Why is the NEU recommending a bad deal?

rs21 teachers explain what has happened in the NEU and what we can do about it.

Strikers demonstrating on 1 February – photo by Steve Eason.

This week NEU (National Education Union) members in England will be voting on whether to end our campaign for a fully funded, above inflation pay rise. The offer of a 6.5% ‘pay rise’ with no movement on last year’s award, is a real-terms pay cut of almost 12% once adjusted for inflation. As average wage rises for 2023-24 are currently over 7.3% this will also further devalue teachers pay relative to other graduate jobs.

Claims that the offer was at least ‘pretty well funded’ have also started to come apart.  The claim that schools can ‘fund the first 3.5% out of existing budgets’ – a core reason the NEU rejected the last pay offer – is again proving to be untrue in many schools. Vic Goddard, the head teacher made famous by the TV show Educating Essex has taken to Twitter to say: Having crunched the numbers I can confirm: the pay offer is not fully funded and has to be covered by the savings already forced upon us. Up and down the country NEU reps are hearing the same thing from cash strapped schools: whilst they may be able to ‘afford’ the pay rise they will have to make cuts to balance the books.

So why has the NEU executive voted to recommend the deal, and how have we got to this point? In this short article rs21 members in the NEU explain the situation we face and the challenges in getting our pay campaign back on track.

Why has the NEU executive caved in?

In the most immediate sense, the executive caved in under pressure. The government had made clear that unless all four teaching unions (NEU, NASWUT, ASCL & NAHT) had publicly pledged to recommend by noon last Thursday it would be withdrawn. The executive, which met shortly before the deadline, clearly felt backed into a corner and lacked the confidence to call the government’s bluff. That this was an empty threat is now clear after the government ‘honoured’ the junior doctors pay review recommendation, despite the BMA publicly saying they will continue striking.

In a deeper sense the collapse of the executive was political.  Our general secretaries have been worn down by the government’s refusal to negotiate and been consistently pessimistic about our ability to sustain the next set of strikes.  At each stage the union has lurched between short term fixes rather than having the confidence in members to patiently argue out why we might need more extended action to win.

While Kevin Courtney has an impressive history on the left, no one is immune to the pressures of their position.  Neither Kevin nor Mary Bousted (our joint general secretaries) work in a school, so neither has the direct experience of seeing their workmates come out repeatedly on each of our eight strike days so far – or watching workmates turn into committed union members. While reps and officers deal with the ups and downs of discussions in our workplaces their role has mostly been waiting for calls from the Minister for Education, or talking to the DfE – neither experience nourishing their confidence in the campaign. They have repeatedly been pushed back on course by the turn out on our pickets and demonstrations, but with the summer break near it is their pessimism which has won out.

It is also true that the deal does present some progress. Our strikes having moved the government from an initial position of 3.5% and secured extra money. While it is notable that no one was initially describing this as ‘a good deal’ it is also true that our strikes have moved the government.

What is the feeling amongst members?

Events have moved too fast for anyone to have a national picture of how members will vote. In local districts where officers are opposed this tends to be reflected amongst reps but in many others members will have heard nothing other than that the union is recommending they vote yes. There are a few factors which weigh against winning a ‘no’ vote:

1) At the end of summer term everyone is exhausted and desperately waiting for the holidays. The timing catches us at point where we are most susceptible to giving up. Some on the right of the union have exploited this by suggesting reps can only vote no if they can guarantee now that their members will take vastly exaggerated periods of strike action in the autumn.

2) Both Kevin and Mary are well liked and trusted – and for good reason. The NEU has been at the front of many recent campaigns. NEU members have little to no experience of trade union officials shutting down a dispute – or why you might need to question the accuracy of claims around the deal.

In our favour the dispute has seen a huge surge in engagement and activism. Schools with no history of organisation have held pickets, struck for eight days and brought members out on local and national demonstrations.  Those more politically engaged with the union are likely to identify the contortions the union has put itself through to back the deal – often putting out claims in direct contradiction to statements made only weeks or months before.

Can ‘Educators Say No’ win a majority to reject the deal?

The central challenge facing the ‘no’ campaign is time. The vote will be a snap e-vote over text with very little time to call meetings of members to discuss the detail. Under pressure the official ‘accept’ campaign has moved towards uncritically cheerleading DfE claims and presenting the deal in an implausibly positive light. The risk is large numbers of members will vote yes before hearing the opposing argument or picking apart the headline claims.

Whether we can win the vote will depend on how quickly we can organise activists to pushing out in their schools, districts and reps networks during the last week of term. Now the 6.5% has been imposed the ballot is in practice a vote over whether we have the will to fight for more.

The Educators Say No campaign has come together quickly and represents some of the best organised sections of the NEU. But the left inside the NEU is not used to acting independently of the union leadership and even less used to relying on its organisation in schools to do so.

Can our pay campaign bounce back from this?

The short answer is yes. DfE statistics show that our strikes have remained consistently strong across our eight days of action.  While our sister unions would be unlikely to fight alongside us, we are by far the largest teacher union and have got this far on our own. The political momentum of our campaign has continued to grow and a new school year always brings renewed energy.  September will also see all teachers and heads faced again with the reality of the twin crises in schools – funding and teacher shortages – both of which will be sharper in the new year but can seem more distant as summer approaches.

The autumn will also reveal the weakness of the government position. The Tory conference in autumn will probably be the last before a general election. The government will be desperate to engineer a period of calm to sneak a victory – or minimise their electoral defeat. A week of united strike action from teachers and doctors could have a huge political impact and re-set expectations of what victory can look like.

Find out how to support the educators say no campaign here.


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