At first sight, a brave act. Following what has already become a deeply controversial education White Paper, proposing the forced academisation of all schools in England, Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan addressed the NASUWT annual conference this morning in Birmingham. A tough gig by anyone’s standards. I am a little puzzled why she chose to do this. It was the first time a Conservative education secretary gave a speech at a teaching union conference since 1997.
Again on the face of it, an act of courage, but was Morgan coming to the NASUWT conference to be honest and sincere about her new policy, was it misjudged or was there another purpose?
Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT, as I understand from a few Tweets, had asked delegates to be restrained and polite. The General Secretary traditionally holds an intimate address to conference on the first evening, where public and press are not admitted. No doubt it was during this time that she would have requested that delegates be respectful.
Morgan began her speech, I understand, in a supportive tone, wanting to protect teachers from online abuse and from elsewhere. This prompted some warmish applause. It seems there was a little isolated heckling, but on the whole delegates behaved reasonably as she outlined policy from the White Paper. The initial restraint and politeness did not last. It was the point at which she accused the union of talking-down the profession and creating a negative impression of teaching, that the vast majority of the audience could no longer contain themselves, and were reduced to incredulous laughter.
Morgan asked that the teaching unions get behind the Government’s reforms and this combined with her direct criticism of the unions, in relation to recruitment and retention, was not a conciliatory or respectful line to take. There was no need to go there. There was no need to directly provoke conference delegates at this and the NUT conference that is concurrently taking place in Brighton.
My view is that the Government is expecting trouble over their proposed reforms. There is widespread opposition to forced academisation. It is even reported that members of Conservative party and even some Conservative MPs have expressed reservations. The Government has been bruised by poor public opinion in relation to the BMA and the action taken by the junior doctors. Morgan’s speech is a tactic. She has been sent to get sound-bites of badly behaved teachers to pre-empt and undermine any action taken by the teaching profession in the future. If you think I am being a little too cynical then imagine if you were in Morgan’s position and were genuinely looking to garner support and cooperation from a profession that is opposed to your reforms. Wouldn’t you have adopted a different tone and used a different line of argument? Would you have not attempted to reconcile views? Morgan’s line was provocative and divisive.
Although, we cannot know exactly what the Secretary of State was thinking, I have to conclude that Morgan’s speech was at best ill-judged, at worst deeply cynical. Thankfully though, delegates at the NASUWT conference were largely restrained.