Cometh the Gove, cometh the angry trade union representative. It was inevitable that the Education Secretary would have at least one exchange with someone from one of the two largest teaching unions when he took questions from the floor at today’s Spectator education conference. Gove spoke powerfully without notes on his vision for education, and then in conversation with Andrew Neil, attacked those he believed had low expectations for certain pupils. He said:

‘There are wonderful people in teaching and I want to empower them. This is, I think, a tremendous opportunity for teachers. But there are some in the teaching profession, I’m afraid, who won’t take yes for an answer. They say we’d like more freedom – and we’d give them more freedom with academies and free schools. When they say your curriculum proposals are ridiculous well, in that case, with academies, you can create your own curriculum and with respect to continuous professional development, one of the best ways of professional development is to have your lessons observed by another teacher and to observe another teacher yourself. Yet the unions are saying that lesson observation should be demoted to three hours, not a week, not a month… but a year. Why? One of the tragedies of our time if that the teaching unions have chosen to put the interests of adults, ahead of the needs of our children. And that is why sadly, the unions, as a voice of teachers is diminishing. My challenge not to teachers, but to teaching unions – is to do a better job.’

And then he told the audience that schools were heading for strikes, adding:

‘There seems to be a competition between the NUT and NASUWT to compete for members, with each one trying to out-radical the other.’

Shortly after this, a trade union rep who was in the audience took the minister to task for his comments. Celia Dignan from the NUT said:

‘There will be a one-day strike in the North West in June if the Secretary of State refuses to meet with the teaching unions to discuss the new proposals that he has put out on pay.’

Gove replied:

‘We will meet. I don’t know that we’ll stop the strike but I’m looking forward to meeting both the General Secretary of the NUT and the NASUWT.’

You can listen to the full Gove exchange with Andrew Neil and Celia Dignan below:

Now this sort of knockabout is quite fun. But there are two serious points worth considering. The first is that relations between the NUT/NASUWT and Gove have deteriorated to the extent that if the Education Secretary announced he thought chocolate cake was tasty, they’d accuse him of ‘dangerous rhetoric’. These two unions are infuriating in many ways and not just for Gove: the Labour party is also currently trying work out how on earth to deal with them when they are opposing measures such as performance-related pay that Stephen Twigg isn’t automatically against, and when they are carrying out strike action that the party leadership does not support.

But a second lesson is that by opposing a measure like performance-related pay and going so far as to threaten strike action on it, the unions could seriously undermine their own credibility. This policy is not a difficult sell to voters or specifically to parents. Parents might, as private polling for the Labour party suggests, hate the idea of unqualified teachers going into schools, but given they themselves are likely to receive pay rises based on their performance (or at present, no pay rise at all), they may well struggle to have sympathy for a union kicking up such a potentially disruptive fuss over rewards for teachers who work hard. If you oppose everything right down to performance-related pay (and tasty chocolate cake), then it makes it very difficult to turn up the volume when a really bad decision that really will affect your members comes along.

Tags: Education reform, Michael Gove, Teaching unions, UK politics