NUT conference 2015 report: why are teachers always complaining?

The current coalition government has seen major public sector strikes including all three teaching unions. As we edge ever closer to the general election Andy Stone, president of Wandsworth NUT, reports in a personal capacity from this years recent NUT conference in Harrogate

Striking teachers rally

Education is a battleground for two intersecting conflicts over austerity and neoliberal ideology. While the effects of austerity have been felt in some sectors quite severely – sixth form colleges have had real terms cuts of 20% this parliament – 5 to 16 provision has been partially sheltered so far (though the headline figures are misleading, with impacts of academisation and outsourcing often proving costly). However neither Conservative nor Labour are promising even this status quo in the next parliament, with rises in national insurance and pensions contributions set to eat into schools budgets while student numbers increase.

But it is the ideological assault on education that has thus far been more profound. This should not be surprising, as it is a key means of socialising the next generation of workers to be obedient, ‘flexible’ and competitive (or in other hands critical, resilient and collectivist). In 1976 James Callaghan, then Labour prime minister, made a speech at Ruskin college that was a profound attack on child-centred learning and advocated greater links between education and business, more emphasis on ‘core skills and basic knowledge’ and a national schools inspectorate.

Future Conservative governments took up the mantle, creating the National Curriculum in 1988 and schools inspectorate Ofsted in 1992. Teacher autonomy has been marginalised, while the introduction of school league tables and, in the last two years, performance-related pay have increased competitive pressures within education to churn out results in often increasingly narrow forms of examination assessment.

As a result of these pressures, and the endless ‘accountability’ measures that go with them – such as triple marking, ‘book looks’, lesson observations, ‘learning walks’, data monitoring – teachers are now working the most unpaid overtime of any profession according to the TUC, with 54% working an average of 12 hours per week over their contracted hours. Primary teachers now work on average nearly 60 hours per week, with secondary teachers not far behind.

This combination of unsustainable workload and heavy-handed management, combined with a narrow prescribed curriculum, have also made teachers increasingly aware of how alienated our labour has become. The rhetoric of ‘teacher professionalism’, which used to be a reactionary stick with which to beat back calls for militancy, is now more often a rallying cry for a collective struggle for our empowerment. While many may still join the teaching unions as a form of individual insurance, many also see them as a potential tool for progressive change. All three teaching unions have struck during this parliament – ATL for the first time in its history – and often there is little to tell between the attitudes of members of different unions within individual schools – but the NUT continues to be the most willing to take industrial action.

What are the major groupings at conference?

The following groups do not have a major profile outside the bubble of conference, and their memberships can be counted in the low hundreds. However they relate to far wider layers of union members through their associations and the campaigns that they are involved with.

To the right is ‘Broadly Speaking’ – a Labourist Broad Left that dominated conference and the executive for many years. Its star has been on the wane for the last decade, although it still has representation within both. But whereas once it could rely on the support of a large swathe of non-aligned delegates, now it is quite isolated.

To its left is the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union (CDFU) – which is strongest in the North. Also with ambitions to be a Broad Left, albeit a slightly more militant (and accountable) one than Broadly Speaking. General Secretary Christine Blower is a member.

The Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA) includes the SWP, Socialist Resistance and a number of unaligned leftists. Many London associations are formally led by STA members including East London and Camden, which delivered independent action over cuts to local authority provision at the start of the campaign. The ambitions of some of its components to make it a rank-and-file group have never been fulfilled, but it produces a very good journal called Education for Liberation which has a relatively wide circulation. It has acted as an effective caucus within the union structures, electing Kevin Courtney as Deputy General Secretary. STA member Philippa Harvey also became union President at conference.

The Local Associations National Action Committee (LANAC) formed in 2012, a response to the de-escalation of the 2011 pensions action. Its main forces are the Socialist Party and the AWL, but it often harnesses the support of those looking for a more militant industrial strategy – which since 2012 has hovered around 30-40% of conference.

What were the key conference debates?

The introduction of baseline tests for 4 year olds was the opening debate and conference voted unanimously to oppose their introduction. There was some discussion about the readiness of the union to ballot primary teachers for a boycott in the summer term. Although they will only be rolled out nationally from September 2016, many schools are expected to take part in the trials from this September (despite being ‘non-statutory’ Ofsted will effectively penalise those schools that refuse to do them).

Justin Tallis Photographer 07900 492002


Some felt that more time would be needed to campaign among the membership and the public to win an overwhelming ballot vote, so a second motion that proposed the shorter timetable was withdrawn. This does however risk the tests becoming an accomplished fact before we begin the boycott. However an amendment to the motion that was passed stressed the importance of challenging the take-up and implementation of the tests from the outset, and this may be crucial.

A number of motions drew a strong anti-capitalist critique of education policy, for example in motions attacking the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The academies and free schools programme continues to provoke resistance, with a few examples of wholly successful campaigns and many more where concessions were won. But for the first time in several years they were not the subject of an explicit motion, perhaps reflecting the feeling that they have now become an (unwelcome) fixture. A motion in favour of a play-based early years curriculum was one indicator of a union consensus around the benefits of child-centred learning and the damage done by inappropriate summative testing. The union’s Manifesto for Education reflects an inclusive, comprehensive outlook, as does its support for the new academic pressure group Reclaiming Schools. A speaker from the Chicago Teachers Union spoke on the first evening of conference, and lessons from their dispute – and the social movement trade unionism it aims to create – became a touchstone in subsequent debates.

