I used to think the pentagram was the sign of the devil, but I’m prepared to consider the merits of the triangle – probably scalene, definitely un-Pythagorean.
The first point of this policy triangle (for it is she, again) is pay reform – the reason why several schools have had their applications to become academies returned, accompanied by letters of the ‘must do better’ variety. Helpfully, said letters have specified how to do better: unclasp the dead hand of existing pay structures that already give headteachers the power to award discretionary extra payments; that contain a performance-related element on the upper pay scale; that enshrine regional variation. In short, that already do what the government claims only their dismantling can achieve. Dammit, they can even buttress divide-and-rule management and the economic Darwinism (on which) it feeds, if required
The monstrous carbuncle on the face of this old friend is the absent concept of the pay cut, and only the zit cream of reform can smooth the bump – principally, by ‘freeing’ headteachers to pay employees significantly less than before, even if they perform well and take on extra responsibilities. This is, undoubtedly, the most telling innovation in a policy that has little to do with promoting educational standards and school autonomy, and a great deal more to do with the decimation of spending on public services. Gove-endorsed academy chains may appear to pay their staff a smidge above the national scales; but the increase in their directed time is such that, hour for hour, their salaries actually drop. And some of the areas for which extra incentive payments are available are best not looked at through anything other than a Vaseline-smeared lens.
While we’re about it, let’s not forget the vexatious topic of scale-point portability, which guarantees teachers parity of payment when moving between similar jobs. Typically, the perception of the issue is being shaped by erroneous contrasts with the private sector, which is presented as a realm in which employees habitually experience – and happily accept – salary levels that undulate like a paper boat on a turbulent sea. Is it really the case that, when switching between posts with the same weight of responsibility, private employees don’t seek comparable, if not better, pay? What about the possibility of schools operating like local salary-fixing cartels, thereby effectively forcing teachers seeking new jobs to shoulder a pay cut? But, just when it seems all doom and gloom, let’s at least remember that those currently not shortlisted for jobs, by dint of being on the upper pay scale, may suddenly become employable again, as their successful threshold applications count for squat. Provided they’re prepared to put in the same, or more, hours (i.e. very, very many) for significantly less, the world is their oyster. Or the oyster is their world: they might be eaten alive.
Michael Gove has stated, on the record, that he is happy to meet with the unions regarding concerns over pay and pension reform, but the “direction of travel”, he warns, will remain unaltered. A handy analogy, as the Education Secretary’s compass tends to point to the second point on the triangle: academisation – if necessary, by force. With DfE brokers now scouring the land like witchfinders, seeking out warty primary schools to toss into the Harris maw, increasing numbers of institutions are finding themselves poised for removal from local authority control. In its place, they are to be frog-marched into a meaningful relationship with the Education Secretary, with no chaperone or anything to check that all are behaving within the limits of decency. Schools that refuse to do as they are bid face a sharpened axe and a chopping block. By such means shall the taxpayer, that hapless object of perpetual teacherly hostility, be spared the burden of an education budget, and cataracts of wealth shall gush down upon him. But soft, what light through yonder brain cell breaks? ‘Tis the fact that every teacher IS a taxpayer.
Which blinding revelation brings us screeching to a halt at the third point of the triangle: the economical truths of the Education Secretary’s relationship to News Corp. The first-draft hagiography that Gove offered as evidence to the Leveson Enquiry, was a robust reminder to anyone who had forgotten that the Education Secretary was – and his wife still is – an employee of Rupert Murdoch. The bit that fell carelessly into the shredder was the proprietor’s interest in Wireless Generation, a News Corps acquisition that will allow HMS Murdoch, and some who sail in him, access to the profit-generating environment that the classroom must surely become. The company, under the leadership of Joel Klein, has identified billions of dollars-worth of potential business in American schools through selling digitised curricula (history via the medium of Fox News, anyone?), and is uberkeen to be involved in establishing charter schools there and academies here. A beast with two backs, indeed.
Of course, as Klein and co. have reminded those present at their sleepovers, computer-based lessons and resources mean that we have less need of flesh-and-blood teachers. Lest the Opposition gets too complacent at this point, please recall that something similar was championed by a New Labour Education Minister. Jim Knight nursed a day-glo vision of seventy children in a single class, tapping away at their individual keyboards and following their personalised curricula under the benign gaze of a remote teacher beaming out to thousands. The only other adults needed would be a couple of teaching assistants, who’d patrol the classroom and provide inspirational bon mots such as “You have switched it on, haven’t you?”.
Computers don’t need to be paid, don’t get pregnant and don’t go on strike. Even better, they can’t come up with vivid, alternative explanations to help the student who doesn’t get it the first time round. They can’t follow the interesting tangent raised by a really clever question, and take the class on a journey that, ultimately, delivers them to their destination so much the richer. Because that is just irrelevant frippery. Best of all, as they don’t have opinions other than the ones you give them, they can’t contradict what you have decided will be the prevailing ideology.
A triangle, like I said. And not a right angle in sight.