SOME 1,500 DELEGATES gathered in Liverpool for four very full days from 15th-18th April as the National Education Union (NEU) staged its inaugural conference. The union, with some 450,000 members, bills itself as Europe’s largest education sector union, having formed from a merger of the previous NUT and ATL.
Its birth, however, has coincided with an acute funding crisis for schools across England and Wales. The squeeze on per pupil funding has seen mounting job losses among support staff, while morale is low and turnover historically high among teachers whose workload has risen as pay has plunged in real terms.
The cuts have exacted a particularly high toll on support for pupils with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) with thousands now lacking school places and all too often falling victim to the practice of ‘off-rolling’ whereby headteachers seek to boost a school’s exam results by removing students not expected to make the grade.
Growing concern about the impact on primary schoolchildren of a rigid testing regime and the ongoing scandal of academisation also formed the background to conference. At the same time, internationally, there has been an extended wave of strikes and protests across the United States, detonated by the unofficial West Virginia action early in 2018, while an indefinite teachers’ strike had begun in Poland just the week before.
While Extinction Rebellion protesters launched their remarkable week of action in London, the conference was giving nigh unanimous backing on the Monday morning to a motion pledging the union “to stand in full solidarity with all students striking or protesting against climate change”.
Conference proceedings took a sombre turn on the opening afternoon as it coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy, which claimed 96 lives and has left a collective scar on Liverpool itself. The conference hall fell silent for several minutes along with much of the city in an act of remembrance. A couple of hours later, though, a sharp and critically important debate was in full swing on a motion from the Lewisham and Nottinghamshire associations calling on the NEU to ballot its primary school members on a boycott of preparation for, and the administration of, so-called high stakes testing, principally the SATS at the end of Years 2 and 6.
The debate swiftly revealed that the majority on the new union’s executive, elected last autumn, were opposed to the motion and wished to focus principally on a lobbying campaign to oppose the introduction of baseline testing for four-year-olds. After some confusion following two votes by show of hands, the chair declared that the motion had gone down to defeat. She eventually relented after loud and sustained protest in the hall, allowing a ‘digi’ vote (the 21st century successor to the paper card vote), which revealed that 57% had actually supported the call to ballot for a boycott. For the motion’s principal advocates the vote came after waging a similar battle for a ballot at three previous NUT conferences.
To their credit, key elements in the union leadership gave every indication during the rest of the week that it would give substantial backing to a campaign for a Yes vote in an indicative ballot, which is likely to start from 3rd June and run for four weeks. The union’s aim must now be to ensure that the Year 6 SATS taking place between 13th and 16th May 2019 will be the last such exams administered.
The campaign for a test boycott received a shot in the arm the following day when Jeremy Corbyn addressed the conference. To rapturous applause, Corbyn announced that Labour would act in government to abolish the current SATS and “the regime of extreme pressure testing” in primary schools. In a wellcrafted and ably delivered speech, he also reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to scrap the Tories’ academies and free schools programme, though ambiguity remains about what Labour would do regarding already existing academies and the role of local education authorities. But the rhetoric, including a stirring pledge to “remove corporations from the classroom and the campus”, was undoubtedly encouraging and warmly welcome.
The conference also backed a further indicative ballot to take place this autumn for industrial action over pay around a demand for a 5% rise, still far below the estimated decline of more than 15% in teachers’ real pay over the course of the past decade. Speakers pointed to the comparative success of the EIS (Educational Institute of Scotland) campaign, which had secured a 13.5% increase compounded over three years through a mass demo in Glasgow last autumn of more than 20,000 union members, followed by credible threats of strike action.
Delegates rejected a proposal to look at the possibility of affiliating to the Labour Party or at least having a bloc of NEU-supported Labour MPs, while agreeing to maintain a non-aggression pact reached with the GMB and Unison concerning the recruitment of school support staff.
There are significant outstanding questions for the union to address in terms of its attitude to the non-teaching workforce in schools since the old ATL had accepted other education staff into membership, but had never secured rights to engage in collective bargaining around pay and conditions.
In the meantime, though, there are crucial challenges ahead in winning the ballots for a test boycott in primary schools and for industrial action over pay with turnouts that surpass the notorious 50% threshold imposed by the Tories’ Trade Union Act 2016. Turnout among primary school teachers was generally poor in the NEU consultation exercise conducted from November last year to this January.
Labour Party members both inside and outside the union could and should play an important role in securing a sufficiently large Yes vote, not least by building support for action against the high stakes testing regime among parents and carers through leafleting outside schools, on street stalls and going door-to-door. The NEU may remain unaffiliated, but it should surely receive the unequivocal support of the Labour Party at all levels in securing both an end to a uniquely pervasive and brutal testing regime and in halting the drastic erosion of educators’ real pay.
» The SEND National Crisis campaign, established by parents with SEND children, has called a demonstration from 12 noon on 30th May in central London.
Amanda Bentham (Tower Hamlets & City NEU) and George Binette (Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP trade union liaison officer) write in their personal capacities.