Progress in reverse as we go back to the future

3 Oct

Despite the horrors of two world wars and mass unemployment in the 1930s, there was massive and rapidly accelerating progress during the twentieth century in terms of the working lives and rights of ordinary people an extended franchise, the safety net of welfare provision, state pensions, longer and paid holidays, a shorter working week, decent housing, health & safety protection, universal state education, higher education regardless of the ability to pay The twenty-first century would be a golden age when technology would mean that we could work more efficiently, have a better quality of life, retire earlier and enjoy and extended and prosperous retirement.

What we have seen instead in the UK as the twenty-first century has unfolded has been progress going into reverse. The progress of technology has been greater and faster than ever, but the burden of debt, fear, uncertainty and unhappiness seems to have increased.

Young people in particular are increasingly burdened with debt student loans and tuition fees, mortgages, pension contributions, while others struggle to find work at all. It seems that we will all have to work longer and retire later and pay more for the privilege.

In Scottish education, the McCrone agreement was supposed to be 'a teaching profession for 21st century', not just for ten years, but, while the title of the McCormac Review might be Advancing Professionalism in Teaching, many teachers see elements of it as a retreat back to the pre-McCrone days of the twentieth century.

In English education, the retro-EBac looks to the past rather than the future.

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, more than 200 academics, teachers, authors and charity leaders, including Philip Parkin, Voice's General Secretary, raised their concerns that children's well-being and mental health is being undermined by the pressures of modern life.

Philip Parkin has pointed out the benefits of an:

"appropriate play-based, experiential curriculum. We are very concerned about children beginning a formal academic education too early in order to satisfy the demands of an inappropriate testing regime. Children are individuals and vary greatly in their academic development and readiness for formal learning. A later start to formal education remains our preferred option."

"Young children learn through play and interaction and countries such as Finland that do not start formal education until children are six or seven and that use a social pedagogy approach, have broader curriculums that are better suited to children's natural learning strategies and provide a better foundation for life and lifelong learning a highly prescriptive, inflexible academic curriculum at an early age is 'too much, too young'".

Despite the fact that Finland, which is so frequently praised for its "education miracle", has fewer teaching hours than the rest of Europe, and longer school holidays, the Education Secretary in England has indicated that he would like to see schools extend the school day, for example by adding five hours’ extra learning a week or six weeks a year:

"One of the problems we have is children are not in school long enough in the day and during the year," he told The Guardian.

His ambition to encourage language teaching in primary schools is laudable but it must be appropriate for the age of children fun and interesting rather than hot-housing and test-driven.

Serious consideration also needs to be given to the training of primary teachers or language specialists in order to deliver this ambition. Long-term decisions also have to be taken about which languages should be taught and how many French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic ?

Teachers are currently contracted to teach 1,265 hours a year (190 contact/teaching days + 5 non-contact days). In his interview, Mr Gove seems to be encouraging headteachers to put already hard-working teachers under pressure to work even more unpaid overtime:

"More and more of the young teachers coming into the profession do so because they are idealistic they want to work as long as it takes to help children succeed. If teachers know the Department of Education are on their side to help them, then any staffroom voices saying ‘don’t go the extra mile’ will be a diminishing force."

The working hours at academies and free schools are contractual not some voluntary "extra mile".

If he wants to change teachers' pay working conditions or the school day or fund extra staff he should sit down with the unions in the appropriate forums and discuss it, rather than patronising them or trying to exert moral blackmail, implying that those older "staffroom voices" are somehow not pulling their weight.

Voice has for a long time been open-minded about the current school year. We would always give consideration to proposals for varying the current terms and holidays provided that they met children's educational and welfare needs and took into account the well-being of teachers that is crucial in order for them to do their job effectively. We mustn't forget that children are required to work intensively during term and they also need holidays to recover and prepare for term time.

Teachers already do much that isn't actually in the contract the out-of-school activities, the being there for the exam results, the preparation time at home at evenings and weekends, all the unseen preparation for teaching, marking and assessment

There are plenty of examples in statistical reports, such as Education at a Glance 2010: OECD indicators (2010), of teachers in other countries in Europe and across the world who earn more and have longer vacations than their counterparts in the UK.

To cap it all, it seems that the Government will extend the qualifying period of service for unfair dismissal from one year to two years, meaning that employees will not be able to claim for unfair dismissal unless they have been in a job for at least two years.

George Osborne told The Sun:

"We talk a lot about trade union rights but what about the right of the unemployed person to be given a shot at a job and a career?

"What about the rights of people currently sitting at home with nothing to do, desperate to get work, but the business can’t afford to employ them because they fear they are going to be taken to the tribunal?"

That's nonsense. The Chancellor of a party that is supposedly in favour of freedom and individualism should surely know that it's not about "trade union rights" but individual rights. Protection from unfair dismissal should not be a barrier to employment. Decent employers with nothing to hide in terms of their practices have nothing to fear.

Voice believes that reverting to the two-year qualification period is a backward step. Historically, this qualifying period had been reduced. Now the Government is proposing to increase it.

Reverting to the two-year qualification period would weight the system against employees. A year is a reasonable length of time to decide a new employee's suitability, and there has to be some form of minimum qualifying period. Whatever that minimum, some employers will exploit it to bring the relationship to end. A two year period would allow unscrupulous employers to employ someone for almost 24 months and then sack them unfairly without redress.

What price justice and individual rights? How does this fit in with the Lib Dems, the supposed conscience of the Coalition, and their desire for "fairness"? What do you think of this, Mr Cable and Mr Clegg?

Voice's concern is that vulnerable people will be put at risk by unscrupulous employers and this measure will become a "charter for businesses to sack people unfairly".

(Voice's Official Response to Resolving workplace disputes: a consultation (Word).)

We should do more to encourage children to learn both history and other languages so they can discover that not only that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, but that other countries do things differently and often better than we do.

"Finnish labour law contains clear safeguards against unfair dismissal. Terminating an employment relationship by giving notice requires a proper and weighty reason for so doing, as well as the observance of certain procedural rules. The rules against unfair dismissal are applicable regardless of the size of the company. The termination of an employment contract without grounds is only legally possible during a trial period that has been agreed on in the contact and may, as a rule, be for a period no longer than 4 months."

"Finland has been one of the few consistently high performing systems in PISA's 10-year history. Significantly, Finland has not employed any of the market-based educational reform ideas in the ways that they have been incorporated into the education policies of many other nations, including the United States and England."

Perhaps one day British primary children will be able to say "Tervetuloa!" (welcome) and put to shame Mr Gove and Mr Osborne for not even being able to say "Anteeksi, en puhu suomea" ("I'm sorry, I don’t speak Finnish").

Update, 4 October 2011: Voice statement on Gove’s speech

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