Why the NUT should love Ofsted and Osborne should love unions

Wilshaw Image copyright PA
Image caption Sir Michael Wilshaw: Will the teachers' unions miss him when he retires this year?

There are some things you write that you know are not going to go down well with anybody.

But maybe this weekend the National Union of Teachers should break the habit of a lifetime and try loving Ofsted, and the Chancellor, George Osborne, should let bygones be bygones and love the teachers' unions.

What kind of March hare madness is this?

The two biggest teachers' unions, the NUT and NASUWT, are gathering for their Easter conferences. And it has been an article of faith to ritually condemn Ofsted and all its works.

The education watchdog for England has been the relentless target of teachers' anger, accused of unfair and summary judgements and demoralising the profession.

Conferences have called for the resignation of Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw. And this year's NUT conference will have barely started when it will hear the first call for the abolition of Ofsted.

Stepping down

But maybe this bank holiday the union conferences should think again. Because next year, they might wish they still had Sir Michael in office as the nation's unyielding head teacher.

Why would they consider such heretical thoughts?

Because when Sir Michael steps down later this year, it could be the opportunity for the government to take an axe to Ofsted's powers.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Teachers remain among the most unionised workforces in the country

The Department for Education has made no secret of its irritation with the chief inspector's readiness to intervene in what it would see as areas of ministerial policy.

His attack on the overpaid underachievers running academies was a rather spectacular show of independence, ahead of the government's plans for all schools to become academies.

Sir Michael might have drawn the wrath of teachers' unions, but his instincts have always been public service and public sector. He's been a head teacher bristling with ambition for state school pupils to have the same chance as those in private schools.

Academy system

But when he goes, it will remove a major brake on many of the changes that could accompany an all-academy school system.

Academies can set their own terms for teachers' pay and conditions, they don't have to follow the national curriculum, and if qualified teacher status is abolished, they will have much more flexibility in who can be hired.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Should George Osborne support the teachers' unions this weekend?

Many of these optouts are already in place, but schools are much less likely to take experimental shortcuts when they have Ofsted breathing down their neck.

Likewise, academy chains have been kept on their toes by the harrying of Ofsted's group inspections.

Ofsted has been an obstacle to the type of deregulation that some free-marketeers might have anticipated.

Appointing a new chief inspector is likely to provide ministers with a chance to rethink this role.

And it could be that the regional schools commissioners become the new power brokers.

These rather anonymous figures are much less likely to cause trouble for ministers - and much less likely to draw public attention to any problems that emerge.

So the teachers' unions, having attacked Sir Michael for so long, could come to miss his disapproving stare.

Wage stagnation

But what about the other side of this unlikely equation?

Why would George Osborne want to send a bouquet to the teachers' delegates gathering in conferences this weekend?

Right-wing opponents might like to caricature trade unions as dinosaurs from another era.

But there is no escaping the popularity of unions with the teaching profession.

Image caption Trade unionists are increasingly likely to be graduates in middle income jobs

About 97% of teachers are in a union, about four times the national average.

It reflects the fact trade union members are increasingly likely to be middle-income graduates - and that you have to be relatively well paid to even threaten to go on strike.

Instead of taking on these middle-class trade unionists, maybe Mr Osborne should be embracing them.

Maybe he should be calling on other professions to follow their example.

Because they could help with one of his biggest problems - tackling wage stagnation and resuscitating a consumer feel-good factor.

Any upticks in the economy since the financial crash have struggled to find their way into the nation's pay packets.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The new politics: Donald Trump's campaign has tapped into anger at wage stagnation

In both the US and UK, it's been seen as fuelling a deep sense of frustration.

Political systems built on post-War growth have struggled to connect with an electorate, including the middle class, that feels like it's going backwards.

A recent report from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics said that in real terms average wages were still about 9% lower than before the financial crisis and that income growth showed no sign of recovering to pre-recession levels.

This stagnation in earnings is unlike anything since the 1920s, says the economics centre.

Report author Stephen Machin says the decline in union membership is part of this lack of upward pressure on pay.

Economists have talked about a "lost decade" for pay increases.

A decade without a pay rise might seem like a blip on the screen of long-term economics - but in the life of a family, it's a huge stretch of time.

It's the difference between getting an extra bedroom as children get older, being able to move home or to be able to afford a holiday before children grow up and leave.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Feelgood factor? Wage stagnation has affected both the UK and US

Getting by on the same money for year after year, while costs rise relentlessly, has a demoralising impact.

Prof Machin says that in the US, median pay has barely shifted upwards since the late 1970s.

There are many suggestions for why earnings have been frozen.

Automation and globalisation are both prime suspects.

Wage inequality, with extremely high pay for top executives, has also been blamed.

But studies in the US have highlighted a more basic structural change.

Less of the wealth generated by companies is going into paying the staff.

If profits improve, it isn't going back into salaries.

Image copyright ONS
Image caption Figures from the ONS show that real-terms median earnings in the UK are still below a decade ago

Could trade unions be the chancellor's secret weapon?

Could they be the way to encourage employers to put more of the money back into the pockets of consumers who could then start feeling that the pay permafrost was going to thaw.

Jason Furman, chairman of US President Barack Obama's Council of Economic Advisors, recently told the BBC World Service of the link between unionisation and how pay is distributed.

"We've looked at data in the US for the last 100 years and found that when the share of workers in trade unions goes down, the share of income going to the bottom 90% of Americans also goes down," he said.

"And with trade union density at less than 10% right now, it shouldn't be a surprise that the share of income going to the bottom 90% of households is at a near century-long low."

Maybe the weekend's teachers' union conferences should be seen by the chancellor as a positive step towards growth.

So this weekend, what are the odds we'll see a rousing round of applause for Ofsted followed by George Osborne rushing down to the seaside for a fraternal embrace?

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