Archives For Miscellaneous

In May I spoke at a meeting of teachers and parents in Sandwell – talking about the White Paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere‘ and what I believe is the real agenda behind this policy. Kevin Courtney (NUT) and Professor Merryn Hutchings were the other speakers.

My input here . . .



This is a bit old – written just before last election, and well before the White Paper. However, I think the arguments presented still apply.

My article in the Morning Star – 2nd April 2015 – The drive to academies can be reversed.

Dear Ms Powell

Congratulations on your appointment as Shadow Secretary of State for Education. I have no doubt you are receiving considerable advice at the present time, but I hope you don’t mind if I add my own policy suggestion to the many others you will be receiving. I suspect that there will not be many making the same suggestion as me, but perhaps that reflects how far English education has departed from the mainstream of what is accepted orthodoxy in many other countries – many of which consistently out-perform the English school system.

You clearly know by now that education in England is in a mess. You made that apparent in your speech to the Labour Party conference. An ideological commitment to market-driven solutions is producing a system characterised by poor governance, a serious shortage of school places and a teacher supply crisis. In response I am aware that in your early public statements you have already indicated that you see recruiting and retaining high quality teachers as central to your priorities for a future Labour government. This is most welcome.

There is currently a rhetoric about the importance of teacher quality but without any clear strategy for recruiting and retaining high quality professionals, for developing teacher capacity and for establishing teaching as an attractive and sustainable career. Market-driven solutions have resulted in the de-regulation of teaching as a profession – teacher education is chaotic whilst the teachers’ contract fails to provide the framework required for teachers to perform their job properly and to develop themselves professionally. At the same time headteachers waste their time administering unnecessarily complex and divisive school-by-school payment systems. The proof of the pudding is in the eating – teacher workloads are unsustainable, access to high quality CPD is at best patchy and the crude application of performance related pay is causing inequality, division and demoralisation. Add to the mix the drip, drip, drip of ofsted-inspired teacher criticism and a crisis in teacher supply should hardly be a surprise.

Your conference speech clearly showed you appreciate the urgent need to address the fundamental problems that currently bedevil the teaching profession. Teachers need the pay to make a career in teaching attractive, the working conditions that make the job sustainable, the opportunities to develop professionally and, finally, the trust and respect that are essential for professional fulfilment. However, what is as important as the solutions are the means by which such solutions will be generated. Current problems extend far beyond technical details about particular policies but go to the heart of how such policies are developed. The culture of conflict, confrontation and imposition is as much a part of the problem as the hopelessly inappropriate policies that are the inevitable outcome of such an approach.

There is therefore an urgent need to establish a wholly different type of relationship between government and the teaching profession – one based on mutual respect and trust. Such a relationship would aspire to consensus, but also recognise, respect, and be able to accommodate, different perspectives. In my view there are currently three different ways of developing teacher-government relations available to a future Labour government, of which only one has the possibility of securing the radical change required to meet Jeremy Corbyn’s bold and inspiring aspirations for a national education service.

The three options are:

College of Teaching – this body is now established with the claim, supported by the government, that it will raise the status of the teaching profession. In so doing it promises to address directly many of the concerns you have identified. Whilst the aims of many of its advocates are laudable there is no doubt that as it is conceived the College faces a number of problems. In its early days the College was endorsed by Michael Gove in a speech in which he quite explicitly presented the College as an alternative to the teacher unions. Many of those who advocate the College would not support this view but it is becoming increasingly apparent that a College of Teaching cannot act as an independent voice for teachers whilst at the same time teacher unions are attacked and marginalised by government. In those countries where similar bodies are well established and respected by teachers they co-exist with teacher unions that are similarly well respected by government. The College of Teaching has been created within the paradigm of a system that is broken and requires transformation. It is almost certainly too associated with that system to be capable of transformation itself. As such it is struggling to assert its independence and it is recognised that the organisation is having difficulty gaining any meaningful traction with teachers. Either way, it is increasingly apparent that the College of Teaching is incapable of generating sufficient support within the teaching profession to develop the consensus around reform and progress that is required.

