NEU balloon at Peterloo March for Democracy, Manchester | Photo: Neda Radulović-Viswanatha NEU balloon at Peterloo March for Democracy, Manchester | Photo: Neda Radulović-Viswanatha

NEU conference took stock of a challenging and momentous year, but also addressed major current issues and plotted a way ahead, reports Tony Dowling 

“We, you, conference, are the NEU. And there is power in the union.” 

With these words, Mary Bousted concluded the speech by herself and fellow general secretary Kevin Courtney to what was a successful online National Education Union annual conference.

Throughout the past year of pandemic, the NEU has provided a model of leadership: not only for its members, but for the union movement as a whole. In listening and giving voice to its members, the NEU has shown that “there is power in a union.” 

By mobilising its membership back in January, the NEU forced Boris Johnson’s Tory government into a total u-turn on school closures.

And through its continued actions and engagement with members during this pandemic period, the NEU has recruited tens of thousands of members, with over 3,000 becoming workplace reps.

There were good debates and robust motions passed around a range of important educational issues, especially around pay, workload and assessment. This includes reiterating the commitment to campaign for abolishing Ofsted, get workload under control and stop toxic testing. There were important motions for improved maternity rights, a more diverse & inclusive curriculum and against a pay freeze. 

The conference responded and adapted to new developments, with two important emergency motions. Conference delegates agreed to hear motions in response to the public outcry surrounding the murder of Sarah Everard, the revelations on the #EveryonesInvited website, and the #ReclaimTheseStreets and #KillTheBill protests in response to the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts’ legislation.

The first emergency motion committed the union to campaign against ‘Harassment, Abuse & Violence Against Women’. As Sarah Kilpatrick said, seconding the motion: 

“By highlighting the scale of violence against women and girls, by embedding the domestic abuse policy, by providing high-quality relationship education and by giving our students critical thinking skills, we can dismantle the toxicity of sexism.”

In moving the second emergency motion – ‘Defend the Right to Protest, Oppose the new Police Bill’ – John Reddiford called for more trade union involvement with the #KillTheBill protests. Conference agreed with him, passing the motion overwhelmingly. 

With the ending of conference, and as teachers return to their schools after Easter, the really important work now begins if the aspirations expressed in conference motions are to bear fruit. Delegates must engage and network with the thousands of new members and reps, ensuring they find ways to organise in their school groups and districts.

We know the mood to resist is there, as seen in the #ReclaimTheseSteets and #KillTheBill protests. And the Pimlico Academy students have shown that action can win

The strikes at Leaways and Langley schools and Shrewsbury College are showing that school staff too are prepared to take action as other workers are beginning to fight back.

As NEU president Robin Bevan said in his address to conference: “The trade union movement for more than 200 years has been based on seeing how things could be different, imagining possible new futures.”

So let’s go back to our workplaces and organise for that better vision of education. Building union organisation is essential to the fight for a better education and a better world. 

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Tony Dowling

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.