Anne Swift – 2016 Presidential Address at NUT Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by Anne Swift, the President of the NUT, at the party’s annual conference in Brighton on 26 March 2016.


I am enormously proud to be your president and I am looking forward to meeting many of you in your associations and divisions during the coming year.

I come from a family of trade unionists. My father was a shop steward at the Massey Ferguson tractor factory in Coventry and my mum, who is here today, was a branch secretary for the Civil and Public Services Association when she worked for British Telecom.

My parents taught me the value of hard work and the power of collective action. A power which is seriously eroded under the present government’s anti Trade Union Bill

My parents worked through the period in the 1970s when three-day-weeks and short time working was the norm. They both held down a number of jobs to make ends meet and ensure their family of five children didn’t go without.

Ironically, one of the jobs my dad had was delivering fresh meat from butchers to school kitchens in rural Warwickshire. Jamie Oliver would have been delighted. How times have changed.

I was supported by my family to go to college without the cost of crippling tuition fees and I left with no student debt. Only children of the rich can say that today, not working class families like mine.

At this conference we will discuss a wide variety of issues and much will be said by many erudite speakers urging the Executive to take forward important campaigns. Announcements in the last two weeks have galvanised many of those campaigns and I congratulate all those who have demonstrated this week and signed the petitions calling for the government to have a referendum on academisation and to scrap the plans altogether. Well over 100,000 signatures, for each, means the issues must be considered for Parliamentary Debate – Let’s have that debate.

With so much going on in education you will be pleased to know I am not going to try to cover everything in this speech. I will stick to what I know and leave our expert delegates to speak on other important matters. When I was teaching I worked on the calculation that you should only keep your audience sitting still for double their age in minutes; 4 year olds – 8 minutes; 5 year olds 10 and so on. So I think I should have enough time today!

I have recently left my job as head teacher at Gladstone Road Primary School, a local authority community school in Scarborough. 820 pupils and a staff of 130 made it the largest in North Yorkshire with many challenges. I miss my colleagues, the wonderful children and the day-to-day problem solving. But what a sense of relief, as I felt the weight of the job lifted from my shoulders on the last day of the autumn term.

But I know that you, and thousands of teachers, are still bowed down by the weight of workload, mainly generated to provide evidence for others. The accountability regime has all but sucked the joy out of teaching, in many ways, and the constant meddling by politicians has led to chaos and confusion. This has been exemplified by the recent announcements on testing for primary pupils.

But teaching is still the best job in the world and the most worthwhile. I am constantly amazed at the spirit of teachers who take their pupils on exciting visits, put on amazing productions and bring out the best in their pupils, with a real joy and devotion to the young people.

I have been fortunate enough to attend the Schools Prom at the Royal Albert Hall. I am proud that this magnificent showcase of young musical talent is sponsored by the NUT.

The Government seems to forget that the music industry along with other creative arts, theatre, dance and drama, are major earners for this country and we lead the world in our cultural heritage and talent. If we focus so heavily on Maths and English to the exclusion of the arts, we will be doing our young people a great disservice, and cutting off a source of enjoyment and potential careers for the next generation.

Our job in primary schools is to sow the seeds so that young people can be inspired to find out what they are good at and be given the means to learn all they can without being tested to destruction.

I have a vivid memory of one of my teachers when I was a fourth year junior, a Year 6 today. My teacher, Mr Carr, had displayed on the working wall a model of a volcano, from which, when you pulled various levers and tabs, “lava erupted and fumaroles appeared.”

This gave me a love of Geography, coupled with the opportunities given by my parents to go camping every weekend around the Midlands and the many family holidays all over England and Wales – countries not known for active volcanoes, I know; but still, these experiences and a creative teacher encouraged me to find out why places and landscapes are like they are.

The new curriculum, despite being content-heavy, is without instructions on how to teach; at least in the foundation subjects. This makes spaces for teachers to be creative in the way the body of knowledge is taught to children, to develop the skills of the geographer, historian, scientist, etc.

And technology can help – you only have to search for a topic on the internet and there are many generous teachers willing to share their ideas. I am very proud to belong to a community of professionals who refuse to be dogged and dispirited by the cold hand of government and the accountability regime.

