THE NUT IS A UNION committed to social justice, so its conference always tended to reflect the issues that dominate public discourse. This year almost all the debates raised questions about the deep crisis in education and in wider society, and there seemed to be an even greater sense that things must change.
Speakers painted a vivid picture of inequality and poverty in austerity Britain: teachers forced to live in halls of residence, with others having no choice but to use food banks; while pupils rely on food clubs to sustain them in term time and go hungry in the holidays.
Half a million children with parents working in the public sector are in poverty as academy chief executive officers earn ever fatter salaries and head teachers award themselves pay rises in the tens of thousands of pounds. Disadvantaged children write on the back of last year’s exam papers, while teachers buy their pupils glue sticks and wash their clothes. Other children have the money they raise for school resources taken by carpet bagging academy chain operatives - who then pull out of the schools they ransack, owing hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Students face the intolerable pressure of an exam factory education system that is stripping creativity and play from the curriculum, making both teachers and children jump through hoops repeatedly - only to be told they are failing.
The key to success offered by the managerialists and their apologists is to work harder: interventions at lunch time, evenings, weekends, and holidays; then mock exam after mock exam. It is no surprise that teachers are leaving in droves, and even less surprising that increasing numbers of children are unable to cope with the ‘cognitive corporal punishment’ they experience day in day out.
Despite the dire state of the nation and the education system, there was a sense of hope at this year’s conference. The NUT is not party affiliated (a motion was narrowly defeated last year), but there was a strong mood among delegates that Corbyn represents a break from the consensus that has led to the dystopian schools of Tory Britain. There is still concern that many Labour MPs are talking more about standards than structures, and some of them still seem to be wedded to the neo-liberal agenda: the new National Education Union (NEU) should vigorously make the case to renationalise all academies, making it a key part of our ongoing relations with Angela Rayner.
Despite the huge support for Corbyn, the message from many of the speakers was clear - we cannot wait for Jeremy to save us. We need to be making our own changes in our own classrooms. Conference heard about inspiring action taking place up and down the country - action that is giving some of the worst managers pause for thought and leading to better conditions for teachers and pupils.
The recent UCU action also seems to have galvanised teachers to take a stand against, in the words of one speaker, “the shit we have been putting up with for years and years”, and many will hope the days of ineffective one day protest strikes are at last behind us as conference called for a ballot for a 5% pay rise for all education workers. Conference also called for the removal of a clause in the School Teachers Pay and Conditions document which states that teachers must “work such reasonable hours as may be needed” - to be replaced with a realistic limit on hours in line with union policy. A clear timetable of action must now be put forward to achieve these demands.
One sour note that led to disgruntlement from the floor was the continued marginalisation of supply teachers. 10% of NUT members are now supply teachers, yet a debate on a supply teacher's seat was talked out and no vote was taken. Some delegates also suggested that some motions seemed to have been ordered so that motions following would be rendered invalid. Whether or not this was deliberate, hopefully the conference business committee will have taken note of the clear mood from the floor this year and take this into account when organising next year’s agenda.
This was a historic conference: the last for the NUT, and the first for the NEU. There is an optimistic mood about the potential of the fourth largest union in the TUC, but there are also concerns that the NEU might water down policies. This was reflected in the proposed move of conference away from Easter, which would effectively disenfranchise many lay members who will be at school. However, NUT activists are confident and determined to ensure that the best fighting traditions of the lay-led and democratic NUT will be retained.
Labour Briefing May 2018