Time for a NEU Union?

jean-1-3by Howard Stevenson.

[This blog post was published prior to the Special Conferences of NUT and ATL. My understanding is that both conferences overwhelmingly supported the proposal – 97% in the NUT and 92% in ATL. This now presents a huge opportunity to engage with members and mobilise them around a much more optimistic vision of what it should mean to work in education].

On Saturday 5th November delegate conferences of two of the largest teachers’ unions in the UK (the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the National Union of Teachers) will meet to discuss disbanding as individual organisations to re-emerge as a new, single union. If both conferences agree to proceed, the proposal to create a new union, called the National Education Union (NEU), will go to a ballot of all members in both organisations in Spring 2017.

Should the new union become a reality (both unions are keen to assert this is not a merger of existing unions, but the formation of a new organisation), then make no mistake, this development will be both historic and significant.

Multi-unionism (the co-existence of more than one union in the same employment sector) is not unique to the education sector in the UK. Internationally, amongst teachers, it tends to be the rule, rather than the exception. The explanations for the divisions are complex – different sectors, different geographies, different political tactics and different ideologies are just some of the explanations for multiple unions in education. These divisions have often been maintained because teacher unions have not faced the same pressures on their influence and resources as have unions in manufacturing, or industries transformed by technology (think of publishing for example).

However, there is increasing evidence that divided teacher unions are a luxury classroom teachers and support staff can no longer afford. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in England.  As far back as 1987 governments have sought to marginalise teacher unions as the collective voice of teachers. This was when national collective bargaining was first suspended, and then abolished. This marked the start of the breaking up of the English public education system, and its replacement by a fragmented, competitive market in which privatisation looks to be the longer term objective.

Teachers experience all the negative consequences of these developments. Wholly unsustainable workloads, pay held down and tied to performance (often reduced to student test scores) and an accountability regime that is judgmental and punitive rather than developmental. The impact of these reforms is made visible in the labour market. It is difficult to recruit teachers, and even more difficult to retain them. This isn’t union rhetoric, it is the experience of huge numbers of headteachers everyday as they struggle to appoint and hold on to their staff.

England has the unenviable reputation as being the world’s global experiment in the neoliberal restructuring of public education. Fragmentation, de-regulation and privatisation are increasingly the hallmarks of the English ‘public’ education system. There are, inevitably, many complex reasons to explain how we have got to where we are, and I am not suggesting a divided teacher union movement is the only reason, or even the most important reason. However, nobody can seriously deny that a divided teacher union movement in England is one of the reasons why England has become the world’s laboratory for this dangerous experiment.

Research carried out by Nina Bascia and myself for Education International (the teacher union federation comprising 400 affiliates across 170 countries) and conducted in several countries outside of England has revealed how governments and employers deliberately seek to exploit the divisions between teacher unions in order to drive through unpopular reforms. Where unions have been effective in resisting these policies they tend to have fewer unions (sometimes a single union), avoid competitive multi-unionism (different unions competing for the same members as opposed to different unions organising in different sectors) and where there are different unions they still achieve high levels of cross-union collaboration. Such environments are also often characterised by classroom teachers and school leaders being represented by the same organisation (avoiding the growing divisions between school leaders and teachers that is a feature of the schools-as-businesses model of education).

What is clear is that the fragmentation of the English school system, in part introduced in order to weaken the collective power of teachers, is now, paradoxically, driving the unification of the profession. Faced with a beggar-my-neighbour system, in which each school and teacher is encouraged to undercut the other, teachers are realising they cannot exacerbate these problems with their own divisions.  In a fractured school system teachers need a strong, unified and independent voice that can speak for them on the full range of issues that confront them in their working lives – pay and conditions issues, but professional and policy issues too. Many of the most important issues in schools, such as testing and assessment, cannot be demarcated according to an old-fashioned separation between the ‘industrial’ and ‘professional’. The new union must speak for teachers in a way that bridges this unhelpful divide and which has influence at individual school and MAT level, as much as it has influence with government.

Both unions are confident their conferences will support the proposal for a new union. However, there can be no complacency that members will automatically support the idea. In the United States, dominated by two enormous teacher unions, much hard work to merge the unions was done in 1998, only for delegates of the largest union to reject the proposal and scupper the deal. All of this highlights the need for both unions, and their activists, to work hard between now and next Spring to campaign for the change.

However, if successful, the hard work will have barely started. The new union, due to be established on 1st January 2019, will have to fuse together very different traditions and cultures. For example, ATL is strong in the independent sector, organises in Further Education and has support staff membership, all of which contrast with the NUT.  ATL is often characterised as moderate, whilst the NUT may be seen as the most militant of the teacher unions. These differences will need to be ‘worked through’. Many differences may prove to be more myth than reality (on many policy issues there is a high degree of congruence), whilst others may prove harder to resolve. As a researcher of teacher unions, it will be fascinating to see how this unfolds.

My personal view is that teachers in England (in particular) have not been helped by a divided union movement. I have argued previously that a new union, representing a large majority of teachers, and possibly, in time, all those who work in education, should be seen as an exciting prospect for the profession. Teachers and school support staff desperately need an independent voice that governments and employers cannot ignore.Whilst I can see some merit in a new College of Teaching, it would be a grave mistake if any teachers thought for a moment this was a substitute for strong, independent unions. Indeed, the College of Teaching needs strong unions, because without them, the College risks being seen as an integral part of a smoke and mirrors system with a rhetoric of autonomy but a reality of managerialism and control.

In 1998, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan wrote a powerful book called ‘What’s worth fighting for in education?’ We would all have many responses to that question. Surely a genuinely independent and democratic voice for the education profession would be on that list. Given the scale of the challenges that have faced those working in schools in recent years, and which are likely to intensify in the future, my view is that it is a prize worth fighting for.

The School of Education takes no institutional position and all authors’ views are their own.

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