Our Union also has useful resources for curriculum design and assessment through the Year of the Curriculum and Year of Assessment, both available on the website. And I would like to thank our Education and Equalities Department for the wonderful work they do in holding a torch for education.

When I was packing up my office to leave, I came across topic plans from the 1990s. I obviously had more time then, as I created covers using a drawing program on the BBC Acorn computer.

They look primitive nowadays but show just how much technology has changed in the last 30 years. However, the topic plans with their interlinking of subjects could be used today.

I firmly believe we must hold true to our principles of creativity to make what could be uninspiring bodies of knowledge come alive for our pupils. For teachers too, this chance to be creative meets a need in them and makes the job exciting and fulfilling.

Who knows what will inspire our young people to engage with learning. We don’t even know what jobs they will be doing when they leave school – the rate of change is exponentially greater than it was when I was at school.

I asked my eight-year-old grandson when he thought the iPad was invented. “Before I was born,” he said. It was actually released in 2010. Look how many of you are on your mobile devices, and this year we have a conference app and next year, maybe, digi-voting. One day, maybe, we will attend a virtual Annual Conference. I hope not.

When today’s reception class children leave school they will be engaged in jobs that haven’t yet been invented. If they have jobs at all, as it is predicted that 50% of jobs will be carried out by robots by 2028. I hope that’s not true either!

One job that is not attracting young people is teaching. Even bursaries are not doing the trick and there is evidence that where bursaries are taken up for training, the trainee does not necessarily go on to get a job in school – what a waste of up to £30,000 in bursary payments.

With the numbers of teachers who leave in the first five years of teaching and the rising school age population, we have the perfect conditions for a shortage of teachers.

In the NUT we have been warning of this for over two years. As late as last July, Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister was saying: “I don’t believe there is a crisis. We’re managing the challenge.”

But the Commons Education Select Committee announced in October that it was going to investigate whether there is a crisis in recruitment. The Committee should listen to us and the evidence given by the NUT.

The National Audit Office also severely criticised the Department for Education in a report this February, showing the Government has no real idea of the impact of its policies on teacher recruitment and retention.

So how is the DfE responding? Are they cutting workload, reshaping accountability, paying teachers more, listening to the voice of the profession? No.

Instead it has produced a prime-time TV advert suggesting that ‘great’ teachers can earn £65,000 a year! Complaints have been made to the Advertising Standards Authority about the misleading nature of this ad.

Perversely, the DfE have also announced the closure of recruitment to school-based training schemes and instead decided to focus on Teach First and the National Teaching Service.

What they fail to understand is that you can’t keep denigrating the education service, dismantling the known and trusted routes into teaching via universities and colleges, imposing unjust accountability regimes, and still expect teaching to be an attractive profession.

I have grave doubts about the School Direct route through Teaching Alliances, which has shifted the responsibility for training students away from universities to schools. I call this the apprenticeship model of training, more usually associated with craft industries, where student teachers spend most of their time in the classroom and go to college for day release to learn about pedagogy.

This has had a devastating impact on education departments in universities, leading to a much reduced role, the redundancy of staff and loss of expert knowledge.

It follows a view by Government that learning on the job is preferable to time spent learning the theory which underpins practice. It has had an impact on schools who are expected to do the work formerly carried out by the university for very little funding. I am sure many of the teachers who enter the profession via this route are very able, but they have been short-changed.

The teaching alliances have also had to fill the gap left by the demise or reduction in the role of local authorities to provide Continuing Professional Development for staff, and again this leads to increased workload as expertise is sourced from within the alliance or purchased from commercial suppliers who have designed teaching programmes or assessment packages. This has created a very lucrative ‘edu-business.’

When I wrote this speech in February I thought that the teacher shortage, the diminution of the training available both to students and in-service teachers, along with the changes which took place prior to this Government to remove the requirement for children to be taught by a Qualified Teacher all of the time meant that schools will eventually be staffed by a few “qualified, expert teachers,” supported by other para-professionals. Well, now Nicky Morgan has come clean. In the latest white paper “Educational Excellence Everywhere” (I’m sure there is a joke to be made about the number of Es here) schools will be free to employ anyone to teach and it will be up to the head to accredit them.

