What next for teacher unions?

Attacks on teachers employment conditions and the undermining of their ‘professional autonomy’  are hardly new, but education minister Michael Gove has intensified the assault, pushing through major changes to the pension scheme, introducing new ‘performance management’ regulations -making it easier to dismiss ‘incompetent’ teachers and threatening to impose ‘regional pay’.  Teachers are threatened further; by the fact that almost 1800 schools (over half of all secondaries) have converted to ‘academy’ status- academies having much greater freedom to vary teachers pay and conditions.

The attack on pensions means many younger teachers will work to 68 and that all teachers will find that from the end of this month, increased contribution rates will mean pay packets being smaller. In response to the government’s attack, the National Union of Teachers has already organised three national strikes with other teaching and non-teaching public sector trade unions. Unions have won some concessions but are still far short of any meaningful compromise. The NUT, the NASUWT (the second largest union in England and Wales) and  UCU (representing FE and HE staff) have not  signed up to them.  

This year’s NUT Annual Conference over Easter, voted for more strike action – this is going to be on a regional basis to begin with (London NUT members were called out with UCU members at the end of March) but a further national strike is expected to be called before the end of the summer term.  Action will certainly be necessary, even to prevent the assaults on teachers becoming worse.   

Despite raising issues about accountability and democracy and organising a number of local strikes, with one or two honourable exceptions, teacher unions have not been able to seriously impede the move to academy status. Though hostility to academies remained intense among the conference delegates, in future the NUT will likely have to concentrate on opposing ‘forced conversion’ –supporting the Downhills campaign in Haringey for example – and on trying to stop ‘free schools’.  With several academy heads openly opposing the damaging effects of free schools, it may find some surprising allies.

The NUT will hope it can coordinate action with the NASUWT, but establishing one union for all, including those in colleges and universities, is now absolutely essential to secure the collective power of teachers.  In addition to a new ‘professional unity’ however – there also has to be a clearer popular vision for state education that can provide a backdrop to teachers workplace struggles.

While continuing to promote comprehensive principles, such a vision has to address the changing context of education in the 21st century, particularly the implications for schools of the collapse of employment opportunities for young people. The conference supported a motion calling for the Union to produce a new policy statement –and also one to establish a national campaigning body able to draw in others. Both of these, along with a commitment to campaign against youth unemployment, are to be welcomed, but they are only a start.  

Martin Allen

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