Conference, thank you very much.
At this particular moment I am imagining what I hope would have been a very warm welcome to the podium at our Annual Conference to give this, my President’s Speech.
And I want to begin, and I want to stick with, a theme of imagination through the opening part of this speech. Because our movement, our Union, and indeed all that we do that is worthwhile and good in our campaigns, in our action, in our defence of members, and our support and our training, all that is good is rooted in an imagination of what is possible.
The trade union movement for more than 200 years has been based on seeing how things could be different, imagining possible new futures, speaking, yes, often about what’s not right, campaigning about what’s not right, but actually focussing relentlessly on a positive and visionary message. We should start and, indeed, we should always finish with positive vision.
So, travel with me to that world of imagination, just for a moment or two. Think about the job you have, the place you work, the role you fulfil and ask yourself, what would need to be different? What would you want to change in order to create that environment, which would be the very best for you, for your colleagues and for the children, young people, adult learners and families that you support?
It’s actually surprisingly easy to do this.
Many of you would immediately think of the need to reform our school and college curriculum, whether that’s Early Years through to Post-16 and Higher Education. You would be thinking in terms of a curriculum that is more engaging, more rewarding and more relevant. And our union voice needs to be there consistently on that message. Or it may be, when you think of that positive vision of how things could be different that you find yourself thinking about assessment and exams, and ways in which we could evaluate, assess, reward and credit students in varied and appropriate ways. Appropriate to make judgements in every classroom and in every context, from the youngest to the oldest learners. Or it may be that, when you think about a positive vision for the education workforce, you think about the people working within it. People who are appropriately skilled, appropriately rewarded. People who are given agency and autonomy appropriate to their professional expertise in the classroom, in the corridor and across school and college leadership. Or it may be, when you think of that vision, of how things could be different, that you find yourself thinking about issues around workload. About how we find ourselves now with the largest average class sizes across Europe. Where we live with the constant pressure of inspection regime that is intolerable in the impact that it has on our classes and on our colleagues. Whether it’s the imposition of league tables, all of which add, indirectly and directly, to the workload that you experience.
Or maybe the first thing you think of is the need to address challenges that we all see and understand that relate to social wellbeing, poverty, mental health and those other challenges that ever-increasingly schools and colleges are having to address, with limited funds and limited support, as other structures in society that were there to address those issues have been dismantled.
It’s a big list but it’s a list that paints a picture of challenges, yes, but also of what could be. Because the things I’ve just described are by and large unique to the education service in the United Kingdom. We are an outlier. We’ve been allowed to become an outlier. Because, whilst we may have a clear vision of what is possible and how things should be for our colleagues, for our members in every workplace, we don’t live within a society in which the leadership of our education service has that vision. Our vision, our vision as members of the National Education Union, is to foster a generation of young people through our schools and colleges, regardless of background and circumstance, ready for them to face and overcome the challenges of 21st century society, transforming it into a greener, fairer and more inclusive place for all.
So, we start, each of us, with vision and with purpose, thinking about those things that we would want to change. And that of course is how we construct the very agenda for this Conference – by prioritising, each of us through our districts, those issues that matter to us most.
And so, if we have this vision and if we have this sense of purpose of how things could be and should be, why is it not like that? Where do we find in our world of imagination, of this possible future, the barriers, the reasons that things are not as they should be?
And we have to look at the cast of characters that populates the world of education leadership at the moment. And we’ll start with Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education. And many of you will have seen on social media, repeated comparisons, video comparisons, that draw attention to the similarities between our esteemed Secretary of State and the comic character of the 1970s, Frank Spencer. If you haven’t seen, you may want to look. But personally, I think that’s a comparison that is unfair. Not on Gavin Williamson, it’s unfair on Michael Crawford.
Where should we look to find in our imagination a better illustration of the character and person who is, at the moment, in that important Governmental role. And I looked, and when I looked, I found what to me was a perfect fictional illustration. And it’s in the work of the Italian author, Collodi. Perhaps not well known by name to many of you, but his principal creation will be well known to all of you. The author who created the rather dismal, persistent lying, wooden-headed puppet, Pinocchio.
So why, why, make that comparison. It’s very simple. Throughout recent months we have seen that the Secretary of State is indeed wooden headed, is indeed a puppet, is limp and spineless. And if those are harsh charges to make, let me just take you through the three weeks preceding and after the Christmas period. This is a man who issued High Court injunctions in order to stop pupils from staying at home at a time when schools all across the country were being ravaged by Covid 19. This is a Secretary of State who refused to publish the attendance figures of pupils in school that week until many weeks after they would normally be due.