Social Partnership – this was the tripartite model of state- local government-teacher relations that prevailed throughout most of the last Labour government, specifically between 2003 and 2010 (before it was summarily abolished by Michael Gove). The Social Partnership produced the national workload agreement (2003) and a raft of policies associated with workforce remodelling and the ‘new professionalism’ agenda. There is no doubt that there were many positive features of the Social Partnership – it recognised that meaningful change requires engagement with teacher and support staff unions, and it also recognised that the teachers’ contract is the key to addressing the issues required to make teaching an attractive and sustainable job. However, as it was constituted the Social Partnership contained a basic and fundamental flaw. As a model based on consensus it had no mechanism for dealing with conflict. Where consensus could not be achieved then those in dispute had no option but to sit outside the Social Partnership (this is why the NUT never joined the Social Partnership and why NAHT was both in, and out, at different times). This failure to develop an adequate mechanism for dealing with disagreement meant the relationship within the partnership was never one based on equality. The ability of the DfE, ultimately, to impose outcomes meant the balance of power was not even, a genuine consensus was never required, and that policy could still be imposed without teacher support (for further details see Carter, Stevenson and Passey, 2010). There was therefore a failure to develop a real consensus around the types of policy that could have made education reform pre-2010 much more resilient in the face of the Coalition’s attack post-2010. It was why Social Partnership ultimately failed under the last Labour government and why it should not be reconstituted in the same, or similar, form by a future Labour government.

National Collective Bargaining – this was the mechanism for negotiating teachers’ pay and conditions which existed from 1919 through to 1987 but which was abolished following the teachers’ industrial action 1984-86. At the time the argument was that the negotiating system was broken and that it had directly contributed to the industrial unrest of the mid 1980s. In reality, abolition of negotiating rights was always part of a longer term strategy to undermine and marginalise teacher unions as the independent and democratic voice of the mass of the teaching profession. The big mistake of the teacher unions was to allow their own rivalrous behaviour to make it too easy to turn a temporary suspension of negotiating rights into permanent abolition. The consequences have been costly for teachers and are now clear to see – a fragmented and divisive pay system, a contract that provides little protection against punishing workloads and the absence of any meaningful entitlement for teachers to access proper professional development.

Now is the time to put the restoration of a new, national system of collective bargaining for teachers back on the agenda. Only by addressing questions of the teachers’ contract can the really important questions relating to teachers’ work be addressed. First, the gross inefficiency (and injustice) of school-by-school payments systems can be ended. Second, workload issues can be tackled seriously (and if they aren’t there isn’t much hope for any quality education in the longer term). Finally, issues of entitlement and access to CPD can be addressed. Only collective bargaining can do this in a way that gets to the heart of the problem/solution (the teachers’contract) and with the active support of the vast majority teachers (the DfE’s own research indicates that teacher unions represent 97% of the profession).

The case for establishing a new system of collective bargaining therefore is that only collective bargaining provides the parity in the relationship between government, employers and teachers that is the real recognition of valuing teachers. Moreover, precisely because no one party can impose a solution on the other parties, there is a requirement to find a real consensus on which progress can be made. Conflict is always present, and disputes can arise. Inevitably. But ultimately consensus must be achieved. However, this is not a false consensus based on imposition and acquiescence but a more authentic consensus based on transparency and trust. The outcome, I would suggest, is a much more robust education system, based on the genuine and broad support of stakeholders. Such systems do not swing violently when governments change and there is no doubt that the dismantling of public education that we have witnessed since 2010 would not have happened if before 2010 the system had been developed in genuine partnership with teachers.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has an opportunity to present a much more positive and hopeful vision of education in England than that which is currently on offer. You have begun to articulate that in your speech to conference. The challenge will be to build a broad, and strong, alliance around progressive change – one that involves all key stakeholders and rejects imposition from above in favour of coalition building from below. Such changes will be stronger, more robust and more enduring as a result of this approach – and certainly much better able to withstand the pressures of those who seek to privatise and ultimately make profit from state education. My argument is that such coalition building cannot be achieved without national collective bargaining. It is by no means the whole picture – but it is an important part of it. It is an idea whose time has come. Many will portray it as anachronistic and seek to caricature it. Actually it is radical, dynamic and is absolutely about doing politics differently.

Yours sincerely

Howard Stevenson
Xaverian College 1979-81 😉

viz-flip-the-system_Page_01-e1433081368362Today sees the formal launch of a new book – ‘Flip the system: Changing education from the ground up’.

It is a major achievement – a book edited by two school teachers, Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber, from the Netherlands who saw that education in their country was travelling in the wrong direction, and who wanted to do something about that. First they wrote a book in Dutch, and the success it achieved encouraged them to produce an international equivalent. I am pleased to have a chapter in the edited collection, written with my co-author Alison Gilliland.

Jelmer and René’s frustration with education in the Netherlands is one shared by many teachers around the world. It is a frustration based on an out of control obsession with measurement and testing, the micro-management of teachers’ work, ever-intensifying workloads and the triumph of markets and competition over the public good and collaboration.

