One of the most interesting topics at the NUT's conference was not about whether to strike but how much strike action we should take! Tony Dowling reports
This year's NUT conference was meeting less than a month since the NUT took strike action in pursuance of its ongoing dispute over pay, pensions and conditions. And this had been the first time in the campaign that the NUT had taken action alone. Despite this, the mood at conference appeared positive and buoyant.
The general view seemed to be that the newly agreed Stand Up For Education strategy of 'engage - pressure - action' (engage with parents - pressure politicians - together with further strike action) had delivered some success with the March 26th strike having been largely supported by parents despite the insidiously negative press and media coverage. And delegates were looking forward to building on this strategy with the executive's priority motion on this issue having been posted out a few days before conference.
The priority motion called for:
- a mass lobby of parliament on 10th June;
- mobilising for the 21st June national demonstration in London called by the People's Assembly;
- continuing to engage with parents through street stalls and Education Question Time events;
- seeking to coordinate national strike action in the week beginning 23rd June (whilst being prepared to take strike action alone if necessary);
- to develop a programme of action from the Autumn term and beyond,
- and to mobilise for the TUC Day of Action on 18th October 2014
Perhaps the biggest indicator of how the mood of conference has changed was that, unlike in more recent years when the major debates were about whether or not to take strike action, the main division this year was about how much strike action we should take!
There were those who argued for "escalation" of the strike action to two day strikes, but although the mood of conference was positive and determined in wanting to continue our dispute, even if it meant continuing alone, there was a recognition of the unevenness of support for strike action and most felt that it would be difficult to win the membership to two days and this strategy was defeated by 2:1 in a card vote.
However, we should be clear that the strategy that was passed IS an escalation in the union's action plan and it does commit the union to ongoing strategy of engage - pressure - action into the autumn term and beyond!
We want to build support for our campaign with parents and carers. And we are finding that when we explain our case they largely do agree with us.
Polls show over 80% agree with us that there should be a qualified teacher in every classroom, whereas 53% of teachers report that they are working alongside unqualified staff who are regularly planning and teaching lessons. And this rises to 61% in academies. So parents no longer have certainty that when they send their children to school they will be taught by a qualified teacher. Yet 80% of parents would not want their children to attend a school that did not require its teachers to have professional teaching qualifications. And a similar number back teachers having a national pay system.
Perhaps surprisingly to the media, the poll showed 65% of parents supported teachers' right to strike to stop Michael Gove's unpopular policies to reform education.
As might have been expected of conference, there was much criticism of academies, free schools, Ofsted, the new curriculum and the use of non-qualified teachers, especially in relation the increasingly intolerable workload under which teachers find themselves burdened. Workload that they believe is not in the interests of pupils or teachers, but is simply about data collection and is preventing teachers from focussing on the pupils and teachers. Unsurprisingly, particular criticism was reserved for Education Secretary Michael Gove. It was reported that a survey had found that not only was Gove unpopular among teachers, but he was the least popular of all Tory ministers with only a 3% support rating.
With votes of overwhelming or unanimous support in the Education debates, conference passed resolutions calling for a qualified teacher in every class; an end to the academies programme; to return free schools to local authority control, and to campaign to abolish and establish a credible alternative to Ofsted.
An excellent debate on child poverty, noting that 3.5 million children in the UK live in poverty, resolved to make the issue for the first time a key campaign issue in the union's work prior to the general election and to work with other unions and trades councils to this end, as well as continuing to campaign to reinstate EMA.
Conference also re-affirmed its support for Free School Meals, but criticised the government's appalling lack of planning and foresight in rushing in this policy.
And conference agreed to support campaigns against benefits cuts and to highlight the impact on children of the Bedroom Tax and cuts to benefits.
NUT has been very supportive of the People's Assembly and, as well as Kare Smurthwaite of People's Assembly opening conference, a resolution was agreed to continue this support and encourage participation in local PA groups being set up around the country.
Other issues debated, and supported overwhelmingly by conference, included: Qualified Teacher Status; Restoration of Local Authority controls; abandoning free schools; reform/replacement of Ofsted, campaign against child poverty; the reinstatement of EMA; inclusivity rights for SEN pupils; discrimination agains older women; opposition to the Immigration bill; teacher appraisal; supply teachers; Early Years testing; the New primary curriculum and support for Palestinians - dismantle the wall, end illegal settlements and support the BDS campaign.
In a great show of solidarity and unity in addressing prejudice and discrimination, the final session of conference ended with unanimous votes of support for motions on Disability Equality, Transgender Rights and Addressing Inequalities of Black Teachers.
And there was further unanimous support for continuing to work towards professional unity and a single teaching union, as well as a motions to intervene in the general election campaign to counter Labour education spokesperson Tristram Hunt's pronouncements that he would not reverse much of Gove's education reforms, to draw up a General Election Education Manifesto and to campaign for a future Labour government to repeal the "gagging law" and the anti-trade union laws.
So... We go back to our schools with the solid support of conference to implement an ongoing strategy to Stand Up For Education and with three important and immediate tasks:
- build a mass lobby of parliament on 10th June;
- mobilise for the 21st June national demonstration in London called by the People's Assembly, and
- prepare for national strike action in the week beginning 23rd June
Michael Gove’s education reforms are making teachers' jobs impossible and directly harming children’s education.
As General Secretary Christine Blower said in her closing speech to conference, "our Stand Up For Education campaign is the biggest mobilisation any union in this country is doing... the stakes are so high that we have to win - for teachers, for children and for the education service."
Don't miss this opportunity: Engage! Pressure! Strike!
Tony Dowling is a teacher, socialist, trade unionist, antifascist, anti-war & anti-cuts activist. He is currently chair of North East People's Assembly and a member of Counterfire.
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