Can united teachers’ unions turn the tide?

Professor Howard Stevenson (University of Nottingham) provides a personal reflection on the situation facing teacher unions at their conferences and beyond the election.

Easter is teacher union conference season and all three of the major teacher unions in England are meeting to decide policy over the holiday period.

Teachers have experienced a bruising few years with Michael Gove’s reactionary revolution being pursued with huge determination. However, even before the current government has breathed its last, evidence is already emerging that its rapid and radical ‘reform’ of English state education is coming unstuck. Emerging crises in schools places and teacher supply highlight the folly of market based solutions, whilst academies and free schools are daily exposing the problems that result from the lack of systemic support and the absence of adequate governance arrangements.

That the emperor’s new clothes have been exposed for what they are is due in no small part to the actions of the teacher unions. Partly due to the bullying culture of the Gove years, many teachers felt unable to stand up and speak out about the damaging changes being introduced in the name of ‘improving schools’ and ‘raising standards’. Above all, it has been the teacher unions that challenged the trajectory of government policy and made the case for a more enlightened alternative. Whilst teacher unions cannot claim a monopoly on articulating dissent, few can argue that it was their organisational strength, clarity of voice and campaigning vigour that resulted in Michael Gove’s departure.

Now, just a month from the general election, our attention turns to the future, and the type of education service teachers want for their students and themselves. As Govian hegemony crumbles there is an opportunity to build something much more positive in its place.

Whatever that future looks like, it will still have to be struggled for. The outcome of the election remains uncertain and countless permutations of coalition are possible. It seems likely that no one party will be able to implement its education programme in toto. Such uncertainty means that there will be much to play for after the election.

This provides teacher unions with an important opportunity to influence policy. What is clear is the high degree of consensus that already exists in relation to key areas of policy. All three teacher unions have set out campaigning priorities for a new government – the ATL through its ‘Shape Education’ initiative, the NASUWT through its ‘Reclaim the Promise’ project and the NUT through its ‘Stand Up for Education’ campaign. An analysis of the different agendas reveals common commitments to:

  • a broad and balanced curriculum
  • a fully qualified teaching profession and national pay framework
  • opposition to marketisation and education for profit
  • recognition that schools can’t do their work unless governments do theirs – by ending child poverty.

Of course these broad commitments will hide differences of detail over specific issues. Performance related pay, high-stakes assessment and future relationships with academies are just some of the areas where there are likely to be policy differences. Indeed, anyone wishing to look actively for differences between the unions will not have to look too far to find them. It would be extraordinary if this were not the case. What is obvious however, and more important, is that far more unites the unions than divides them.

The challenge for teacher unions, or more precisely their membership, will be to mobilise behind this consensus in order to forge a hugely powerful voice in speaking with whatever government emerges from the general election. The ATL and NUT have already started to work together more closely, exemplified by the recent joint meeting in Manchester. NASUWT’s leadership is clearly more uncomfortable with any suggestion of formal co-operation, but has shown willingness to work in concert with other unions on specific issues. One obvious possibility is a joint union campaign against unacceptable workload which will surely present as the most pressing issue facing the next Secretary of State. From such united action a momentum for greater collaboration can be built.

The Govian project is unravelling. It is easy to exaggerate about ‘golden opportunities’, but the next few weeks and months really are a moment in time when many will be crying out for a vision of education that can excite and enthuse. It is important to learn lessons from the past, and look to the future. A divided teaching profession, and divided teacher unions, provide an important explanation for England’s ignominious reputation as neoliberalism’s educational laboratory. From overseas the country is widely regarded as a reckless experiment in dismantling public education and replacing it with a market. A united teaching profession can articulate a different vision, and by connecting with parents and the wider public, can really begin to turn the tide. But to do so teachers, with the strength of their unions, must learn to work together.


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