However, where Jelmer and René have performed a real service is they have gone beyond critique, and recognised that frustration is the consequence of opposition without action. Overcoming such frustration requires more than critique, and in this regard, Flip the System does much more than many other blogs and books that will be read over the summer when teachers take their well earned break. Specifically it does two things:

First, it offers a real analysis of why we are in the mess we are in.   Education systems, in all their diversity and complexity, don’t just happen – they are not an accident. Nor are they the product of someone’s good (or bad) idea. Education ‘systems’ develop in complex ways, driven by powerful forces. At the moment, we see our education systems driven by the needs of the global economy. More than for a very long time, our education systems are subservient to the needs of international capital and the drive for ‘global competitiveness’. And the best way to produce young people for a world of growing insecurity and inequality is to make the places where they are educated behave as if they were businesses in a market. Schools compete, education is a race and parents and students are consumers – in school, college, university, as in life . . . the winner takes it all. This is neoliberalism – and Flip the System doesn’t duck that. Rather it reminds teachers that if they want to change the system, they must first understand why it is as it is.

Too often powerful critiques of what is wrong with education are followed by superficial analyses of the causes – usually focused on the failings of individual politicians. The problems in education are not caused by too much politics in education, but by too little. Education is always and everywhere political. The problem is that political decisions about education are increasingly directed by the invisible hand of the markets and business interests, rather than the outcome of genuine open debate amongst all those with an interest in education. The challenge is to make the invisible, visible and the private, public.

So how to do this?

This is the second area of analysis where Flip the System also has much more to offer than many other current efforts to analyse developments in education. Specifically, it recognises that if teachers want to ‘flip the system’ then they need to not only take action, but they must do so collectively. Every day teachers take actions that challenge the trajectory of neoliberal education policy. Every time they make a decision based on the individual need of a child rather than the imperative of market-driven targets, they buck the system. But individual acts of resistance can only ever achieve so much. System flipping requires much more concerted action – and the book acknowledges this.

In our contribution to the book Alison and I argue that teachers’ unions are the natural and obvious way to organise such collective action. Teacher unions are not the only ways that teachers can organise collectively. Teachers are naturally embedded in myriad collaborations and networks, both informal and formal. This is as it should be. But if teachers want to flip the system . . . seriously flip the system, then they have no option but to work together in organisations that provide them with a real voice. I have argued elsewhere that any organisation that claims to be a voice for teachers needs to be judged by three criteria:

  • Independent
  • Democratic
  • Inclusive

Only teachers’ unions come close to meeting these three criteria. This does not mean teachers’ unions are perfect – far from it. Certainly they have flaws – it would be amazing if they didn’t. But they have a potential that no other organisation claiming to be the voice of teachers can come close to fulfilling.

In our contribution to Flip the System Alison and I argue that if you are proud of being a teacher then it is only logical to be active in the organisation that speaks for your profession. If you don’t like it as it is, then get involved to change it – that is the nature, and the beauty, of a democratic organisation.

However, what I want to argue here is that if you are serious about wanting to flip the system then you don’t have a choice – get organised.

imageI am happy to be part of the Northern Rocks 2015 conference organised by Debra Kidd and Emma Ann Hardy.  My presentation/workshop is based on a chapter I wrote with Alison Gilliland for the book ‘Flip the System: changing education from the ground up’, edited by Rene Kneyber and Jelmer Evers (book details here and project details here).

The chapter is called ‘The teachers’ voice: teacher unions at the heart of a new democratic professionalism‘ – you can download a PDF version of the article here – Teachers’ voice and teacher unionsv3

In the presentation I refer to an article in Forum by Stephen Ball – it is very short, but clear and powerful – you can download it here  3_Ball_FORUM_57_1_web   – thank you to Forum for permission to reproduce.

The presentation explores how teachers can be at the heart of this democratic vision of education.

My powerpoint from Northern Rocks is here – the downloadable version has some links in

CFogHq5WYAAiolq.jpg_thumbIn 2014 I was involved in organising a conference, hosted by the NUT, and sponsored by TeacherSolidarity.

A book has come out of that event and the editor, Gawain Little, and I, have co-authored a chapter in it.

The book is available from Manifesto Press, and there is an additional discount if you’re an NUT member.

The book can be ordered from Manifesto Press.

On Friday 20th March I participated in an Education Question Time at Charnwood College in Loughborugh. The participants were Christine Blower (General Secretary of the NUT), Nicky Morgan (MP for Loughborough and Secretary of State for Education), Matthew O’Callaghan (Labour Party PPC for Loughborough), Carol Leeming (community poet and artist), Samantha Pancheri (Green Party Education Spokesperson) and myself.

