NEU annual conference

rs21 members in NEU report on the key debates at the union’s annual conference.

crowds march in London with a big heart shaped NEU balloon
Save Our Schools march and rally, central London 15 March 2023. Photo: Steve Eason.

This year’s NEU Conference was probably the most important one in the history of the new union, taking place as it did against a backdrop of huge strikes in schools. The industrial debate dominated the conference with other key areas of focus (such as Ofsted and the international situation) also being discussed. Here we look at some of the key debates and decisions.

Teachers’ pay strikes

The opening session of Conference was greeted by the news that 191,319 teachers had voted to reject the government’s ‘final’ pay ‘offer.’ That figure represents a 98% rejection vote on a turnout of 66%. This turnout, the biggest out of the three ballots so far, shows the strength of feeling and resolve amongst the membership to bring the government to heel and win a tangible increase in pay and funding.

It was slightly disappointing, therefore, that the Executive motion to Conference didn’t accurately reflect this mood. Instead, otherwise sensible Executive members retreated into right wing arguments which asserted that members were getting strike weary, as a way of winning support for their motion on further strikes. The Executive strategy will see us take two separate days of action around the first May Day Bank Holiday and then a further three days of action in late June and July. For the seven weeks in between, during GCSE and A-Level exams, we will reballot members to extend the dispute into autumn if needed.

There are some risks to this plan. The strike days in April and May will impact exams and this will increase pressure on members. At the same time, this doesn’t feel like the escalation that members voted for in the Reject ballot. The reballot will now take place with the possibility of strikes into October next year – a much more serious prospect for many members. Crucial amendments to strengthen the motion were defeated at Conference. One on providing clarity over provisions for Y11 and Y13 students (taking GCSEs and A-levels) was defeated by just 5,000 votes in a card vote. The second amendment on a strike pattern that would have seen a strike around May half term was defeated by a roughly two-thirds majority. Both of those amendments would have maintained the momentum built up in the campaign and kept the pressure on the government.

When finally put to a vote the unamended pay motion was passed unanimously – delegates to Conference wanted further action to win a fully-funded pay rise. We now have the task of delivering these strikes in our workplaces and Districts. In your workplace and District you should be holding meetings the first week back and building on the reject vote. The April and May strike days will take place just before the local elections and education workers should use this fact to put the Tories under the maximum pressure possible. The reballot will give us a chance to win the arguments about pay and funding in even more workplaces. If we get the campaigning activity right, we might do enough to maintain the necessary momentum needed to deliver the strikes that can win the dispute.

Support staff

NEU Conference heard from JGS Mary Bousted about the recent complaint made by the Local Government unions (Unison, GMB & Unite) about the NEU’s activity around Support staff. Support staff represent a large and growing part of the NEU membership – a trend that is the result of the NEU’s focus on organising at school level. The TUC, in a decision that can only be described as disgraceful, upheld the complaint of the local government unions. The TUC ruling means that the NEU will be fined over £150,000 (the largest part of this money going to Unison) and, if we stick with the TUC agreement signed after the NEU’s creation, that we cannot collectively represent support staff.

The result of these shenanigans amongst the trade union bureaucracies was that Conference voted, for the first time, to push for full recognition of our support staff members. We would expect that trade unionists and workers within the local government unions would support the NEU’s right to be part of the negotiations of support staff wages with the other local government trade unions. This is a huge step forward for support staff.

In a slightly surreal session, manoeuvring by the Socialist Party and confusion from the top table meant that Conference voted down a motion calling for a reballot of support staff. This was despite almost everyone in the room wanting to ballot support staff as soon as possible. That support staff ballot should happen regardless of the decisions of other local government unions and it would be useful if the Executive would announce this intention clearly.

Ofsted

The other big standout debate at Conference proved much less controversial. The death of Ruth Perry, the result of Ofsted pressure, has created a moment around the Inspectorate. For many years, education workers have been clear on the negative effects of Ofsted on education – its harm to children and the danger it represents for education workers. In an urgent motion, Conference voted to work with other unions to campaign for a halt to inspections and to help school leaders to resist inspections until a health and safety review is completed. The political argument about Ofsted will continue but we can now win a new audience through our own activities.

Other key issues

Conference covers a huge amount; amongst the other highlights was a motion reaffirming our support for the people of Palestine. The union has come under pressure to accept an equivalence between the Israeli state and the Palestinians. This was roundly rejected by Conference and we instead heard the speech of Saeed Erziqat, General Secretary of the General Union of Palestinian Teachers, who laid out the educational and human rights crimes of the Israeli occupation.

Despite widespread opposition to the obscene levels of arms spending that it critiqued, conference ultimately voted (in another close card vote) against a motion backing the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The debate saw some of the anti-war left stumble over support for Ukraine, while right-wing delegates tried to block support because of criticism of NATO. The unfortunate result was that, for the second year running, conference did not pass clear policy that money should be spent on public services rather than nuclear weapons and war.

Other key motions supported the visibility of trans people, opposed the racist Prevent programme, supported refugees and opposed the government’s undemocratic attacks on trade unions. The Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) reforms came under criticism and the NEU voted to decarbonise the union in accordance with its commitment to tackle climate change. There was also a motion that calls on NEU Districts to engage with the wider strike movement in delivering solidarity to other workers.

Workplace Organising

A key theme of the fringes was to support workplace organising – both within schools and within the wider union movement. There is clearly a real appetite for this sort of work amongst NEU activists and we heard of lots of great examples of various campaigns and workplaces. In the coming weeks, with the strike wave re-emerging and with our own re-ballot coming up, we should seek to generalise these experiences as much as possible.

The network of NEU activists that rs21 is a part of will help us do that, as will events such as Organise Now’s Guerrilla May Day and the Troublemakers at Work conference. The more political clarity we can deliver in workplaces, the bigger our win against this government will be.

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