Kristine Mayle of CTU addressing conference Kristine Mayle of CTU addressing conference

Tony Dowling reports from this week’s NUT conference

“It’s absolutely horrendous, 7:30am – 5:45pm at school, then more at home, there’s a relentless pace!”

These comments by a young primary teacher reflect the views of the 96% of teachers who say workload has negative consequences for family or personal life. In response to the NUT’s campaigning more than 40,000 teachers responded to the workload consultation, announced by Nicky Morgan and Nick Clegg. Yet, despite a pledge to prioritise reducing teacher workload, Education Secretary Morgan has done nothing substantial. 

Not surprisingly, then, NUT conference voted overwhelmingly to “prepare and ballot for a national campaign of strike and non-strike action if no progress is made in talks with the new government.”

“Whichever Government is in power after the General Election, this issue will not go away,” commented NUT General Secretary Christine Blower.

This was one of several issues for which conference voted for similar ballots for action. The others were the executive priority motion ‘Failure to Fund Education – The Crisis’ and the motion on ‘Our Vision of Primary Education’ which called for members to “work towards a boycott of baseline assessment, as part of a strategy to undermine testing in primary schools” and was passed unanimously.

The priority motion on the education funding crisis noted that neither Tory nor Labour proposals take into account the rise in national insurance payments and pension contributions that schools will have to meet out of their existing budgets. And nor do they take account of the significant rise in pupil numbers expected over the coming parliament, meaning that funding for schools in England will see steep cuts based on the promises both parties have made.

NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney said he expected the cuts would lead to job losses in schools around the country.

And recognising that the fight against austerity will continue after the general election, the motion also pledged to “support the People’s Assembly demonstration in London on Saturday 20th June.”

One of the highlights of conference was hearing from Kristine Mayle from the Chicago Teachers’ Union. The CTU has used a model of social movement trade unionism similar to that now being promoted by NUT and after several years of grassroots campaigning in September 2012 the CTU began their first strike since 1987 over pay and conditions. But the striking teachers also wanted to call attention to a number of education issues, particularly what they defined as a broad attack on public schooling by corporate privatisers – what has become known as GERM, the Global Education Reform Movement.

Kristine spoke to conference about building social movement unionism by working with community groups and parent groups, organising school by school whilst building a coalition with parents to defend education and put an alternative vision. “Teachers unions,” she said, “must show they are fighting for education not self interest.”

“Parents and communities are our key in fighting back. We are the penicillin to the GERM!” she concluded, to rapturous applause.

And as Christine Blower explained in her conference address:

“In the UK the GERM has flourished under the current government through the fragmentation of education provision via the growth of academies and free schools. The employment of unqualified teachers in academies and free schools has undermined education quality and is de-professionalising teaching. GERM is also behind the growth in standardised testing, including baseline assessment of four-year-olds. The NUT will continue to argue for a model of education that has the interests of children at its heart, rather than the profits of global corporations.”

“Our Stand up for Education campaign,” she said, “has been a model of how we get key messages beyond our own ranks and to the wider public. Engage, Pressure, Strike – the three elements of a well put together campaign.”

Another conference highlight was the many inspirational speeches in support of the NUT’s ongoing commitment to support campaigns against racism, Islamophobia and those seeking to scapegoat immigrants.

“We are expected to be front-line storm troopers who listen and spy and notify the authorities of students we are supposed to be suspicious of,” said teacher Jan Neilsen, recognising the dangers to schools, students and teachers from the government’s ‘Prevent Strategy’.

Government guidance on ‘Prevent’ says “we want every school to promote the basic British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs.”

But as ex-NUT president Baljeet Ghale said in an electrifying speech, “What makes these values uniquely British? Are we being told that one culture’s values are superior to another’s? We can’t allow politicians to alienate a whole group of people, leaving them feeling disaffected, marginalised.”

Conference unanimously passed the motion calling on the next government to “remove school settings from the requirements of the Prevent legislation and to remove the monitoring of ‘British values’ from the Ofsted remit.”

And over 300 also attended the hugely successful fringe meeting on ‘British Values, Prevent and Islamophobia’ at which Baljeet also spoke alongside Weyman Bennet of Unite Against Fascism and Lindsey German from Stop the War Coalition

Closing conference Christine Blower noted that, “Whoever wins the General Election, whatever the composition of the incoming government, there will be a clear need for the National Union of Teachers to continue to Stand Up for Education. It is our proper role and I would say our duty.”

Despite the frustrations of some delegates at the lack of a timetable for action, with over 40 percent of conference backing an amendment calling for an “escalating campaign of national strike action” the NUT remains committed to building the social movement trade unionism of its Stand Up For Education campaign. 

“We are a strong and committed trade union,” said Christine Blower, “We will fight for pay and pensions and conditions that our members deserve, we will fight for the education from qualified teachers that our children deserve and we will fight for social justice everywhere. Social Movement Trade Unionism is about engagement.  As (the late NUT Gen Sec) Steve Sinnott put it so well, working together, winning together.”

Delegates have plenty of ammunition with which to return to their local Associations and build this social movement and these campaigns.

They should organise local ‘British Values, Prevent and Islamophobia’ rallies, organise street stalls and school meetings to build the campaign to boycott baseline testing, and build support for the People’s Assembly ‘End Austerity Now’ national demonstration on Saturday 20th June

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.