As NUT delegates met at the union's final annual conference, immense feelings of unity and defiance were tangible, writes Tony Dowling
After the recent successful vote by NUT & ATL unions to merge, there was an overriding air of unity among delegates as they gathered in Cardiff at the start of what will be the final annual conference of the National Union of Teachers.
And this unity was carried through into overwhelming votes in support of regional strike action over funding cuts; for a national demonstration in defence of a properly funded education system, and to build a coalition of partners to challenge and campaign for comprehensive education and against Education Secretary Justine Greening's plan for a "back door" expansion of grammar schools.
Conference opened with inspiring words from 16 year-old British Palestinian Leanne Mohamad, winner of a national speech competition, and from 2016 Global Teacher prize winner Hanan Al Hroub from Palestine
"Every child has the right to survive and thrive," said Leanne, "and supporting Palestine and the rights of Palestinians does not make you anti Semitic."
In contrast to the way UK teachers are being treated by the government, Hanan Al Hroub's message was that "all teachers in the world deserve respect."
Both speeches received deserved standing ovations, as did the words of support delivered by shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
He brought a message of greetings from Jeremy Corbyn saying, "our priorities are to oppose cuts to funding. We're with you as a union." McDonnell offered solidarity to the union's campaigns for decent pay and pledged to scrap the Tories' pay cap, further saying:
"We need to move to a fairer more equal society, where prosperity is shared by all. It's what I call socialism. This union and the new NEU union will be key drivers of that new society where education will be fully funded and applied democratically."
The votes for regional strike action over funding cuts and for a national demonstration in defence of a properly funded education system were backed by a call to build a coalition of partners to work with the union, including politicians of all parties, educationalists, researchers, parents, public figures and other unions.
Probably the most important of these partners will be parents. So it was particularly pleasing that conference was addressed by Jo Yurky, the co-founder of parents’ campaign Fair Funding for All Schools.
She described the government’s 'fair funding formula' as an insult to our intelligence since “they haven’t provided any new funds." And told of children "taught with coats and hats on" because schools were not turning heating on to cut costs.
"This government is making a wilful choice not to invest in our schools, children and education. It's time for parents to organise themselves. No-one voted for these cuts. We only want what all parents want - investment in our schools. Parents have nothing to fear from speaking out, but everything to lose if we don't!"
These inspiring words were followed by what was perhaps the most inspiring speech of all - that of Megan Charlton.
Megan is secretary of the Durham Teaching Assistants' activists committee and told how 'the Lions of Durham', as they have become known, built their campaign. With little confidence and no experience at the start, she told how the strike days and pickets enabled them to find collective strength.
They developed a motto that 'nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something' and found ways for everyone to do something, so that they developed previously unrecognised determination and courage due to the demos and vigils they organised and the support they gained.
After 4 days of strike action the council agreed to a suspension of the new contract and to negotiate.
Megan recalled a quote from a meeting early in the campaign which has stayed with her: struggle builds confidence.
"It does," she said, "we are more determined than ever. And we should all get up and fight together!"
After today's votes for action and to "build a coalition of partners" Megan's words should be the inspiration for us to take on and defeat the Tories' attacks on our education system!
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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