Alex Snowdon reports on the debates and decisions at the National Education Union's conference, and the mood to take the fight to the Tories
Over four days, many hundreds of delegates gathered for the National Education Union conference in Bournemouth to discuss and debate the union's campaigning priorities. The conference took place in the immediate aftermath of the government's new White Paper promoting further academisation.
Teachers and support staff face real-terms pay cuts in the context of mounting living costs. This combines with excessive workload and a high-pressure culture of surveillance and scrutiny to fuel a staff retention crisis in schools.
Campaigning on pay, funding and Ofsted
The most important vote at the conference was for an escalation of the union's campaign over pay, including an indicative ballot for strike action (likely in October). Since 2010, there has been a big real-terms decline in teachers' pay. However, the Tories' draconian anti-union laws, with extremely tough ballot thresholds, makes it very difficult to pursue national strike action.
Standing any chance of success requires a process over several months, with a great deal of ground work by school reps required to get large numbers of members engaged with the arguments and to instil confidence that we can win.
Delegates agreed to pursue a number of campaigning tactics, with a big emphasis on the role of reps in engaging their colleagues at workplace level. Wider campaigning and cooperation with other trade unions are also urgently required. Building the TUC national demonstration in London on 18 June is an essential step.
An emergency motion on the government's new White Paper generated a long and detailed discussion. Delegates responded sharply to its evidence-free preoccupation with creating more Multi Academy Trusts and its failure to pledge more funding for schools. After two especially challenging years due to the pandemic, the White Paper doesn't even attempt to offer a plan for education recovery.
The discussion also encompassed criticism of the new consultative Green Paper on supporting children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. Again, there is a failure to offer more funding for schools, compounded by the fragmentation and lack of coordination that accompanies the markestisation of education.
The conference saw the launch of a campaign to replace Ofsted with a fair, supportive and collaborative inspection system, timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Ofsted's creation. The inspectorate is hated by teachers, largely due to the way it fuels workload problems and encourages a culture of surveillance rather than support in schools. It disproportionately punishes schools serving deprived areas and makes blunt judgements that promote competition between schools while doing nothing to support school improvement.
Bridget Phillipson, shadow secretary of state for education, prompted a hostile reception from delegates when she called for 'reform' of Ofsted rather than replacing it altogether. It indicated a lack of enthusiasm for the Labour front bench's very lukewarm approach to schools - Phillipson's speech was also notable for the lack of any challenge to academisation and a failure to get behind the union's pay campaign. It became abundantly clear that Labour cannot be relied on to advance the interests of education and educators. The central role of the NEU could hardly be more obvious.
Phillipson's reception was in stark contrast to the roars of approval that greeted Jeremy Corbyn when he - as Labour leader - spoke at NEU Conference three years ago. Corbyn addressed a very large NEU Left fringe meeting this year, linking a positive vision of education with concrete struggles by working people. RMT president Alex Gordon and PCS president Fran Heathcote helped make the links between the NEU's campaigns and organising over pay, jobs and other issues in the broader trade union movement.
Important political and social questions were also debated in the conference. Powerful speeches on the Child Q scandal in Hackney - which saw a 15-year-old black girl strip searched by police on school premises - highlighted police racism. Motions on mothers in prison (and the impact on children) and on the need for better relationships and sex education to address the troubling rise of young people's access to pornography were debated - and passed overwhelmingly.
A debate on Palestine led to the union strengthening policy to include explicit support for boycott, divestment and sanctions directed at the Israeli apartheid state. A fringe meeting organised by Palestine Solidarity Campaign was packed. Motions were passed that strengthened the union's commitment to developing a well-resourced anti-racist curriculum and the message 'refugees are welcome here' ran through the four days.
The biggest political debate was about the war in Ukraine. Around 300 delegates - in just 48 hours last week - put their names to a request for an emergency motion to be debated. The motion took a strong anti-war position, denouncing the expansion of military alliances and threat of Nato intervention as well as Russia's horrific war on Ukraine.
A number of rival amendments were put forward. Crucially, a weakening amendment that gutted the motion of any criticism of Western states was defeated. However, an hour of intense debate finally resulted in the original motion falling. But no alternative position was agreed either.
This disappointing stalemate reflected the divisions over the issue and the contradictions and unevenness in people's ideas. While there were minorities clearly positioned on either side of the debate, there was a large 'middle ground' of delegates who were receptive to the kind of arguments put forward in a big Stop the War fringe meeting on Monday, but also receptive to the idea that we should limit our criticisms to Russia only.
Organising in schools
Conference debates and motions are important. They set a direction, establish priorities, clarify positions and provide a basis for activists' work. But they need to be acted upon. The big challenges lie ahead.
Three immediate priorities stand out. Firstly, the pay campaign requires urgent organising at local and workplace levels: emboldening school reps and recruiting new reps, putting across the arguments for a substantial pay rise, and developing conversations among staff at school level about the need for collective action. This requires the kind of organising strategy - oriented on workplaces, reps and developing school groups - that many socialists in the union have been trying to make a reality.
Secondly, we must pursue coordination with other trade unions (and local People's Assembly groups) to build a broader public campaign on pay and the cost of living. We need a movement on the streets to shape the political debate, encourage confidence in the workplaces and forge links between unions. This means, above all, building the TUC national demonstration on 18 June, plus regional and local rallies and protests.
Thirdly, an orientation on strengthening workplace organisation can enable victories on issues other than pay. The pressures of accountability-driven workload, for example, can be resisted when school staff get together and organise. The conference heard speeches by members who have been central to strikes and other collective action, which in a number of cases have scored considerable success. This must be further developed as a strategic orientation for the whole union.
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Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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