We have seen this happen in Early Years where some schools have a qualified teacher in the reception class but “practioners” in the nursery or pre-reception class. These people are skilled and can support teachers well, but, where settings are led by qualified teachers, outcomes for children are better.

This was one of the conclusions from the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) research, one of the biggest longitudinal surveys from 1997 to 2004, and updated again in 2014.

Having qualified teachers who engaged with the children in shared sustained thinking was one of the key findings. This principle is one of the aspects of the Early Years Foundation Stage and forms a characteristic of effective learning.

Early Years settings, and all schools, need to be properly staffed by qualified teachers who can plan a play-based curriculum, centred around enquiry and fit for the age and developmental stage of the children.

We must be alert to any reduction in this caused by funding cuts and political demands for the formalisation of early education. This battle is not yet won. The legislation allowing anyone to teach and the baseline assessment tests put play at risk.

Save the Children has recently launched a campaign: Read on. Get on. They have asked the Government to invest in nurseries so that every nursery is led by a qualified teacher. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has also announced a commitment to put qualified teachers in every nursery by 2018. They recognise that young children who are disadvantaged, particularly, need the most qualified people to work with them to enhance their life chances. Our government is going in the wrong direction.

I attended one of our “Reading for Pleasure” conferences where it was stated that “children from a home with few or no books arrive at school with a vocabulary of approximately 3,500 words.” Contrast this with a child who owns 50 books; they have a spoken vocabulary of over 7,000 words and a great deal of knowledge about how books and reading work.

It has been one of my greatest professional pleasures to teach children to read. The delight on a child’s face when they recognise words in different contexts and realise they can read them, and make meaning from what they read, are “golden moments”. They have achieved a difficult cognitive challenge. We must do all we can to make reading an irresistible pleasure, not a chore.

I find it incredibly sad that in the children’s section of a well-known bookshop a whole wall is dedicated to practise work books for the English and Maths curriculum.

Sad, too, that some schools are sending home nonsense or pseudo words for Year 1 children to learn to read. This is not reading but barking at print. And children who can read are penalised in the phonic test for trying to make a pseudo word a real word.

I hope I live long enough to look back on this time and laugh at the absurdity, in much the same way as people of my generation recall the Initial Teaching Alphabet.

I do not blame the schools for doing all they can. They are under pressure and accountable for every child passing the phonics test, even though an increasing number of children arrive in school with severe speech and language difficulties.

My recommendation to Nicky Morgan is to put a speech and language therapist in every school if she seriously wants disadvantaged children to read well. That, along with increasing the number of educational psychologists and access to mental health services would go a long way to meeting the needs of our pupils and really supporting them to access education.

However, without tackling the root causes of poverty, many children will be disadvantaged. I have witnessed the impact of austerity measures on children and families. The stress of poverty translates to anxiety in children.

We are urged to close the gap in terms of educational outcomes, but the gap between the rich and poor has grown larger and now 3.7 million children are living in poverty, despite Government’s redefining of poverty to exclude income! And in the recent budget we were promised more years of austerity and the disgraceful targeting of the most vulnerable people in our society to suffer more cuts.

In my school we appointed a family support advisor to help parents deal with housing issues, money management, behaviour issues and the benefit system.

Like many schools we had a pupil support advisor – a trusted adult children could tell their fears and worries too. With funding cuts those roles will be in jeopardy

It breaks my heart when I think of the children arriving at school hungry, without warm clothing, and some so angry at the hand life has dealt them they hit out at all around them.

Schools cannot fix the greater societal ills – Government must play its part and yet they seem even more determined to divide society into the deserving and undeserving poor with tax breaks for the rich and cuts for the vulnerable .

With the removal of levels from the national curriculum, the Government is relying even more heavily on test results to measure the success of schools. Campaigns such as You can’t test this highlight the absurdity of trying to capture the worth or merit of learning in a numeric test score.

The Government is wilfully disregarding the evidence which has been collected over a number of years. During my teaching career we have had the well respected Assessment Reform Group reporting on effective assessment, and academics such as Paul Black, Dylan Wiliam and Shirley Clark have written and spoken with knowledge and authority about the place of assessment in moving learning on and providing evidence of learning.

