly reduce the concept of teaching as a profession and will create the ridiculous position whereby half of teachers (those working in further education) have a professional body (Institute for Learning (IfL)) to which they must be registered and the other half (those working in schools) will not.
While on the subject of scrapping quangos, the abolition of the School Support Staff Negotiating Body (SSSNB) is hugely disappointing and an insult to our dedicated school support staff, who deserve higher pay and a proper pay and careers structure. Teachers have an independent pay review body, so why not their support staff colleagues?
The government's flagship free schools policy is currently taking shape. Will this policy be a success?
Voice has expressed its concerns about schools being set up by those who wish to promote a particular philosophy – be that atheist, religious, creationist, political or financial. Providing high quality education may not be their priority.
We have raised our concerns about the impact of free schools in terms of their long-term funding and viability and their potential effects on other schools. With our public services facing savage cuts, can the country afford free schools?
We have said that a 'buffet approach' to education provision risks causing chaos and confusion – for parents, admissions policies, infrastructure planning, employers, staff recruitment and retention. Importing an idea from a country with a different education system and social attitudes and trying to make it fit here is a risky ideological experiment that could potentially damage children's education if it fails.
To cap it all, it seems that free schools will not be required to employ qualified teachers. Was the slogan 'Those who can, teach' really supposed to mean that just anybody could? Yes, there are some unqualified teachers in private schools but they are small in number and have a specific and limited role. (They can teach as unqualified in state schools only where the school cannot find a qualified teacher for that particular subject. There's only a small number and there are employment-based routes for them to become qualified.) They should not be used as a benchmark for a new class of school.
If teachers in academies and other publicly-funded schools have Qualified Teacher Status, why not free schools?
What does this say about teaching standards? One minute ministers want teachers to have 2.2 degrees as a minimum, the next the DfE is considering unqualified teachers for free schools.
Using the same justification that the government used for its haste over academies, the prime minister has tried to justify pressing ahead with untried policies on untested free schools by saying that "Every year we delay, every year without improving our schools is another year of children let down". If the experiment fails, then it will be those children who are let down.
Speaking on Radio 4's Today Programme, the prime minister said, about the health reforms, that it was "right to properly test out and challenge policies… introduce them in the steady way that we are doing …test your policies all the time."
If that is the case when it comes to NHS reform, then why the indecent haste to rush through a new and untried type of school without proper consultation and without examining the impact on children, parents and other local schools? What happened to the 'testing out and challenging' and 'steady way' on free schools?
The government has also touted the idea of free schools in shops or even the Department for Education's HQ itself. The Department for Communities and Local Government's (CLG) 'Planning for schools development' consultation could result in such new schools being classified as 'permitted development' without the need for planning permission. London Councils has pointed out that this proposal could mean that 'local authorities would have to allow any new school to be created in any location – regardless of its impacts on noise, traffic or the suitability of the building for educational use… It could also mean no checks as to whether the buildings meet health and safety and Disability Discrimination Act requirements… – which they say could impact on the safety of children and staff'.
This raises questions such as: Where will the playing fields go? What about car parking, drop-off points and bus stops? Do we really want schools next door to chip shops, betting shops, off-licences, pubs, newsagents selling cigarettes and 'top shelf' magazines…?
Perhaps some of 'unnecessary regulation' and 'red tape' are necessary after all.