Tom Ramplin and Andy Stone report on the NUT conference that took place in Cardiff over the Easter weekend
With the government slashing £3 billion a year from school budgets by 2020, the continuation of a seven year pay freeze and burnt out teachers leaving the profession in droves, the National Union of Teachers conference held over the Easter weekend in Cardiff was set to be a fiery one.
The unity of delegates in their determination to fight back against the Tories era of permanent austerity was clear. Speakers continually pushed for stronger action from the union on opposing the cuts. Conference voted to pursue regional strike action in areas hit hardest by the cuts before the end of the summer term. These regions will be selected in the next few weeks. The executive was also instructed to work with other unions to organise a national demonstration against the cuts along with the various local actions being built. One such example of local action has been in Shrewsbury where there were around 500 people marching against the proposed education cuts a month ago, with another demonstration for Health and Education planned.
Countless teachers spoke about the damaging impact of the high stakes testing regime on children’s mental health and self-confidence. Apart from the government’s disregard for pupil’s health and developmental stages, this is also greatly restricting the curriculum. In schools across the country, PE, RE and the Arts are being stripped out to find more time for endless writing tasks to feed “the God of Evidence”. This has disproportionately affected working class pupils where ‘closing the gap’ has become the standard excuse for limiting the academic options available particularly in GCSEs.
Despite a motion to boycott all summary assessment falling, conference did pass a motion calling for a boycott of SATs next year. With the ATL (with whom the NUT will be merging in September to form the National Education Union, NEU), passing a similar motion at their conference earlier in the week, our attention must shift to making links with and mobilising parent groups to continue their action and to embolden those heads that are willing to stick their head above the parapet in opposing the tests.
Recruitment and retention crisis
With so many teachers being burnt out by the government’s exam factory regime, less than half of teachers in England now have more than 10 years of experience in the role. Apart from being grossly inefficient, this system of desperately trying to recruit and train new teachers only for them to leave the profession 2 years later also deprives children of teachers with experience and confidence. The campaigns to tackle the gargantuan workload being placed on teachers – the TUC reports that the average teacher works 12.1 hours per week unpaid overtime – and forcing the government to accept some responsibility for the impact of their policies was also very much in the foreground of conference.
One highlight of the conference fringe was the inspirational testimonies of teaching assistants from Durham and Derby who have been out on strike action after both Labour-led councils decided to slash their pay. On addressing conference, Megan Charlton of the Durham campaign received a standing ovation for their fight against up to 23% pay cuts.
The equalities section of the conference also brought some great victories with conference committing to supporting transgender members and students’ rights to self-identify, campaign for comprehensive sex and relationship education and to continue to fight transphobia in all its forms. Anti-racism and internationalism remained a strong theme, with 16 year old Palestinian Leanne Mohammad and world teacher of the year Hanan Al Hroub setting the tone on the first evening. Later debates condemned the Islamophobia of Prevent and affiliated to Stand Up To Racism, to which the lone opposition of a former UKIP candidate was contrasted with the conference hall chanting ‘Say it loud and say it clear, refugees are welcome here’.
Though the conference narrowly voted against a motion that might have opened the way to party political affiliation, John McDonnell’s speech promising to set up a comprehensive and free National Education Service was warmly received. Members should not see any contradiction between building the demonstrations and strikes around funding and undermining May’s plan to boost her slender majority. By strengthening links between education professionals, parents and other workers we can tear down the Tories’ Victorian education agenda. The need for an escalation of the campaign against the education cuts becomes more acute with the announcement of the general election. General Secretary Kevin Courtney’s statement on the union’s next steps makes this clear:
This country must have a Government that will invest in education. In the general election, we will press all parties to give commitments that if elected, they will invest and not cut education. At the moment, Theresa May’s Government has taken decisions which mean 99% of schools are going to lose funding. Teachers and parents will lobby vociferously to put school and sixth form college funding at the heart of this general election.
For more information on the effect of cuts on your school go to https://www.schoolcuts.org.uk/