Measuring human endeavour – especially learning – is complex and depends on a number of variables, but the Government wants even our youngest children reduced to a score. Of all the tests, baseline must be the worst. There are so many variables, the most obvious being the age of the child. It is not good to have an August birthday!

I also learned recently that the baseline tests have been designed so that only 2.5% of pupils can achieve top marks. So it is already a test, not of what children might be capable of, but a deficit model illustrating what they can’t do.

The research from the NUT and ATL by Alice Bradbury and Guy Roberts Holmes – with quotes from teachers – illustrates the ridiculousness of the baseline test. It has nothing to do with assessing children to inform provision and planning, but everything to do with school and teacher accountability. The research also points out the temptation to err on the side of caution and give children a low score in the test in order to demonstrate good progress as the child moves through the system. This will affect how children are judged by subsequent teachers and Wendy Ellyatt from the Save Childhood Movement has coined the phrase “Scored for Life.”

My niece is the mother of a 4 year old with an August birthday. She went to parents evening recently and was distraught to hear that her little girl is behind in her phonics and has to stay in at playtime to catch up. I tried to reassure her that my great niece is doing really well and is doing exactly as she should for her age and stage of development.

This obsession with teaching children the “basics” at an ever earlier age is damaging. Very few countries start formal learning before the age of seven, as they know a child’s brain is still not sufficiently developed to make the neural pathways needed for abstract thinking.

Why are we being directed to teach in ways that are so harmful, rather than going with the natural grain of human development? We must resist this and campaign with our allies in the Early Years field, and parents, to show there is a better way.

The Early Years and, I would argue for this to continue beyond the age of seven, should be centred around the development of oral language, playfulness and self-regulation – factors known to achieve better outcomes for pupils.

We also have to bust the myth of linear progression. Anyone who has taught children knows that progress is not made in a simple upward trajectory from a given starting point. Children plateau whilst they consolidate prior learning; make leaps forward as new learning makes sense and becomes internalised; and at times regress due to various circumstances, such as prolonged absence or traumatic events. There is no evidence to show a correlation between baseline scores and later academic achievement. But the myth persists – this graph shows the standard expected linear progression and has been used as the basis of target setting and to measure the performance of schools and individual teachers. But only 1 in 10 children actually follow this path. This graph shows the variety of pathways to achieve the expected attainment at age 16. How this is going to translate to assessment without levels is anybody’s guess.

The mass of data collected about individual pupils, aggregated together and then sliced every which way, is phenomenal. I wonder if parents know just how much information is held by Government on their children. Who knows for what purposes it might be used in the future? Did they give permission for this information to be collected and stored? Do they realise, as they did in Wales, that baseline is really a measure of their parenting?

So, the measures used are spurious, the way information is used to hold the service to account is partial and the data is not statistically sound.

This simplistic approach to assessing achievement is built on the sandiest of foundations. At some point the whole assessment edifice must come tumbling down.

Let’s give it a good shake now and protect our children and profession from this dangerous and damaging nonsense.

The impact of the new curriculum and testing arrangements is also having a detrimental effect on pupils with SEN. They are dispirited, as the tests constantly show what they can’t do and as they get older they become more aware of this. The tests will create even more children who will be designated as having additional needs because they don’t reach the bar raised arbitrarily by government.

We have always promoted inclusion – that is, a system which includes every child whatever their strengths or disabilities. In our mainstream schools children are not included in every lesson, as they are constantly subjected to booster groups, additional support and intervention programmes.

With an already narrowed curriculum, particularly for Year 6 children, those with SEN or a perceived SEN are taken from their art, music, P.E. lessons, and so on – all to accelerate them, to close the gap, and to try and make sure the data looks good.

Of course children need help, support and differentiated programmes to help them achieve their best. But it should not be at the expense of a broad and balanced curriculum which engages all children, assesses them to help teachers plan the next steps and ensure they are motivated and prepared to be responsible citizens.

Having schools which resemble exam factories are not just an anathema to us – “the blob,” as we were once referred to – but even the CBI recognises that employers want young people who are resilient, motivated, able to show initiative, work in teams and be creative.

