Mary Bousted is sitting in her central London office near Trafalgar Square and quibbling with my first question.
“It’s funny you say I’m strident, because that’s not how I feel.
“It’s simply that it has always been apparent to me that the direction of travel set in train by Michael Gove would come unravelled. And it is unravelling quickly.
“You can see it in the Department for Education’s own analysis of multi-academy trusts,” she says. “Fifty-four per cent are seriously underperforming. You can see it in the impending crisis over school places. You can see it in the 11 per cent of the profession leaving before retirement.
“All these things were predicted, and predictable. I feel like I’m a bit of a Jeremiah really, because for a long time I have been predicting things would come a cropper and now they are.”
It’s funny you say I’m strident, because that’s not how I feel
She takes a deep breath. The nearby press officer steadies herself. She continues.
“The government has this belief that the market will provide. Right from the beginning of that bold experiment I said the market would not provide for half a million teachers – which is what’s needed – and it won’t provide for school places at a time of a rapidly growing population. There are 18 per cent more primary pupils over the next few years, who will feed into secondary. The market won’t provide places if you don’t provide a proper career structure and salary for teachers.
“And the market certainly won’t provide if you make teacher training routes so confusing that nobody knows how to get into teaching, you make the application process difficult and then you suddenly find that 14 out of 17 subject lines haven’t recruited needed teachers.”
She is annoyed too at exam structures, comparable outcomes, primary testing, the abolition of levels, the way the national curriculum was written. Politicians were told these things would be a problem, she says, but ignored the advice.
“So yes, I find it very hard not to be strident about those things, if strident is what you call it. What I think I am doing is just telling it how it is. People think I am strident because they don’t like what I’m saying. But whenever I say something, I always back it up. I’ve always got evidence.
“So is it that what I am saying is strident, or is it that it’s just unpopular?”
As general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers since 2003, she has spent more than a decade watching education secretaries come and go (Greening is her seventh), and listening to members telling her how their workload has spun out of control while their pay and conditions have been undermined by academies, who no longer have to follow standardised rules on such things.
Her complaints are, by and large, fair and backed up by evidence. Teacher recruitment figures are not encouraging. Report after report shows multi-academy trusts perform little better, on average, than other school types. There is indeed an upcoming secondary school places shortages that will be more difficult to deal with than the primary crisis. The lack of local co-ordination for resolving the problem is worrisome.
But her ire is not reserved for the government.
She believes Ofsted is in a “dangerous place” following the appointment of Amanda Spielman, the former chair of Ofqual, as its new chief inspector.
“She was rejected by the select committee, and if you look at the charges, she didn’t appear to know enough about primary education, special educational needs, further education . . .”
Ofsted is in a “dangerous place” following the appointment of Amanda Spielman
Bousted is concerned Spielman has never taught and that former Ofsted chair David Hoare said this was a key reason for her selection.
“The danger is that for Ofsted there’s an anti-professional, anti-teaching agenda that has now been set.”
The new education secretary, Justine Greening, appears to have got to a soft spot, however.
“I have met her twice and it’s clear that she’s a mistress of detail in a way that I never felt Nicky Morgan was,” she says. She seems genuinely optimistic about working with her.
Her verdict on schools minister Nick Gibb is less positive. Last year, at a panel event hosted by Schools Week, Gibb accused Bousted of “low expectations” – a moment that led to a tongue-lashing from her, and still rankles now.
She believes his record in the role is why he retained it even after May’s reshuffle. “You could look at it and say Nick Gibb has got an expanded brief as minister for school standards, so his stock is rising, or you could look at the appointment in the tradition of Theresa May, who seems to like the divine comedy of putting people in charge of something they have messed up!”
The press officer is now scribbling furiously.
But this is the sort of comment that has made Bousted incredibly popular. In 2003 she saw an advert in The Guardian for the ATL and decided to “give it a go” though, she says, she didn’t expect an interview.
The union had lost about 10 per cent of members the year before her appointment. “I had to work to raise the profile, to get the union really visible again: to teachers, to government, to key stakeholders.”
Her efforts paid off, with subscriptions increasing from about 195,000 in 2004 to around 210,000 in 2013, though numbers have dipped again in the past two years.
Bousted can whip up emotion but also practical ideas.
That passion can sometimes come at a price, however. She confirms that she once had a stand-up row with Michael Gove, (“there was a lot of shouting and finger-pointing”), but she also believes fierce opposition led to his retreating on some ideas – for example, on bringing back O-levels. In the end she believes it was his unpopularity with the profession that got him fired.
“Any minister who thinks they can act with impunity, or that they will not be held accountable in the end, is very, very foolish.”
Her passion for education began with her father, head of her primary school, St Osmund’s, in Bolton.
“He was a dedicated teacher, way before his time. He devised a new reading scheme so all the children could read and write. There were no excuses for anybody.
“When he died, the church had to install a loudspeaker system into the carpark because the church was so packed.”
But her education motivation is more than that. She was not happy at her girls’ grammar school where she failed maths, twice, and where she felt teachers had favourites. She determined to do better for her pupils.
She became a head of English, then a teacher trainer, eventually heading teacher training schools. She comes alive when she talks about pedagogy and classroom practice.
“I made sure pupils knew they were not going to be let off the hook. They needed to know every hair on their head would be counted. They needed to know they could not get under, past, through or around you.”
It is the iron will developed in the classroom that is perhaps the most important trait for dealing with politicians, and it is this same determination that means she will now be president of the Trades Union Congress for a year – overseeing work across unions.
Before we finish, I ask if there’s anything more she would like to add, perhaps about what it is like to be a union leader.
“It is the most tremendous privilege to be able to say what you think without fear,” she says. “There’s no powerful levers politicians can exert on you, no one can set Ofsted on me. Of course that brings huge responsibility, but it is also the privilege of being able to say what you think. How many teachers would like to be able to do that?”
It’s a personal thing
What’s your favourite book?
A Room With a View. Because it’s so light and bright and sparkling and so funny, but also so profoundly human.
If you were invisible for a day what would you do?
Go somewhere important and see what’s going on. The DfE’s not big enough . . . I’d like to spend a day shadowing Theresa May. See what it’s like at the centre of politics.
If you could live in any historical period which would you choose?
I wouldn’t go anywhere where there weren’t antibiotics and anaesthetics! I’m very happy in the here and now.
What did you eat for breakfast?
Plain yoghurt with granola. No, that’s a lie. I had toast and Marmite. I normally have granola, but I didn’t fancy it today.
What would you want to put on a billboard?
I would want to put on that Child Poverty Blights Lives. It is a sin and a crime.
A dinner party with three people. Who are you going to pick, dead or alive?
Jane Austen, because she’d be very witty and would have things to say. JFK because he was such a fantastic leader, and I’m always impressed by film clips. He was also good looking. And Len Vygotsky because he was in Marxist Russia at the beginning of the revolution, came up with the best speech signing system for deaf children ever, as well as a new theory of mathematics . . . and he went head to head against Piaget, against stages of development, and came up with the theory of learning, which is profoundly wonderful today. He also wrote beautifully.