At the beginning of January 2021, when the Delta variant of coronavirus was sweeping across the UK, sending the Covid death toll spiralling, Boris Johnson was still insisting schools were safe for unvaccinated staff and children.
The weekend before term began, Mary Bousted jumped into action. The joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) felt she had to step in to secure teachers’ safety. Knowing her employment law, she acted swiftly. “We advised members they had an individual right not to enter a workplace which would cause them harm,” she says, reeling off details of the 1996 Employment Rights Act.
By Monday morning, a quarter of all primary school teachers had signed “section 44” letters, refusing to enter their classrooms. That evening the prime minister went on TV again, conceding that schools were “vectors for transmission” and putting England into lockdown.
The circumstances of the intervention were life or death, but the mastery of detail and willingness to speak up were typical of Bousted. It made a difference, and she is proud of it. “We gave our members confidence to realize that they had rights and to exercise them,” she says. Throughout the pandemic, she has persistently called for the protection of teachers and children, setting out facts about infections in schools and about masks and ventilation.
This weekend Bousted will be arriving in Bournemouth for her penultimate annual conference as joint general secretary, as she prepares to retire in 2023. She has a new book out, on improving teachers’ lives and children’s chances. In a Zoom interview, she describes how in her 20 years as a union official she has argued with ministers many times. She once “literally” banged her head on a desk, she says, during a meeting with Nick Gibb, then schools minister, and she had “three standup rows” with Michael Gove when he was education secretary. “He [Gove] used to get furious when I’d say no, I do not believe that taking exams back to the Victorian times is a good idea. ” He implemented his plans anyway, of course.
“I told him: ‘You can not discipline me. It’s not my job to agree with you, or smooth the way for your policies. It’s my job to stand up for my profession, and for the children and young people that they work with. And I will do that without fear or favor. ‘”
Her assessment of Nadhim Zahawi, the current education secretary, whose schools white paper was published last month, is that “his ambitions are limited and his horizons are narrow”. His main proposal is for all schools to be in multi-academy trusts by 2030. “Once again, the government puts its faith in structural reform – in this case full academisation – which is going to do nothing to raise standards in our schools,” she says. “It is a mystery why ministers did not take the opportunity to reform the curriculum and the assessment system and to seriously address the crisis of teacher shortages.”
Bousted’s book sets out her own ideas. Ostensibly it is about how to stop teachers deserting – the latest government statistics show 40% leave within 10 years of qualifying, and more than a quarter within just years. But it is also about improving education in English schools in general, to the advantage of children as well as the teaching profession.
Are you fierce? I ask here. “I am,” she replies, without hesitation. “But I hope I’m never rude. At times, my irritation gets the better of me – but I try to be courteous. I try to be kind. ”
Fierceness is to be expected, she says, when discussing difficulties facing schools or a major national problem such as child poverty, “because those are such serious issues. And I’m not going to be diverted. I’m not going to have my time wasted. And if you’re going to take me on, you’d better know your facts, because I do. ”
One of her targets is the schools inspectorate. “Ofsted needs to go,” she says abruptly. There is “shockingly” little evidence that inspections, which cause untold stress to teachers and headteachers, raise standards in schools, Bousted argues. And the pointlessness and pain have contributed to an erosion of teacher autonomy during her 40 years in education and to the retention crisis, she believes. “I’m not arguing that we do not need inspection, I’m arguing that the current inspectorate is completely dysfunctional.” It should be replaced, she suggests, with a team of regional inspectors who are specialists in a particular area of school provision.
She would also like to see a new independent body that would limit politicians’ powers to intervene in core education matters, such as the curriculum and national assessment. Unsurprisingly, she calls for an increase in teachers’ pay – not only new teachers, but all of them – and more flexible working.
But a fundamental problem, one she always draws attention to, is poverty, which holds many children back at school. Four million children live in poverty in the UK – “that’s an average of nine children in every class of 30”. About 40% of the attainment gap between poor children and their richer peers is set in stone before they start school, she says, citing research by the Education Policy Institute. And it is unrealistic to expect teachers to fill this gap. “The most able and the luckiest of poor children will escape their profound disadvantages. But why should we require poor children to be exceptional? Why do not we, as a society, simply determine that they live lives free from the misery of poverty and the shame, distress and damage that it does? ”
Teachers see the impact of disadvantage on children every day but are unable to speak out, constantly reminded by ministers that they may not express any political bias. They fear reprisals and it stifles discussion. “I feel like this book has needed to be written for a long time because the voice of teachers has been suppressed,” she says. It is an angry book, she admits. “But it’s not a rant. It’s evidenced. ”
The fury on behalf of children stems from Bousted’s own teaching experience, and that of her parents. One of eight children of teachers, she grew up in Bolton, attending the state primary school where her mother and father taught, and then grammar school. At home, her father used to keep order at the dinner table by introducing a topic for the family to debate. “It was whatever was in the Guardian editorial, usually.”
After completing her English degree at the University of Hull in 1981, she “fell into teaching”. At Bentley Wood high school in Harrow, where she taught English, it took her about three years to discover she was good at it, she says. In 1988 she moved to another state school in Harrow, where she spent five years as head of English.
Teaching disadvantaged children there made her realize how strongly schools are bound to the communities they serve. “I would work from 7am until 9pm and then I would work all weekend. I was invested in the lives of those children. But I could see that there were quite a lot of them who did not have any belief that the good in society was going to come to them – no matter what their school did. Their lived experience was so miserable that it destroyed in them any sense that they could achieve. ”
Her deep sense of anger continues to drive her every day. To destroy hope in children before they’ve even begun is wicked. And we do it to children on a grand scale in this country. ”
In 1991 she left teaching for academia. “I had a daughter and I just could not see how I could continue with the punishing work rates.” She got a PhD, set up a PGCE course at the University of York and later ran the school of education at Kingston University.
She found some aspects of academia quite a shock. “I could not quite believe the level of dysfunctionality.” There were “very clever people, who had no social skills at all”, endless meetings where “warfare was conducted through words”, and at various different institutions she encountered “casual misogyny”. “If you were a woman who was fiercely articulate, that was not acceptable. And my reaction to that was quite flammable. ”
She remembers being told she was being “shrill” in meetings as men talked over her, and having to fight to get equal pay.
By 2003 she felt she had hit a glass ceiling. She saw an advert in the Guardian: the Association of Teachers and Lecturers was looking for a new general secretary. “I was 42. I’d never had a cabinet position in the union.” But she got the job, holding the post for 14 years. When the ATL merged with the National Union of Teachers in 2017, she took on her current role in the NEU alongside Kevin Courtney.
Perhaps one of the reasons for her success as a union leader is that she strongly believes it is her duty to speak truth to power, while most of her members cannot. “I’m in this immensely privileged position, which so many teachers would love to be in, where I can say what I think.” And she enjoys it.
It is often clear in meetings, she says, that although civil servants or ministers “probably” do not like what she is saying, they may struggle to argue against her because she has all the facts at her fingertips. “That’s why sweating the detail is so important.”
As she and Courtney prepare to retire from the NEU in August 2023, triggering the election of a new general secretary, she is hopeful her book will spark a debate about how to empower teachers and improve education in England.
She is not optimistic, however, that her ideas will be heard by the current administration. “We’ve got a zombie government that can not do anything because it is led by a prime minister who lacks the moral authority to lead.” She remains hopeful, though, that her suggestions will eventually be listened to, perhaps by a future Labor government. “For radical reform there needs to be political will – and serious leadership,” she says.