My school took part in the Exam Factories? research. For a long time teachers have been saying the testing culture and accountability regime is detrimental to our children. In this study, the children themselves have their say.

In the interviews with pupils, one of my Year 5 girls, in response to the question “What is education for?” answered “To make your dreams come true.” Unfortunately, Year 6 pupils saw education as much more about getting good test and exam results.

One of my mum’s favourite sayings, and she has many, is “All things will pass.” And this period will come to an end, eventually. We may well look back on it as an era:

• when education was “measured by statistics and governed by numbers”;
• when only that which is easily measured by pencil and paper tests was considered worthwhile;
• with a focus on performativity at the expense of deep learning.
• when education was seen as a commodity, ripe for private profit, rather than a public good;

And a time when data was used to misinform by politicians and schools were held to account using very narrow measures.

Our job is to hasten the demise of this period in order to protect the public education service for our pupils and teachers. We do not underestimate the scale of the task, as we recognise only too well that the Government reforms are driven by the Global Education Reform Movement.

Learning is packaged and sold via multinational companies and educational charitable foundations. They use education to offset their tax liabilities. Education is reduced to a single indicator – e.g. an Ofsted judgement or SAT results, etc. – and presented in oversimplified form.

But we should use data, or information as it is being called by Ofsted, to challenge the Government.

Ask your MP –

• What evidence is there that academies raise standards?
• How much will it cost to convert all schools?
• How can they guarantee a school place for every child?
• Do they want children taught by unqualified staff?
• How much has Baseline Assessment and other tests cost?
• Are they happy that the market can respond to the needs of the service, rather than planning based on proper analysis of teacher supply and future pupil populations?

The original arguments for becoming an academy – more money, freedom from local authority control, and the autonomy to provide whatever curriculum the school wanted – have largely disappeared.

The multi-academy trusts hold more power over a school and they are much more tightly controlled than ever they were by a local authority. And the tests ensure every school has to devote large amounts of curriculum time to the content of the English and Maths programmes of study

The Government still spins a narrative of failure in the state school system to justify ‘academisation’ as the means to raise standards in schools. But there is no compelling evidence that becoming an academy leads to a better education for children. Nicky Morgan can say it but she cannot produce any evidence.

Indeed, research has shown that a school is six times more likely to remain ‘inadequate’ if it has become a sponsored academy than if it remains a local authority community school – with access to support, collaboration with other schools, and the sharing of good practice.

As a number of scandals in academies have emerged, the Education Select Committee, last year, stated that oversight arrangements were not robust enough!

Hence the arrival of the Regional Schools Commissioners, who are vying with Ofsted to pronounce on the quality of schools in their area. As if schools need another layer of accountability. Does this mean an end to Ofsted?

One of the other weights that has been lifted from my shoulders is the dreaded Ofsted inspection. As a head teacher, I have found that there are two responses to the word Ofsted – sheer terror, or a blasé “they must take us as they find us” attitude.

I was in the former camp. The anxiety which shrouds many schools from Monday to Wednesday is palpable. I know the feeling of glancing at the clock at lunchtime every day, waiting for the call and the relief at about one o’clock on a Wednesday knowing we weren’t going to get a visit that week.

Maybe this says more about me and my insecurities. I know my school was and is a good school with outstanding teachers, but even so the anxiety was huge.

I have seen good people driven out of the profession or made ill by the strain of the inspection system, based for the most part on data which is so variable and built on sand.

Being put in an Ofsted category continues the pressure and intolerable demands which drives even more workload for the staff. No wonder so many young and early-career teachers leave, and so many staff are demoralised. But we should be careful what we wish for. The alternative may be worse.

It is clear now that the Government are going all-out to privatise schools though the academy programme. Many ideas have been imported from the charter-school movement in America.

And now the Secretary of State is suggesting the next Chief of Ofsted should be recruited from the USA. If the American system is so good, why don’t they top the international league tables?

I am sure there are brilliant teachers in the US battling to provide a worthwhile education, whilst implementing systems designed by people with little knowledge of how humans learn, nor a willingness to tackle the causes of poverty which have such an impact on educational outcomes.