I applaud the NUT for organising these Education Question Times – there were at least four being organised on the night of 20th March.  This initiative is getting debate about education out into public spaces – there needs to be much more of this as current policy tends to close the spaces for debate down.

The whole evening was videoed – and what follows are a series of YouTube clips which take you through the evening – question by question.

Do Arts and Humanities subjects restrict career options?

Can we justify 500 new Free Schools?

Continue Reading…

This is the final draft of a book chapter I co-wrote with Alison Gilliland (of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation).  The chapter was written for a project called ‘Flip the System‘ – an initiative by two teachers from the Netherlands to try to turn recent global education reforms on their head! The book, edited by Rene Kneyber and Jelmer Evers, will be published in 2015.


Teachers across the world are under pressure. It seems that everywhere the demands on teachers are increasing whilst at best the growth of resources fails to keep pace. In very many parts of the world, and especially following the global economic crisis, resources devoted to education are diminishing. The pressure is on to get ‘more for less’ from public education systems, and those who work in them.

Teachers experience these developments in myriad ways, but perhaps most sharply in the form of labour intensification – put simply, the relentless drive to work teachers harder and harder, sometimes until they simply burnout. Many school systems now operate on a high turnover-low cost model of teaching which cycles through an endless process of ‘bring in-burnout-replace’. However a parallel but arguably more significant development is the drive to assert ever greater control over the content of teachers’ work – what teachers do, how they do it and teachers’ ability to decide for themselves what is the most appropriate way to perform their job. Hence the trend to scrutinise teachers’ work forensically, and to convert key elements of the educational process to a number that can be easily measured, compared and ranked. Where this is happening teachers experience their work as being stripped of its pedagogical richness and complexity, to be a replaced by a process of management by numbers.

In this chapter we set out to show how teachers can reclaim their teaching. We do so by making the case for a new democratic professionalism based on the fundamental values of social justice and democracy and with teachers’ professional agency at its core. In the chapter we identify three domains of professional agency as areas of teachers’ work where it is vital that teachers are able to make and shape important decisions. However, our view is that teachers must understand their agency as both individual and collective and we argue that if teachers are to genuinely ‘flip the system’ then this can only be achieved if teachers organise collectively. Teacher unions therefore, as the independent and democratic organisations that represent teachers’ collective voice, are not only at the heart of a new democratic professionalism, but must be central to both making the case for it and mobilising teachers to achieve it. We conclude the chapter by setting out the steps that unions must themselves consider in order to mobilise teachers around a much more optimistic and hopeful vision of teaching. Continue Reading…

On the 1st March 2014 I spoke at the Professional Unity Conference.  This was called by teacher unions seeking to working more closely together, possibly involving mergers.  My speech made the case for a single union.  This is my re-writing of the speech after the event. It isn’t word for word what I said from my rough notes – but it is near enough.


Teachers assemble at the Pullman Hotel London to discuss teacher union unity

Thankyou for the invitation to speak at this conference.

The term historic is one that is often over-used.  Only time will tell if today might genuinely be referred to as historic – but this does feel like a very important event. I am grateful to be asked to speak here.

I am here speaking as an academic – I have been researching teacher unionism for over 20 years.  However, I have been directly involved in teacher union activism for longer than that.  So today I am both academic and activist – and I am speaking with both head and heart.  That isn’t always easy – but it has always been an important aspect of my work.

I want to provide a historical overview to today’s discussions.  History is important. Michael Gove understands that.  We need to understand that history is important – it is our history.

Continue Reading…

NUT-NASUWT-logosI wrote the article below in 2011 – at the request of the Times Educational Supplement.  They chose not to publish it – but instead published their own article, combined with a typically vitriolic anti-teacher union editorial written by the then TES editor Gerard Kelly.

I place it here now because I think the arguments I presented then, but which didn’t get an airing, are no less prescient now than they were in 2011. Indeed, they are now more urgent than ever.  In a week when the ‘historic’ unity between the NUT and NASUWT has, rather depressingly, fractured it is understandable to feel pessimistic about the prospects of teacher union unity.  However, the Professional Unity conference on 1st March offers some hope – supported as it is by NUT, ATL, UCAC and NAHT.  This conference will be unlikely to lead to anything dramatic on the day – but it does offer the possibility of building a longer term grassroots movement for teacher union unity. If it achieves this, then it really will prove to be historic.

My (unpublished) TES article from 2011 . . .

Testing Times for Teacher Unions

Continue Reading…