You may well wonder who VOICE are, as it is only a year since they changed their name, and it takes time for a new image to sink in. They used to be the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT) and the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses (PANN). These two organisations worked closely together in the past, but it was decided that a complete merger made most sense. The single trade union now recruits from the whole education workforce, including classroom assistants and other ancillary staff.This move is intriguing. It could be seen as a recruiting move, as it opens membership to a much wider workforce – one that other unions also have their eyes on. But PAT had a tradition of ethical stances on matters such as striking, and the move could also be read as an indication that VOICE has adopted a philosophy of valuing the whole workforce, accepting that each person has an important role to play in the full educational team.
If so, their view contrasts with those teachers who emphasise the importance of qualified teachers to the exclusion of others and who condemn the introduction of unqualified staff in ancillary roles. Trades unions thrive when their members are under threat, and paradoxically it could be easier to recruit qualified teachers if they perceive that their jobs are under threat from unqualified workers.
VOICE’s stance leaves it with the dilemma of applying their philosophy in practice. This came to the fore in their Annual General Meeting.
A recent statement by the Government had insisted that there should be a qualified teacher in every nursery section of a primary school. You might think that this was good news, insisting that the education of young children is seen as a priority requiring the oversight of a qualified worker, and Lord Adonis announced it among the improvements which the Government were introducing.
For VOICE’s nursery nurses, though, this was seen as implying that they were subordinate to teachers and therefore second-rate. Although their qualifications fit them to manage nurseries, they are apparently insufficient to ensure the maintenance of standards in a nursery school. Some members had written to say that there was the likelihood that they would lose their jobs as a result of the requirement. Another option foreseen by VOICE members was that nursery classes would be subordinated to reception class teachers, which was equally unacceptable.
The motion, which called on the Government to scrap the requirement and to recognise and reward those with early years professional status was carried.
Lord Adonis, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools and Learners, addressed the conference, having last attended as an Educational Correspondent for the Financial Times seventeen years earlier. To demonstrate the Government’s achievements, he contrasted the education scene now with twenty years earlier. He felt that teaching now had a positive attractive image as a profession. Capital funding had increased ten-fold. Revenue spending on education had doubled in real terms, and in real terms the average teacher’s pay had increased by 25%.
Special needs pupils had not yet had sufficient attention, Lord Adonis said, and he outlined a range of measures being taken to serve the 1.6 million pupils with special needs, including the co-location of special schools with ordinary schools to enable integration, mandatory training for SENCOs (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators to the uninitiated) and free training materials.
Other developments being planned included the development of caretakers’ roles to become premises managers with Heath & Safety responsibilities, while bursars would become school business managers.
Behaviour managers were to be appointed to log incidents (though they might be redundant if restorative practice were applied – see our report on the York Group day conference).
There was also to be a new Masters level degree in Learning.
Broad new legal powers were being proposed for teachers to search for drugs and weapons, even though few schools would warrant the use of the powers.
The provision required for 3-4 year-olds was soon to be virtually universal. 2,900 Sure Start centres had been built and 600 were still in planning.
The Early Years Foundation Stage was seen as an important innovation – including the requirement for the involvement of a qualified teacher.
And foreign language teaching was to become part of Key Stage 2.
Areas still under review included SATs (after the recent marking debacle), the possible introduction of single level tests and the question of curriculum reform for 14-19 year-olds with the introduction of fourteen Diploma lines reflecting vocational areas.
Lord Adonis thanked VOICE for their co-operation and was generally warm and supportive. He answered questions – not all to the questioners’ satisfaction – on service families’ education, the shortage of governors, academies, travellers’ education, the inaccuracy of 1% of CRB checks, the reviewing of EYFS, foreign language teaching, diplomas and the whole testing regime. A sound ministerial performance.
Professional Nanny of the Year
In the fifth annual contest organised by the union, Debbie Darnborough was chosen as Professional Nanny of the Year. To judge by their curricula vitae, all three finalists would have been excellent ambassadors for their profession, especially as they had to be nominated by the parents employing them, to be endorsed by an education professional, to hold a paediatric first aid certificate and to be CRB checked. Since one of the runners-up looked after children bi-lingually and the other was a black-belt in kick-boxing, Debbie was obviously impressive. The aim of the award was to draw parents’ attention to the need for quality nannies.
There was a good debate with some strong views on either side on a motion that the opening of more faith schools would be divisive rather than inclusive. Some saw them as creating problems – “We need fewer distinctions, not more”, while others felt that the motion was negative and ignored the strengths of faith schools. The motion was clearly defeated.
A motion complaining about the “bewildering range of qualifications” with a plea for stability (“Enough is enough.”) struck a chord and was passed overwhelmingly.
Despite some opposition, a motion that teachers should not be required to have MAs was agreed, with the general feeling being that “You can teach or you can’t. An MA won’t make teachers better”, though that could of course be an argument to ditch training for teachers altogether, which can’t be VOICE policy – can it? The MA was seen as one hoop too many, entailing more time, more cost, more debt for students and greater recruitment problems.
Government support was sought for experiential learning. School trips were seen as an essential part of education, for example, and the danger of the nanny state loomed in measures making it too difficult to arrange any such activities. Passed nem. con.
How is VOICE faring? Our impression was that the programme content was rather light and could have been fitted into a shorter (and cheaper) time frame. The numbers attending were said to be low – because it was in Daventry and there were no good shops nearby, we were told, or possibly because the conference was held in the second week of school holidays, rather than the first. The atmosphere was professional, friendly and relaxed. “Do you think we are nice people?” we were asked as we left. Certainly.