Andy S from Wandsworth NUT continues the report from a union conference ready to defend education.
This year’s NUT conference was bookended by a rapturously received speech from Jeremy Corbyn at the beginning and an announcement by outgoing General Secretary Christine Blower that she intended to join the Labour Party at the end. This was a far cry from the last time a leading Labour figure attended the conference – in 2002 then-education secretary Estelle Morris was heckled and slow handclapped.
By contrast Corbyn’s critique of the government’s ‘asset stripping’ academisation plan, and the crises over class sizes, teacher recruitment and school places that their plans ignore or exacerbate, chimed closely with the concerns of the assembled delegates. And characteristically he wasn’t just in Brighton for the good PR of a standing ovation – he stayed and talked with delegates and spoke alongside PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka at the left’s fringe meeting. Also on the platform was a junior doctor (several thousand of whom had signed a message of support), and Blower’s closing speech also signalled a willingness for co-ordinated action between the two sets of public sector workers.
So there were many reasons for the left to be cheerful, despite the massive challenge facing us from forced academisation (see conference report part 1). But this was far from a single-issue conference, and though many key motions were ultimately passed with near-unanimity, this shouldn’t mask the difficult balancing act performed by a left bureaucracy attempting to address calls to escalate battles on a range of issues.
Prevent was one such issue. The now-statutory duty of schools to protect students from ‘extremism’ was condemned in an unanimously passed motion that called on the government ‘to withdraw the Prevent strategy in regard to schools and colleges and to involve the profession in developing alternative strategies to safeguard children and identify risks posed to young people’. At one of the fringe meetings an articulate sixth form student from Luton explained his own experience of being interviewed by two members of Bedfordshire counter-terrorism intelligence unit for wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ badge. This is one of more than 3,800 such referrals under the scheme last year (more than double that of 2014), over half of which were for children, and two thirds of which were for suspected ‘Islamic extremism’. Both the motion and the accompanying speeches were very carefully phrased – even here Prevent promoted a degree of self-censorship. The two key points – 1) that Prevent is discriminatory in its focus on Muslims and 2) that it is counterproductive, in that it shuts down discussions that could challenge support for terrorism – are both true, but only scratch the surface of the damage caused by the legislation.
Another important discussion was our response to the government’s ever more tortuous and torturous demands for primary assessment. A long priority motion described the confused and belated methods of introducing and ‘clarifying’ the new tests; their reductive content; their exclusionary effect on students with special educational needs or disabilities. There was little dispute about these and other criticisms; however there was quite a heated debate about the strategy to defeat them. Partly this was a consequence of the deferral of the decision taken at last year’s conference to build towards a boycott of ‘baseline tests’ for 4-year-olds. This was amended to read ‘consideration of a ballot for boycott of baseline, key stage 1 and key stage 2 tests at the most appropriate time’ [my emphasis]. The Socialist Teachers Alliance (STA) were among those advocating this change, on the basis that we needed a longer campaign to increase the breadth of opposition and we couldn’t launch an all-out war on two fronts (the other being against forced academisation). However other sections of the left found a significant echo when they voiced frustration at this choice.
We also debated a ‘memorandum’ on reorganising the structure of the union. The key aims of this were to increase the amount of women on the executive and to equalise the amount of members that executive members represent. Given that of the biggest ten unions in the UK, the NUT is the second least representative of women on the executive (with 38% compared to 76% in the general membership), a proposal that would ensure a minimum of 50% is not exactly radical. Yet it faced determined opposition from some sections of conference, who deployed a range of red herrings to try to avoid it. This included opposition to a minor proposed reduction in the size of the executive, complaints about longer distances that some executive members would need to travel, the ‘borda’ electoral system that was being discussed, and much more. Eventually an amendment stating that the proposals needed ‘further reflection and revision’ was narrowly passed – a watering down rather than a wrecking amendment, but still frustrating when change is so obviously overdue.
Another argument deployed against it had been the possibility of merger with the ATL. Discussions have been underway between the unions for some time, and though they are not yet concluded, conference was asked to approve of the process – which the overwhelming majority did. The question will also be put to the ATL conference and then to special conferences, possibly this autumn, if negotiations are successfully completed. Most teachers instinctively think that a single, united teachers’ union would be more effective, and this has been the NUT’s aim for some time. However organisational unity with the second biggest teachers’ union, the NASUWT, seems unlikely in the near future, with its general secretary Chris Keates proffering the bizarre argument that ‘it was “better” for ministers to receive six letters from unions on issues such as pay, rather than one with six signatures’. Because obviously general secretaries signing letters is the highest form of trade unionism.
The idea of a single education workers’ union also began to enter the debate, although that would surely face resistance from the general unions that currently organise support staff. A merger with the ATL brings some dangers – historically it has been more conservative and much more strike-shy. However there is now significant agreement on educational policies, and many of its members could be won to a more activist approach – often people simply join the first union that asks them, or the one with the most visible rep. And a successful merger would surely increase calls within the NASUWT for greater co-operation, or attract its members to the NUT/ATL if they were frustrated.
As ever there were a range of interesting fringe meetings, highlighting pedagogical, international solidarity and anti-racism issues among others. Perhaps most significant was a meeting of 130 delegates to launch ‘Teachers for Social Justice’, which aims to bring these streams together. The nature of the discussions and the make-up of the attendees suggested that this has the potential to break out from the confines of the existing organised left. It’s certainly something that socialists should involve themselves in building in the coming months.
So Christine Blower’s likely successor, current deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney, will not be expecting to have an easy job. But there are promising signs that teachers are not prepared to keep accepting dictation from the government, and that the messianic reception for JC need not be a passive substitute for resistance.