Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Laying your cards on the table

Playing cards

Social partnership with teaching unions and the government is not a soft option - in many cases it has presented real challenges. But there is no doubt ASCL is more effective and influential sitting at the negotiating table than it is outside.

At the Labour party conference, the Secretary of State, Alan Johnson, mentioned the social partnership between the government, ASCL and other teacher unions in his platform speech and at every fringe meeting he addressed, including the ASCL/NASUWT joint fringe meeting on school leadership.

Schools ministers, Jim Knight and Andrew Adonis, also spoke about the impact of the social partnership at the ASCL/NAHT joint fringe meeting on extended schools and the ATL fringe.

As a former trade union leader and TUC council member, Alan Johnson is well qualified to talk about the relationship between unions and the government. He is in little doubt that the social partnership is the most fruitful and effective model, from the viewpoint of both the government and the unions.

In the education context, the social partnership refers to the group of organisations that produced the workforce agreement and the subsequent structures and regulations on teachers' pay and performance management.

ASCL has been a member from the outset, together with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT), the local authority employers and the DfES.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) was a member until 2005 when it withdrew. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) declined to join the partnership at the outset and refused a further invitation to join in 2004.

Non-partisan politics

Although the partnership is political, it is not party political. ASCL has always been avowedly an apolitical organisation. The partnership is between the unions and the government, not the Labour party.

No such opportunity existed under the Conservative government up to 1997 when criticism of teacher unions was more common than any talk of partnership. It was, therefore, good to see in the recent Conservative public services policy paper, The Wellbeing of the Nation, that a future Conservative government would want to create a new partnership with the professions.

Indeed, at the Conservative party conference - where ASCL held fringe meetings with NASUWT on school leadership and NAHT on extended schools - it was encouraging to be told that the party's new partnership with professionals in the public sector included working with ASCL and the other education unions.

The social partnership is at its most active through the Workforce Agreement Monitoring Group (WAMG) and the Rewards and Incentives Group (RIG), which meet weekly to monitor and develop the workforce reform and pay agendas. ASCL's permanent representative on both groups is Stephen Szemerenyi, who does an excellent job of representing members' interests. Frequently Stephen is supported by me or other representatives from ASCL Council.

WAMG and RIG have a wider influence in the extent to which the DfES carries out consultation with unions that are social partners. For ASCL, this means frequent meetings with ministers and an inbox full of the early drafts of DfES consultation documents on which we are asked to comment.

Workforce reform monitoring

The WAMG agenda includes the workforce implications of initiatives such as 14 to 19 diplomas, the 2020 learning review, and the new relationship with schools.

Bureaucratic demands, in particular, are addressed and some pretty harsh truths about the realities of implementation are given to the civil servants and others charged with developing these initiatives.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) review of school leadership is an area of particular importance to ASCL. The main reference group for the review is WAMG, which has had the opportunity to comment in detail on the methodology of the PWC research, including the questionnaires that are providing PWC with much of its evidence. After the PWC report appears, it will be WAMG and RIG that turn its recommendations into reality.

On pay and conditions, RIG gives evidence jointly to the School Teachers' Pay Review Body (STRB) and hammers out the structures that have to be produced each year in the light of the STRB recommendations.

I regret particularly that NAHT is not part of this process. They withdrew because they believed that the government was not funding adequately the workforce agreement and, in particular, the planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time in primary schools.

Not least because their problem is with funding levels rather than the workforce reforms themselves, I hope that they will soon see the benefits of returning to the negotiating table.

I am sometimes asked by ASCL members why we belong to the WAMG and RIG groups, when they produce changes that are not always to the taste of school leaders. There are at least four answers to this question and all provide important reasons why it is very much better to be part of the partnership than to be outside it.

First, it is unthinkable to me that ASCL, representing the interests of school and college leaders and their institutions, should not have a say in such important issues as workforce reform and the pay and conditions of leaders and teachers.

ASCL members expect their collective voice to be listened to. Being outside the group would mean that we would not have a say on a whole range of vital issues, except through the normal processes of consultation after the event, when it is very difficult to get proposals changed.

Second, any agreement between different parties involves compromise. Throughout the four years of the social partnership, there have been differences of opinion between partners that have been settled by agreeing compromise positions.

All partners have, at times, had their 'show-stoppers' - issues of the greatest importance to them - and other partners have worked to accommodate these. ASCL has to be in the group in order to negotiate these compromises and, when necessary, draw our own lines in the sand.

Classroom observation

The thorny question of classroom observation provides a good example. The classroom unions were adamant that some teachers are subject to excessive observation and they had case studies to support their view. They wanted a low limit placed on all classroom observation.

Representing the views of school leaders (NAHT had by this time left the discussions), ASCL's position was that, in view of the change in the inspection regime, in which classroom observation takes place predominantly as part of self-evaluation instead of during a week-long external inspection, no limit should be placed on the number of lessons observed.

After many hours of discussion, the compromise reached was that, for the vast majority of teachers, there is an annual limit of three hours on lesson observation - in most cases an adequate length of time to check on the quality of teaching and learning for the purposes of self-evaluation and performance management.

Where there is concern about a teacher's performance, the three-hour limit does not apply. In addition, school leaders will be able to drop in to lessons as part of their duty to evaluate standards of teaching and learning and to maintain high standards of professional performance among all staff, as set out clearly in the guidance accompanying the performance management regulations.

Third, membership of the social partnership opens other doors to ministers and civil servants on issues well beyond those discussed by RIG and WAMG. I believe that no secondary school or college initiative should emerge from the government unless ASCL has at least been consulted and had an opportunity to put forward our views. After all, ASCL members are the experts on implementation and there is little point in the government producing policy initiatives without the reality check that ASCL can provide.

School level disputes

Finally, it has been easier - although not always easy - to work with our non-government partners to resolve disputes at school level. It is all too easy to forget that, before the social partnership began, there was union action over workload across England and Wales. There was no national inter-union forum to deal with these situations.

Now, where NASUWT and ATL raise issues at local level, we can use our contacts at national level with partner unions to try to solve the disputes. As some members will know only too well, this does not always produce a solution, but much more often than not, we can help members towards an expeditious outcome.

In many ways, it would be easier outside the partnership than inside it. The traditional role of a trade union is to be outside the tent and shout "rubbish" as loudly and as often as possible from a position of safety. My job would be infinitely easier if that was all that I was expected to do. But I do not believe that represents responsible modern trade unionism, nor would it help us in giving accurate and up-to-date advice to members.

Much more difficult is to be inside the tent, negotiating the detail with the government and other partners and engaging in the discussions that yield positive agreed results for members and for the system.

As in any partnership, we don't get our way all the time. We have to agree compromises that we sometimes do not like in order to find a middle way that is acceptable to all members of the partnership. But there is no doubt that we are better in than out, a view that has been consistently supported by ASCL Council.

By John Dunford, ASCL General Secretary

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders