Super or not? Teachers wake up to a NEU dawn

Following the ATL/NUT mega-merger, Tes finds out what it means for the unions’ members
31st March 2017, 12:00am
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Super or not? Teachers wake up to a NEU dawn

The birth of a new teaching “superunion” was announced last week.

In the august setting of the British Library, Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, general secretaries of the ATL and NUT teaching unions respectively, revealed that their members had voted to come together to form a new entity: the National Education Union (NEU).

Will it re-empower education trade unions and influence government policy? Or will the new union be shouting from the sidelines? Tes answers the crucial questions.

How big will the NEU be?

The NEU will certainly be an impressive size. According to the latest official figures, the NUT had 333,704 paying members in 2015, while the ATL had 123,054.

That should bring together more than 450,000 members at the NEU - making it the biggest education union in Europe and the fourth largest in the TUC.

The superunion will be comfortably larger than the NASUWT teaching union, which had 284,990 paying members in 2015 and has for years competed with the NUT for the title of biggest education union.

Will it be more effective at influencing government policy?

Its leaders certainly think so. Bousted - who will be joint secretary of the NEU with Courtney - says that the move will be a “game changer”.

In a joint interview with the two leaders in Tes last month, Courtney said that the NEU’s larger size would translate into increased power. The union will be “speaking for a majority of all teachers” and “politicians will have to listen”, he said.

But others disagree. Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, which has been fiercely protective of the union’s independent identity, has previously said that it was “better” for ministers to receive six letters from unions on issues such as pay, than to be sent one letter with six signatures.

However, Professor Richard Hyman, an industrial-relations expert at the London School of Economics, says that he does not “buy” Keates’ argument, instead believing that trade union fragmentation usually favours “the other side”.

“If the [fragmented] French unions write to the government, it looks bad if they don’t all sign,” he says.

“If the one confederation in Germany writes to the government, I suspect it has a rather more powerful voice.”

Is dialogue with government more or less likely?

Bousted and Courtney have said that they want to work with the Department for Education. They cite Justine Greening’s defence of qualified teacher status as evidence that the education secretary will be more willing to listen to their concerns than her predecessors. However, the union’s list of grievances - which includes the academies system, Ofsted, workload and school funding, to mention a few - suggests that amity between the DfE and NEU is unlikely to suddenly break out.

Prime minister Theresa May’s determination to reintroduce grammar schools has already put the government and the NEU on a collision course. The leaders of the new union have pledged to fight the expansion of academic selection.

Courtney says that the NEU will reach out to “unusual allies”, such as grammarsceptic Conservative politicians, to try to stop the government in its tracks.

What does the change mean for industrial action?

The ATL is seen as less willing to strike than the NUT, although Bousted notes that the union took two days of national action in 2013 over pensions and recently supported striking teaching-assistant members in Durham.

However, when it comes to the likelihood of the NEU engaging in industrial action, recent legal changes will be more decisive than the composition of the new union.

The 2016 Trade Union Act means that for certain public services, including education, 50 per cent of all members must return their ballot papers and 40 per cent of members must vote “yes” before national industrial action can take place.

“You won’t get national industrial action unless there’s a major, major issue that teachers or members feel so strongly about,” Bousted says.

This isn’t to say industrial action won’t take place, but it is likely to take a different form. “It will probably be more locally based around MATs, or around particular schools and around particular issues,” she adds.

What challenges will the NEU have to grapple with?

Hyman says that union mergers can “involve difficulties”, particularly when organisations with “very different union cultures, very different traditions of decision-making” are brought together.

When Unison was formed in 1993 from three public sector trade unions, he says it took the organisation “about a decade for the thing to work and for the effectiveness to outweigh some of the dysfunction”.

He says that the NEU’s chances of long-term success would be improved if the union could “chalk up” some early victories.

“If they can get some sort of favourable treatment in terms of what is seen as key issues, then that will help,” he says. “If the government maintains the screws…and they can’t respond, it will be harder. That would, I think, encourage more internal conflict.”

At least the NEU’s joint general secretaries are aware of the risks. “We aren’t going to be inward-looking in these first few years,” says Courtney. “We’ve read the literature around union mergers and we know that can happen.”

Could members disaffected with the merger leave?

There was a noticeable difference between the ATL and NUT ballot results. While 97.2 per cent of NUT members voted for the merger and only 2.8 per cent against, for the ATL, the figure was 72.8 per cent for and 26.8 per cent against.

Bousted says that support was lower in her union because, unlike the NUT, the ATL had not had a “long policy of professional unity”. She also said it was always a “bigger ask” for the smaller union in a merger to gain support from its members.

With more than 20,000 independent sector members, the ATL does exhibit cultural differences to the NUT and it is clear that some of these teachers are not happy with the formation of the new union.

Mike Rye, a history teacher at the independent Italia Conti Academy in London, who voted against the merger, says that he joined the ATL because it was “committed to not striking”. Rye adds that members had been “bombarded with propaganda to vote ‘yes’” by the ATL’s leadership, and claims that the low turnout of only 25 per cent suggests “a silent majority” in the union opposed the merger. He says that he will “almost certainly go elsewhere” following the merger and will probably move to Voice.

However, other independent school members unhappy with the move are taking a “wait and see” approach. Tim Day, a boarding housemaster at an independent school (see box, above), says that while he “might look at NASUWT”, he will “stick it out for now and see what happens”.

What will the NEU’s finances be like following the merger?

Bousted says that the ATL and NUT are “both extremely financially stable”, and that the amalgamation was not pursued for financial reasons. She says that the ATL had made operating surpluses for the past five years, including a half-a-million-pound surplus this year.

She says that the new organisation will be able to unleash efficiencies by merging its financial, IT and HR resources. By no longer having to compete with each other on recruitment, the NEU will also be able to spend more on services for members and campaigning, Bousted adds.

The ATL and NUT both own valuable real estate in central London, but Bousted says that there is currently no plan to move to a single location.

What differences will teachers see in their schools?

The NEU will be launched in a phased approach, so members are unlikely to see an immediate change on the ground. A transitional phase will start in September, with separate ATL and NUT sections existing until national rules for the new organisation come into effect on 1 January 2019.

However, the unions have promised members that, by combining their resources, they will be able to offer better services, including higher-quality continual professional development. They have also said that the NEU will increase the chance of teachers having a local representative in their school.


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