And this is a man who, two days after every school in the country had expected to return to normal on-site business and the Prime Minister had ruled that it was time for a national lockdown, two days afterwards, stood up in the Houses of Parliament and said that if parents weren’t happy about the education being provided remotely – bear it in mind with only 48 hours’ notice – that they should report the school to Ofsted. And when what happened was that tens of thousands of parents reported how pleased they were with their schools, he said nothing.
Pinocchio of course also has that characteristic of the nose that grows with every lie that is told. And there is one lie that really must be challenged, repeated over and over again by our Secretary of State. The lie that exams are the best and fairest way for young people to show what they know and can do. And here, I’m not talking about his incessant and unrelenting desire to see exams take place this year. I’m talking generally. It takes a particular level of ignorance to make that statement. Because, and here we get just a little bit technical, all of us, as educationalists know, that the format of a valid assessment derives from the domain being assessed.
Creative writing, best assessed in an examination under timed conditions? No.
Web design, best assessed in an examination under timed conditions? No.
And it’s not just the format, it’s also the issues of reliability. High-quality assessment doesn’t depend on performance on the day, doesn’t depend on the marker you’re assigned to, doesn’t depend on the selection of questions that just happen to appear on the paper. High quality assessment would have the same outcome with the same competence of the individual being assessed. It’s time to re-think assessment. It’s time to put that lie in the bin. Exams are not the best, exclusive, fairest way for young people to show what they know and can do.
And why is that so important? Because we have sacrificed huge elements of curriculum design on the altar of exams-only assessment. It’s an absurd idolatry that has reduced rich domains of learning to tests of rapid recall. Rich fields of understanding to surface level probing, and rich dimensions of skill to a narrow focus on individual performativity.
But it’s not just the exams obsession. We operate within the context of an overbearing, an unrelenting accountability system. And I looked once again into the world of imagination and fiction, to try to find a character that would best convey this. And I could think only of the unrelenting winter in Narnia. The character known probably to all of you as the White Witch, Queen Jadis. She who turns people to stone. She who leaves us forever wishing things were different, locked in a cold, harsh winter. The White Witch of accountability, if you like.
Why do I say that so strongly? Well let me, once again, take you through a piece of imagination. Most of you know I work as a school leader, a head teacher. You would think that it is reasonable that I would have some understanding of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the staff in my school. You would also expect me to understand that, from day to day, from topic to topic, with different classes and depending what else is happening both with the pupils and with that teacher, there would be variable quality. But just imagine for a moment if as I developed an understanding of each of those individuals, I decided to give them a number. A 1, a 2, a 3, a 4, an Outstanding, a Good, a Requires Improvement. And not just if I did that. Imagine for a moment that, having done that, I then put that number on the door of the classroom where the teacher worked. Notified the teacher and notified the parents that their child was being taught by a Requires Improvement teacher. Or that their child was being taught by an Unsatisfactory teacher. Or even one that’s merely Good. You would deem that to be shocking and inappropriate. And yet we have allowed ourselves to become accustomed for year after year with a system in which that is what we do to schools.
It’s not that schools aren’t accountable and it’s not that schools can’t improve and it’s not that schools don’t have work to do to ever meet the needs of those in their care. But it is time to end the relentless winter of the Ofsted regime.
And finally, in this world of imagination, I ask myself about why so many of these challenges arise and find my answer in those wonderful Dickensian characters who are our misers. We have a funding system in this country, where the base level of funding for schools through the national funding formula, as determined by Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, is based on providing the least level of money necessary to avoid insolvency. Just hear that again. The way our schools are funded, the base unit, the per-pupil minimum, was calculated on the basis of the least possible that we could place for resourcing, staffing and meeting the needs of young people to avoid academies entering bankruptcy. It’s a shocking picture, but it doesn’t have to be like this. It isn’t like this in other countries. There are countries across Europe, North America where there isn’t a teacher recruitment shortage, where staff are well paid, highly qualified and where there are competitions to enter positions of promoted leadership.
So, lets just go back to the beginning of the Speech. Go back and remind ourselves of our positive vision as a trade union. Our vision for the young people who we teach and the staff who we work with.
Remain true to that vision. Keep campaigning.
And finally Conference, I want to say thank you. Thank you to every one of you as a Conference delegate. Thank you to every one of you who is an officer or a rep. Thank you for all that you are doing to build our union in the workplace. Thank you to my colleagues on the Executive for their unrelenting democratic support, their governance and their scrutiny. And thank you to the staff of our trade union who have, throughout this year, proved that the vision and practise of the NEU is a force for positive change.
Conference, thank you.