Fictional interview with a union leader

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What follows is a made-up interview with Trevor Perkins, leader of the fictional English teaching union, the National Teachers Association.

Welcome, Trevor, and thanks for being here.

A pleasure.

Tell us, in your role as a union head, what have you been up to lately?

I’ve just returned from the VDMA conference in Florida…


The Vertical Desk Manufacturers Association. Did you know, standing up has never been more important? It prevents short-sightedness.

Anyway, while I was there I drank a lot of dandelion tea. I didn’t realise how good it was at fighting toxins. The stall holder had a leaflet explaining the science.

Interesting. What was the education angle?

Well, we had lots of presentations on the future of vertical desks. They have ones now known as ‘true vertical’ that have no horizontal parts at all. And they have ones with wheels and bumpers so that students can move around the room and collaborate. It’s a compelling vision of the classroom of the future!

What do you think is the most important issue in education right now?

Last night I heard a keynote from Andreas Schleicher of the OECD. I tend to assume that whatever I have most recently heard from an important educationalist is the most significant issue facing education, and he was talking about the fact that rote memorisation is bad.

Do you think that is the most compelling issue for teachers? What about classroom behaviour?

I think it was Socrates, the famous Brazilian footballer, who said, “Children are not buckets to be filled – we need to set them on fire!” Teachers are the spark and we need to provide them with the petrol.

You see, we really must set the kids free. Rather than attempting to habituate them into adult social norms, if you give young people free reign to run around then they will learn to make the right choices and become responsible citizens through experience.

When I briefly taught for a few years in the 1990s, I had this one lad who would climb out of the sash window, run around the classroom and back in the door. He did that as many times as he needed in order to settle.

You see, we don’t make enough use of the school grounds. Take the kids outside! Imagine it: You could have one class sketching wild flowers and another doing the science of tennis balls or something. Imagine the school is built on the site of an old asylum: You could have a history class reenact being doctors and inmates or you could have an R.E. class attempt to contact the restless souls of the dead patients.

Sean Harford of OFSTED, the schools inspectorate, recently complained on Twitter about ‘restorative’ approaches to school behaviour where a teacher has to justify his or her actions to a child who has misbehaved. What’s your view on that?

I think what Sean is really trying to say there is that we should seek to identify the cause of any behaviour issue and treat that restoratively rather than with an old-fashioned punitive approach. We know that all behaviour is communication.

Right, so what about pay? What’s your position on that?

It’s pretty good actually, particularly when you take into account what I can claim on expenses.

I mean teacher pay. Do you think that improved pay is a way to tackle the current recruitment and retention crisis? Are you pressing government on this?

I think we all believe that teachers deserve to be paid a little bit more but I don’t think the government are likely to listen to us so it’s hardly worth me banging on about it.

And you think they will listen to you on the other stuff?

You’re missing the point.

What’s that? Are you not there to represent your members’ interests?

No, we are not. We are here to represent the issues that our activists are interested in.


7 thoughts on “Fictional interview with a union leader

  1. Remind me to lend you my copy of A.K. Grant’s “I’m Glad I Asked You That” when we finally have a chance to catch up in person, Greg. You’d LOVE it.

  2. The union leaders in Scotland are different sort it would appear , they are always pushing the government on behavior and teacher pay. We currently have a bid of 10% pay rise and strike action planned for August

  3. Hi Greg, I’m a union rep at a school in England. I’m not sure the union official you’re satirising here exists.

    The majority of the structure of English teaching unions (particularly the one I’m a member of) is ley, meaning they are released from their school and receive the same salary they would have if they continued in their school role. There is a small administrative staff who are paid similar, if not below, market rates for their respective professions (lawyer, accountant, etc).

    As for the activist and progressive education characature. It’s certainly true that the NEU is a campaigning union and has an active political fund, but the NAS is much less active in this respect. Either way I think you’d be hard pressed to make the case that this aspect of union activity ever comes close to being prioritised over looking out for the interests of it’s members.
    Personally I have little patience for wishy washy pedagogy, but I find a lot of the arguments against progressive education boil down to straw manning and misrepresentation of what child centred education is.

    I don’t mean to come across as humourless. I think there’s plenty of stuff to take the piss out of in the union movement. Just make sure your grain of truth is bigger than a speck.

    Simply put, I don’t recognise the image you’ve got here. But I’m happy to look at your sources.


    1. Hi Greg,
      I’ve been working in English schools for 26 years and have read the Times Educational Supplement in print and online for all that time, as well as other education news. I think you are exactly right, and many other teachers feel the same way, which is why they are rejecting the NEU and the NASUWT which Patrick defends. You reference the nonsense this week that Bousted of the ATL spoke about too much sitting down, and the ATL magazine for many years was beyond parody. It had nothing for classroom teachers about their role, and instead was all about flavour of the month issues. It’s for this reason so many people are choosing Edapt (a non-union route to legal protection) or NAHT Edge, a union for middle leaders in schools that treats its members like adults. Unions have too far gone the way of political parties with activists promoting heir own hobby-horses. And the money aspect you touch on is exactly right too, all the union officials love their conferences and expenses that ordinary members pay for.

    2. He is talking about the national level, i.e committees and conventions, and meeting with government ministers. The agenda that is shared with the general public or with government agencies is very different to grass root union activity. The caricature is of a national union leader not a union steward. As a former steward (when I was support rather then a teacher) it is not inaccurate even if I am not personally a big fan of Greg’s satirical posts .

      As an aside could you give an example of the strawmaning your talking about? To be a strawman the opposing viewpoint must be clearly misconstrued. Rejecting the premises or arguing for different priorities does not fall into that particular fallacy.

      As an example the following are a strawman fallacy.

      Traditional/explicit teaching does not value the student.
      Knowledge means rote memorization which means bad teaching.
      Progressive teaching rejects knowledge.
      Progressive teachers are not clear about what they teach.

      The following are not.

      Traditional/explicit teaching prioritizes teacher expertise over student choice.
      Knowledge focused teaching requires much greater amounts of practice of core ideas.
      Progressive teaching tends to focus on inquiry based learning over more structured and explicit teaching.
      Progressive teaching tends to priorities the macro level (skills) over the micro level (key facts or concepts)

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