On 22 November something odd happened. The Daily Express published an article which implicitly criticised one of Michael Gove’s key reforms to education and quoted, approvingly and prominently, the condemnation of this policy by Labour Education Minister, Tristram Hunt.
The article also reported the comments of NUT Deputy General Secretary Kevin Courtney to support the thrust of their story.
The cause of all this an “exclusive” by the paper, about: “A failing academy advertises for Maths teachers who have just FOUR Grade C GCSEs”. It seemed fairly clear that the paper wanted to endorse Hunt’s statement that “David Cameron only stands up for a privileged few and is failing to deliver for all children. While Labour will end this scandal and ensure all teachers become qualified, this Tory Government is damaging standards by allowing unqualified teachers into our children’s classrooms.”
The story was only “exclusive” in the sense that the Express was the first national newspaper to pick up on information started on Facebook by teacher union activists. One of the most interesting aspects of this episode was the manner and speed in which social media exposed and, in the end, knocked back an attempt by a major academy chain to recruit absurdly unqualified staff to work as teachers in one of their schools.
Only two days before the Express story an eagle-eyed teacher spotted an advert for “Unqualified Teachers of Maths x 2” to work in South Leeds Academy, a challenging inner city Leeds school run by the academy chain Schools Partnership Trust (SPTA).
The teacher, an NUT member, posted it on Facebook, including on the union’s FB pages. The advert was so bad many people initially thought it was a spoof.
But Academies and Free Schools can employ unqualified rather than qualified teachers, and there is a national pay scale applicable to this role. Where this happens the candidates will usually have a degree in the subject (or at least a degree of some kind). In this case the only qualifications required were “4 GCSE’s (sic) Grades A*-C including English and Maths or equivalent”. The jobs were temporary until July 2014 and term-time only. So no paid school holidays.
The application pack made it clear that the job would require successful candidates “to teach Mathematics to the whole age range and ability of students within the academy” and to “develop schemes of work, resources and learning strategies”.
Within hours the NUT FB community kicked into action. There was plenty of anger and incredulity but with these came research, investigation and imaginative actions. The application pack was downloaded and its contents disseminated. The idea of stunt applications took off. One activist sent an application in the form of a video clip of the Sesame Street character “Count Count” a Transylvanian Dracula pastiche used to promote basic Maths. The local NUT then contacted the sponsor to demand that the issue be put on the agenda of a meeting with them the following week.
By the following day (21 November) the story was all over Twitter on a popular activist hashtag TeacherRoar. It was picked up by comedian Mark Thomas who apparently displayed the advert on the screen of his show and organised the audience to put in applications en masse.
The story was picked up by the local press, the Yorkshire Evening Post, on Friday 21st. Following the Express and Yorkshire Evening Post stories, it was also picked up by the Independent.
By midday Friday a message appeared on the recruitment website to say that “the employer has withdrawn these posts”. The academy sponsor claimed that there had been “an omission” in the ad. It should have made clear that these were training opportunities, they said, and pointed to the school’s involvement in an on-the-job training scheme known as Schools Direct.
There are two problems with this which none of the press reports picked up on though the teacher activists did. First there was no mention in any of the application material. Secondly, and more revealing, anyone who bothers to check Schools Direct on the web will see that, to be eligible, applicants need “a good degree”.
Game, set and match to the union activists and their supporters who used social media with tenacity and imagination to force this story to the forefront of the official media and left no hiding place for the sponsor or the academy.
In doing so they not only defended the right of the children in this inner city school to qualified teachers, they put the spotlight on the Tory-Liberal policy of allowing their flagship academy schools to provide teaching on the cheap.