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Geoff Coggins ACT Treasuer at ACT Conference.

Geoff Coggins ACT Treasuer at ACT Conference.

ATL Teachers Conference 2016

 

A View from the Inside

 

 

The view which the general public get of the annual Teachers Union Conferences is generally very narrow.  It is restricted by the choices made by national media, often focussed on a visit by a Secretary of State or Government Minister, and whatever is reported tends to be sensationalised to attract readers’ attention.  Much more goes on at these Conferences, and here I give an insider’s view of five different aspects of the recent ATL Conference in Liverpool which was attended by some six hundred delegates.

 

1.  Service

 

ATL’s Conference is prefaced by a Christian service where delegates can gather to reflect on the needs of Education and to pray specifically for the work of Conference.  This year, as a change from one of the Liverpool Cathedrals, the service was at St James in the City. The service was led jointly by ATL members and the St James worship team.  In welcoming the seventy plus who attended, ATL’s National President Kim Knappett, who is an active member of a south London community church, said that this service was always for her a favourite bit of conference proceedings.  The talk, based on James chapter 3, was given by former President Andy Brown, and Alice Robinson, another ex-President, gave one of the readings.

 

2.  Motions

 

Fifty motions were heard for debate during the three days of Conference.  Many were focussed directly on the needs of pupils and students, ranging from ways to address bullying, through concern about the closure of school libraries, to provision of courses in FE matched to the real needs of students.  Others, while addressing the situations of teachers and other educational professionals, were still clearly targeted at helping them to be more effective in their roles.  One called for RE to be taught to all pupils by properly qualified teachers.  It was argued that eight hours preparation at ITT stage is not sufficient and Primary teachers need on-going support, access to CPD and resourcing to teach this important and sometimes sensitive content properly.

 

The debates were marked by good humour, and with many contributions from young teachers and first-time Conference members.  Although the issues under consideration were serious, the speakers (being good teachers) were often able to present their case with sparkle and a bit of fun.

 

All fifty resolutions were carried overwhelmingly; in only six instances was the majority less than 90%.  I want to mention the five which were carried unanimously, such was the strength of feeling in the hall.  Two of these were concerned with the mental health of staff and of pupils, and the support they should receive in coping with stress.  One put the spotlight on suicides; suicide is the biggest single killer of men under fifty, with 4,000 a year occurring in the U.K.  We heard accounts from Conference members who had lost pupils and colleagues, and one particularly moving story from a longstanding Executive member and Branch Secretary who had lost his own grown-up teacher son. 

 

Another motion receiving unanimous support brought to light the problems of older part-time students who are also Carers.  Under current legislation they are having to sacrifice their education to caring; if they study for more than 21 hours a week they lose their carer’s allowance. Yet another motion highlighted the need for teachers to be aware of the potential legal liabilities when driving vehicles for school use; the insurance legislation is a minefield.

 

Conference was asked to debate an Emergency Resolution in the light of the Government’s recent White Paper.  The suggestion from the proposer was that this was not “Educational Excellence Everywhere” but rather “Educational Excellence……..all over the place”.  With reference to “Blackadder” he compared what is happening in education to the role of the generals in World War One.  In a measured way he presented arguments based on evidence rather than dogma.  Further evidence presented by other speakers resulted in Conference being unanimous in resolving (i) to work with other unions to defend the public service ethos of the profession, and (ii) to work with all concerned to oppose the forced academisation of schools and to develop alternative policy proposals that would support genuine school improvement.

 

3.  Politicians

 

Conference was visited by Nick Gibb, MP, minister of state for schools, and Lucy Powell, MP, shadow secretary of state for education.  In a departure from tradition these did not make speeches from the platform but instead were interviewed (separately) by Gerard Kelly, former editor of the TES.  Nick Gibb was questioned searchingly and some of his answers were met with disbelieving laughter from his arguably better informed audience. 

(The interview with Nick Gibb can be watched here:

http://www.atl.org.uk/policy-and-campaigns/conference/2016/nick-gibb.asp or

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4Rd10wXB20 .) 

 

Lucy Powell, who comes from a family of teachers, seemed to be more realistic and far better aware of the true situation in the education service. 

(The interview with Lucy Powell can be watched here:

http://www.atl.org.uk/policy-and-campaigns/conference/2016/lucy-powell.asp or

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtN_Jyw23Rw .)

 

4.  Speeches

 

Part of the regular Conference agenda is to hear speeches by the General Secretary and by the President.

 

Mary’s speech drew on her experience as a teacher, her on-going scholarship, and her knowledge of education systems internationally.  She cited work that had been done examining education systems in OECD countries to identify what contributes to success.  And then she performed a critical examination of what we have in the UK.  She  credited the Government with have said that marking should be meaningful, motivating and manageable, and that data gathering should be streamlined, ruthless and useful.  But while in successful countries policy makers worked to build consensus as to the aims of education, here there had been no time when educational professionals had felt less involved and consulted, more alienated and disempowered. 

 

In detailing examples of incompetence and mismanagement Mary referred to the present chaos surrounding Secondary examinations, with syllabuses not yet available for pupils already starting courses, and to the “nonsense” of baseline assessment of 4 year-olds.  The Primary teacher’s job was being made impossible, with KS2 assessment guidance constantly needing to be withdrawn and revised.  And the National Curriculum for 6 year-olds was “insane”.  In each instance her case was argued carefully, with specific examples and reference to comparative studies where appropriate.  As she moved on to the White Paper proposals for compulsory academisation she likened what was happening to the Charge of the Light Brigade.  A careful examination of all the evidence reveals that 85% of Academy Chains underperform – in other words, Multi-Academy Trusts have the effect of lowering standards.  The removal of the requirement for QTS signalled the next step would be to do away with national standards for pay and conditions.  Schools were to be run as businesses, and the public service ethos destroyed. 

(Mary’s speech in full can be seen at:

http://www.atl.org.uk/policy-and-campaigns/conference/2016/mary-bousteds-speech-2016.asp or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ny_3RcfyqOk .)

 

Kim’s speech was based round her year’s themes of Time, Talk, and Trust.  She said that teachers need to reclaim time from doing things that are unproductive and to rediscover the benefits of talking to each other.  She used some of the results of ATL’s ongoing teacher workload survey, and referred to the Association’s aim of empowering teachers to take control of their time in order to engage in what was useful and important..  She called on the Government to trust the teachers, to consult, to listen, and to take notice.  In conclusion she said that while we cannot change the past, we can and must influence the future, and so she called on members to “Make a Difference” in the lives of each other and the children we teach. 

(Kim’s speech in full can be seen here:

http://www.atl.org.uk/policy-and-campaigns/conference/2016/kim-knappett-speech-2016.asp or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRT8PZreHXc .)

 

5.  CPD and  Fringe meetings

 

There were two 90 minute “Break-Out” sessions during Conference which gave opportunity for participants to receive CPD that might not be available to them locally, with nineteen different topics from which to choose two.  Also, each lunch time there was the opportunity for lunch to be eaten in a fringe meeting where special interests such as child poverty, staff disability or worldwide education could be explored.

 

 

Lots more about the conference can be found under “Policy and campaigns” at www.atl.org.uk/

 

 

Geoff Coggins

 

7th April 2016

 

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