Michael Gove sent me a letter yesterday. Nice of him, I thought. The gist of it being – would I, please, join him in supporting his efforts in tackling the industrial action in schools since October 3rd. Here is the letter:

NUT/NASUWT industrial action in schools

Dear colleagues,

I am writing to you to seek your support in tackling a threat to the quality of pupils’ education which has emerged recently. I am referring to the highly irresponsible industrial action started by the NUT and NASUWT on 3 October.

The NUT and NASUWT have issued a series of 25 instructions setting out activities which their members should refuse to undertake. Only a tiny proportion of the profession voted in favour of this industrial action, with a turnout of only 27% in the case of the NUT. An even smaller proportion of teachers are choosing to follow these instructions. The vast majority of schools are currently unaffected. A small number, however, are starting to see a severe impact and where this is the case, I believe a robust response is needed.

I respect the right of teachers to take industrial action, but this action short of a strike lacks a clear purpose or even a set of coherent aims. It sets out only to cause unnecessary disruption in schools, while at the same time threatening to damage children’s education.

The NUT and NASUWT have instructed their members to refuse to undertake cover for other teachers, creating additional work for their colleagues. The unions want their members to refuse to hand in lesson plans to senior management, making it more difficult for them to manage their schools. Perhaps most unreasonably, the instructions go as far as refusing to provide more than one written report each year to parents.

Those are only three of 25 instructions, which place unnecessary pressure on headteachers, governing bodies and Academy Trusts. I am also concerned about the increased burden on the many hard-working teachers across the country who are focusing entirely on providing the best education possible for all of their pupils.

I am sure that you will agree that this is not a constructive or effective way for organisations representing professionals to work. I believe it is damaging the reputation of the profession with the public, at a time when we have the best ever cohort who are working harder than ever.

Feedback from parents suggests they find it difficult to understand why the education of their children needs to suffer. Feedback from teachers suggests they find it frustrating that they need to pick up the work that other teachers should be doing.

Furthermore, international evidence shows that industrial action of this kind is associated with significant damage to pupil outcomes, particularly in the long term. The threat to pupil outcomes in affected schools is therefore a real one. I believe we should tackle this action swiftly and firmly before it causes any more damage in schools.

In response to requests from headteachers, I have published advice for schools on the Department for Education website about appropriate sanctions. The legal position is clear: teachers who are following this industrial action are very likely to be in breach of their contracts. Pay deductions represent a lawful response, and the advice sets out how deductions can be made in a proportionate and reasonable way.

I would be very grateful if you could support your school(s) in taking a robust response, including through pay deductions where appropriate. I am convinced that by working together in a coordinated way we can protect the pupils, parents, teachers and headteachers who would otherwise suffer because of this irresponsible industrial action.


I love the word “irresponsible” in this. Gove is in full school-ma’am mode here. What is actually happening is that unions are asking teachers simply to enact the workforce agreements of the middle of the last decade and implement them fully. Anyone got a problem with that? As I posted at the time, the unions are pretty poor at getting this message across effectively – I don’t hold any candle for their self serving attitudes – and there are ways of communicating with this deaf government that do not involve placard waving, marches and noise. Anyway, he wrote to me, so it is only polite to write back. This is my reply:

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your letter to school leaders dated 12 December, asking us for our support against the NASUWT/NUT joint action beginning 3 October. Unfortunately, I must refuse to offer you any support in this matter, as I view the policies of your department and government as destructive of the best in education and unnecessarily undermining of our love of teaching and learning. Whilst many teachers and leaders are making progress in building up their schools and the standards in them and in deepening their children’s love of learning, we are, in general, doing this in spite of rather than because of the policies of your government. In particular, the undermining of the role and purpose of local authorities gives me great concern, and hacks away at the “local purpose” of schools. You are encouraging schools to work together, so that the best practice can be disseminated, but in setting school against school, and in refusing to fund local authorities properly, you are mitigating the effect of any desire for local harmony you may espouse. Many of the mechanisms for improvement that we had in Milton Keynes, for instance, and of which my colleagues speak warmly (an effective advisory service for the foundation subjects being just one), are no longer able to be funded.

We debated the union issue long and hard in our leadership team at our school (Christ the Sower Ecumenical Primary School in Milton Keynes). I honestly have very little love for the unions. I agree with your perception that their October 3 diktat is, in part, driven by a desire just to “do something” and kick the government in the shin in a rather unfocused and purposeless manner. After debate, we came to the conclusion about the 25 tasks that:

  • They were wholly justified in the light of the threats perceived by teachers.
  • A just and compassionate leadership, such as we strive to be, would perceive no threat from not carrying out these 25 tasks.
  • The best schools (those acting in love and affectionate excellence for their leaders, staff and children) would not even notice if the unions carried out their threat fully.

However, the need for the industrial action becomes clearer and more supportable when you look at the very real threats that some teachers perceive facing them, particularly in the so-called “academies” and distinctly un-free “free schools”, where rates of pay and conditions are seen to be under threat from possibly unscrupulous principals who may take the opportunity to save money through cutting staff costs. At the moment, evidence is sparse about this particular issue, but it has happened already and cannot be ruled out, particularly as even “academies” come under increasing financial pressure.

I think you would be wise and compassionate if you were publicly to acknowledge these issues, engage openly and honestly with the unions on this issue and develop a little more understanding of the challenges facing real schools, rather than simply blaming leaders for not meeting the sometimes arbitrary standards you have set.

Yours sincerely for our children’s growth and betterment, etc.

I will, doubtless, get an automated response from one of the daleks, followed by a fuller response, though no less dismissive, within 15 days. Maybe.


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

3 responses »

  1. […] I got a reply from the DfE after all, to my letter to Mr Gove on industrial action. Two pages, what’s more. But not from Mr Gove – he passed it on to his new schools […]

  2. […] minister for those?) responding, I imagine, to my letter to David Laws who had responded to my letter to Gove (do these people never reply to the letters they get sent?), but answering questions I don’t […]

  3. […] had never met a person who had attended a union conference, as though these things went together. As I have said elsewhere, not least to Mr Gove, if leaders are thoughtful and caring and supportive, and genuinely want to grow their staff, they […]

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