As the son of immigrant workers new to the UK, and growing up in the West Midlands, Patrick Roach never imagined he would one day be a trade union leader on first-name terms with government ministers.
His parents, however, who arrived from Jamaica in the 1960s, believed in the power of education to change lives and were ambitious for him.
So the new general secretary of the NASUWT, the 300,000-member teachers’ union, who took up his post in April, went on to university, gained a doctorate in education, and lectured in politics and sociology. Twenty years ago he left teaching for a job at the union. For the past 10 years he has helped to lead it as the deputy general secretary, before being elected unopposed to the top job.
Coming from a working-class home – his father first worked as a bus conductor and his mother on the railways – Roach, 56, is deeply concerned about the effect of the Covid-19 school closures on the education of children whose families cannot afford to fill the gaps.
But he is also alarmed at the threat to the health of teachers and children as schools return, and has pressed vigorously for the government to ensure schools are protected by the same stringent health and safety rules that companies have to follow.
“I came from a home of relative disadvantage and I know how important it is to have access to books and libraries and, nowadays, online material as well,” he says. He remembers his father scraping together the money to build up a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and the family’s weekly trips to the local library.
“My parents came to the UK because they were invited to work here, in the mother country, and they had been schooled in Jamaica to respect their teachers and focus on education. That is a lesson they taught my brother and me from our very earliest days. Education was extremely important to them and important to me,” he says from his temporary home office, where every moment of the day is consumed by online meetings, the next one jointly with fellow union leaders and Gavin Williamson, the education secretary.
But, he adds, for a black boy in Walsall and Birmingham in the 1970s school wasn’t a walk in the park and, sadly, he is not sure the low expectations of black children and their disproportionate exclusions have changed much. Was it character forming? “You could say that,” he says wryly, with a characteristic hearty laugh.
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“People often talk about teachers they remember, who helped them. There are a few who are seared into my memory – but not for that reason, let’s put it that way,” he says. “I stayed on for A-level study but didn’t get the grades I wanted for university so I went on to Matthew Boulton FE college, then in a tower block in the centre of Birmingham. That’s when the real joy and love of learning took off.
“It was an important message – getting a second chance with great teachers looking out for you. That’s what I and many others like me got from FE.” With that behind him, he went on to do a degree in sociology at Leicester University and a doctorate in education from Warwick.
There are too few black and ethnic minority teachers, he says. Those we do have are finding that they tend to be not only lower paid but, according to surveys, more likely to be subject to disciplinary or capability procedures and forced out of the job.
“If we want to have the best teaching profession, then it has to be inclusive, and it is not. This is another one of these national scandals that has to sit squarely with the government. Clear statutory duties in respect of equality apply to schools as employers but how, since the 2010 Equalities Act, has the government sought to reinforce it in schools? It hasn’t. Successive secretaries of state have removed equality from the accountability systems, and that includes race equality.”
Roach does not think enough has changed since the shock report in 1971 by Bernard Coard, “How the West Indian child is made educationally sub-normal in the British school system”, published by the Caribbean Education and Community Workers’ Association. It said African-Caribbean children were far more likely to be put in schools for what was then called “educationally sub-normal children”, or to be victims of low expectations at mainstream schools because of culturally and class-biased IQ tests and exams designed to keep immigrants down and preserve the social hierarchy.
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Over the years Roach has promoted action to build a more inclusive profession, launching a series of conferences for under-represented groups such, women, black and ethnic minority, disabled and LGBT+ members.
“It has been very instructive to hear from BAME members the extent to which they felt that their schools are just paying lip service to race equality. I know it is not a popular thing to say and that it is often misunderstood, but institutional racism does exist and is an issue that has clearly got to be addressed, especially in the light of the handling of the coronavirus emergency,” he says.
“My driving priority is to stand up for all our members against injustice at work and to secure real improvements in pay and working conditions.”
He is angry, for example, that despite the Covid-19 pandemic, employers are continuing to initiate disciplinary procedures and even docking the salaries of vulnerable staff who cannot attend work for fear of infection. The government needs to take control and be clear about what employers should be doing, not leave it to individual headteachers and academy trusts to decide, he says.
He says society as a whole could be doing much more to support children outside the classroom. “We have been pressing ministers, for example, to ask media and tech companies to step up to the plate to support children who do not have educational opportunities outside school,” he says. “The health of teachers must not be sacrificed to address the searing inequality between children’s lives that has been exposed by the coronavirus crisis.”
How did we get to a point that the only educational opportunities available to thousands of children and young people in the UK are those in school, rather than outside? he asks. “We have to take a long, hard look at the gap that has widened because so much now depends on ability to pay.
“As a society we have make sure that every child has learning opportunities that extend beyond the physical space in the classroom,” he says. “We have to come out of this crisis in a way that doesn’t do further damage to the lives of children from the poorest households.
“If the government decides to under-invest in schools and the children’s services that used to offer support for pupils, then the government has to take responsibility for the consequences,” he warns.
And that is a message he is just about to convey to the education secretary in his next video-conference meeting.
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