As we think about the future and four more years of this administration, I am reminded of a quote from a pupil which I kept on my office wall (I am not sure where it is from).

I’ve been sitting and wondering what the future will be like.
It took me quite a long while. When I finished, I realised a lot of the future was gone. So a lot of the future is in the past.

We must not sit and wonder – we must not procrastinate but activate.

We can fight back. There are examples around the world – for instance, the Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012, and if you get a chance to see the Banner Theatre depiction of the strike you will be inspired.

The Government has sought to break the unions, and the opportunity for ordinary people working in public services to withdraw their labour, with their anti-trade-unions Bill.

We must remember these rights were hard won by the chain-makers, the match girls, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and our predecessors in the NUT since we were formed in 1870.

Many campaigns led by women, who as a group are still treated badly by governments and large corporations. It is still the case that women make up 50% of the world population and yet own less than 1% of property. The development of our women’s networks, attendance at women’s TUC and the work of our advisory groups continues to bring the issues to the fore. We know from casework that many women teachers have their careers cut short as they find themselves in capability procedures. Thank goodness for our lay officers and paid officials who represent them so ably.

Our union recognises the dangers, understands the issues and focuses on the campaigns that will make a difference. It is essential that we stand together with our fellow professionals. We are a union that stands up for education and protects our members in their workplaces.

We should say No to Nicky; No to forced academies, No to privatisation and No to ludicrous testing and accountability systems.

I am delighted that we are working closely with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. We have carried out a number of joint events and together we will have more success in our campaigns.

In Finland, one union – the OAJ – represents educators from pre-school to university level. The Finnish government sees consultation, discussions and negotiations with the OAJ as essential to securing the education service it wants.

It is an example of a great partnership between the profession, business and government to achieve their combined aim of an education service which produces responsible citizens. If our Government wants to model our education service on a system from overseas, it would do well to look at Finland. Closer to home, the education service in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is looking very different to that in England.

We should also be proud of the fact that the trade union movement is the largest volunteer group committed to looking after one another.

Not just in our country, but the worldwide solidarity with other teachers. I have always found some of the most moving parts of our conference are when we are addressed by our brothers and sisters who are our union guests.

It is sobering to hear stories of teacher trade unionists imprisoned for defending members, or even killed in the pursuit of their profession. Governments the world over know the power of education to free people and it is not insignificant that the denial of education to women and girls is used as a means of disempowering them.

The bravery and courage of those who stand up for education in dangerous places is tremendously inspiring and we are right to stand in solidarity with them. So many children are denied an education and are living in terrible circumstances in warzones and as refugees. Our hearts go out to them. Lets educate the next generation to be peacemakers, respectful of others and welcoming to all.

I truly believe that I would not have stayed in teaching and progressed in my career if it were not for the NUT.

The opportunity to attend wonderful CPD events like the National Education Conference, meet with colleagues who give so freely of their time to support others, and the great information from headquarters based on evidence and research, make it the only union for me.

When I began teaching 34 years ago this was a popular print on T-shirts.

Administrator, social worker, coat finder, arbitrator, government directive reader, curriculum implementer, artistic director, form filler, language specialist, pencil sharpener, accountant, musician, fundraiser, report writer, nose wiper, public relations officer, petty cash clerk, examiner, surrogate parent, walking encyclopaedia, scapegoat… But you can just call me a teacher!

Today we would have to add “data collector, evidence provider, e-safety enforcer…” and I am sure you could add more titles.

We have as our strapline for this conference “creative spaces – not exam factories”. And I am pleased and delighted that a dedicated profession of teachers and support staff do their very best every day to make this the case.

We should say “Yes to a broad, balanced and creative curriculum, Yes to assessment to plan next steps for children, Yes to qualified teachers and yes to democratic oversight of schools which focuses on support and collaboration. Are you listening Nicky?”

All to give every child the inspiration to have dreams and the means to make them come true.

On my office wall I had pictures of people who inspired me to go beyond my comfort zone – my heroes.

I believe that you are heroes: not for just one day, but every day – standing up for what is right, in the cause of education in its broadest sense. Who knows who you might inspire! And what they might achieve!

Delegates and visitors, I wish you a great conference.

Thank you.