The union now has a good record on wider issues of challenging oppression and imperialism. Bernard Regan, a lifelong campaigner for Palestinian Solidarity, won the new Steve Sinnott international award, and Juno Roche won the Blair Peach award (named after the SWP member killed by police while protesting against the Nazi NF) for her work highlighting trans oppression. Conference voted overwhelmingly to oppose the Prevent agenda. Jan Nielsen made the front page of the Metro in claiming that the government want to make teachers into spies and storm troopers, alongside some shocking examples of the policy at work (e.g. a boy interrogated for wanting to visit his sick grandfather in Pakistan). The wider discourse of promoting ‘British values’ was also ridiculed by a number of speakers, some of whom contrasted these with the record of Empire and recent foreign policy.

Several motions discussed the role of industrial action.  Similar dividing lines were drawn in motions on workload, ‘A Strategy to Win’, and the executive’s own priority motion on the funding crisis likely after the next election (as both Conservative and Labour are planning large real-terms cuts). In each case LANAC called for escalating strike action, found an echo with speeches that criticised the leadership, and received around 40% of votes. The softer policy that was passed – that the union plans to reballot nationally in the wake of the incoming government’s autumn statement (assuming that whoever is in office does not make substantial concessions) – is not to be dismissed lightly. It maintains the opportunity for activists to build and escalate action. But since 2011 there have been a number of times where strikes have been promised and delayed – either in attempts to co-ordinate with other unions or, as with Nicky Morgan’s non-response to the workload survey, to appear reasonable by giving government a chance to see the error of its ways. The action we have taken has been enthusiastically supported, with some associations recruiting a layer of new reps and the union (now officially confirmed as the biggest of the three) growing while the NASUWT and ATL contract. But there are also very reasonable frustrations with the stop-start nature of the campaign, with the feeling that one day ‘protest strikes’ are insufficient to win meaningful victories.

What were the key fringe meetings?

Over 150 attended the STA-led Friday night meeting with a speaker from Syriza and Candy Udwin from the National Portrait Gallery strikers. This was a little down on the opening night meetings of recent years but still a respectable turnout. 100 plus also discussed fighting the GERM, more than 100 on building women’s networks and a huge 300 attended the meeting on British Values and Prevent.

A well-attended Palestine Solidarity Campaign fringe meeting.
A well-attended Palestine Solidarity Campaign fringe meeting.

In addition there were over 150 at an excellent local associations meeting on organising in schools, another STA initiative. Around 60 attended a TUSC meeting on the election.

What attitude should we take to the union leadership?

The left (STA, CDFU and LANAC) currently hold the balance of power on the executive, as well as the GS and DGS posts, and the elected Conference Business Committee. As already described, this has aided a progressive approach to educational, international and social justice issues. The union has established a political fund to challenge racism and fascist groups, and supports a range of worthy campaigns such as the People’s Assembly (with conference agreeing to support the 20 June anti-austerity protest), Unite Against Fascism, Stop the War Coalition, as well as more specifically educational ones such as the Primary Charter and Defend School History. And after years of previous leaderships paying lip-service to ‘professional unity’, this one has made tangible attempts to bring it about – and conference heard a report that suggested that ATL may be amenable to the idea. While union mergers are no magic bullet, and in some cases are used by leaderships to mask decline, it surely makes sense to try to break down the divisions that dilute the potential power of 97% unionisation within teaching.

It’s also true that in the last five years the union has taken more strike action (nationally and locally) than in any other period in its history – though the unprecedented scale of attacks on a variety of fronts are probably a more telling factor here than the make-up of the executive. But it was evident at conference that a substantial minority of delegates feel that our national strategy has been too timid and reactive. This was reflected in the substantial support given to LANAC motions / amendments, despite their rather formulaic wording. Leading figures in the STA like Alex Kenny and Andrew Baisley spoke against these, pointing out the importance of a complementary political campaign and arguing that we need to get the whole union behind action that can be strongly delivered. As divisional secretaries of East London and Camden respectively, both of which have achieved large strike turnouts and which called well-supported additional action in their associations, they are in a strong position to criticise what they consider the ‘posturing’ of their critics. A call for escalating action would be a gamble – but the higher the stakes, the greater the possible victory.

The Stand Up For Education campaign (summarised by supporters as ‘engage, pressure, strike’) has been a valuable initiative, but it has become something of a shibboleth for the left leadership – one of the LANAC motions was attacked for not specifically naming it (despite a strong allusion to it). The STA, for years an oppositional grouping, now has to bear at least some responsibility for the union’s strategy – and the criticisms that this brings. This has allowed LANAC to get the allegiance of a layer of good non-aligned militants and an echo at conference with a somewhat economistic strategy. It was also evident in the flak that President Philipa Harvey received in the chair when a prominent right wing executive member failed to properly answer questions on the conflict of interest of him sitting on the board of an academies chain. Harvey and the STA have no brief for this executive member, and she could do little else but move on to next business when he refused to account for himself. But the understandable feeling that the STA is now part of the bureaucracy, combining with the more general ‘anti-politics’ suspicion of establishment groups, led some to tar the STA with the same brush.

The STA’s success within the union machine highlights its weakness as a membership organisation. This can act as a brake on a leadership afraid to ‘get too far ahead of the membership’. Preliminary discussions have begun about some kind of regroupment to try to address this – with a focus on social justice floated as a unifying principle. Whether this regroupment is from above or below will be key. If it is from above – with a shifting of the chairs among the main existing union caucuses – then it could lead to a move rightwards. But if it is from below, as a way of drawing together teachers campaigning around the baseline boycott, academies, the Prevent agenda etc, then it could be a valuable and revitalising initiative. Socialists should do what we can to encourage the latter approach, while keeping up a dialogue with those in groups such as LANAC who also recognise the need for a fighting union.

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