Can staff and heads unite?

Could one union really represent fairly the interests of both teachers and heads? In the second debate on professional associations, Martin Lawes and Hilary Bills thrash it out

Dear Martin, I was a classroom teacher for 26 years and during that time I fought for equality of opportunity for children and teachers alike. Does the fact that I have now opted to spend less time teaching and more time enabling children to learn and teachers to work in a fair and equal environment mean that I have a conflict of interests, and so I can't be a member of the same union as classroom teachers? I think not.

I would strongly argue that classroom teachers and headteachers must be in the same union so that they can share the same goals. Two separate unions would immediately divide the profession and the situation would be no different to the one we have now.

A divided profession is one of the reasons why consecutive governments have been able to treat teachers in such a cavalier fashion to the detriment of teachers' conditions of service.

Yours sincerely, Hilary

Dear Hilary, I too have taught for many years and under a number of different heads. I have no doubt that, like you, they were all in their own way trying to do their best for the children in their school.

However, in their enthusiasm some have become blinkered in pursuing their goals to the detriment of the working conditions of their staff.

I made a conscious decision to join the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. As it does not accept heads it is the only union that gives me the reassurance that, should the head take things too far, then I have a union totally in tune with me as a "chalk face" worker.

My worry and belief is that one union would quickly be taken over by headteachers who may have a different view of the world of education to mine as a classroom teacher. My voice would quickly be submerged.

Yours sincerely Martin

Dear Martin, Surely, having two separate unions you are "expecting trouble" and setting the two groups of teachers against each other. What would happen to acting heads and deputies; would they have to change unions for the want of a term or two?

Speaking as a caseworker for the National Union of Teachers, which accepts qualified teachers regardless of their position in a school, I have never found it difficult to deal with a conflict between an NUT head and NUT classroom teachers. The union ensures that both groups have representation and the issue is dealt with just as it would be if the head or classroom teachers were other union members.

You have obviously never been to an NUT annual conference. I can assure you the voice of the classroom teacher can be heard very loud and clear. We agree on far more than we disagree and in fact it was me, a head, who seconded the joint ATLNASUWTNUT motion on teacher workload which was passed unanimously.

I am convinced we are much better working together than apart.

Yours sincerely Hilary

Dear Hilary, Acting heads and deputies I have no problem with, and since you mention it many heads will, I believe, have a problem next term - with U2 (second point on the upper pay spine) for example.

I have never aspired to be a head as I always believed that would take me out of the classroom. Their changing role from teacher to manager over the space of my teaching career bears me out. Surely their needs and aspirations need a union in tune with their specific problems, as I want one in tune with mine as a teacher?

Look what is happening in education. Successive governments seem determine to concentrate control in the Department for Education and Skills and with heads. Whether they like it or not, heads will become more like "bosses", and teachers and other education professionals like "workers". If one union is such a good idea why haven't the civil service or the police, for example, taken it on?

Don't you get a little bit suspicious that the Government and DFES are pushing one union?

Yours sincerely Martin

Dear Martin, You have a very dated view of the workplace. Modern industry knows a successful business is one where all workers have shared goals; workers work as a team and the boss is a team leader. Schools are no different.

During the PricewaterhouseCoopers study into teacher workload, a fieldworker told me they found workload was greater in schools where the head was a member of a headteacher-only association, rather than one which had all teachers in its membership. Clearly from this evidence it is better for all teachers to be in one union.

The pressure for one union comes not from the Government but the TUC. It would make sense for the TUC-affiliated unions to start the ball rolling with a merger of ATL, NASUWT and NUT.

A divided profession enables the Government to divide and rule.

Yours sincerely Hilary

Dear Hilary, In an ideal world there would be no need for unions at all! The fact is though that heads have a different job to a teacher, the advice and support they need is different to that of a teacher and, speaking as a local case worker, for some, they seem to have different goals to a teacher.

ATL rightly stands apart in its policy of not allowing heads into membership. Our policy-making conferences can debate issues purely from the classroom perspective. Our committees at national HQ and more importantly at branch level do the same, allowing much greater freedom of speech and focused debate on the classroom. There are times in our LEA committees when I wonder if colleagues in the NASUWT and NUT are speaking for all their members or just a section.

Unity may be strength when we find common ground to fight on, however, there is a huge gulf between "unity" through co-operation, which is what happens now, and merger. Teachers are different to heads, and not all teachers think the same. Unity for all is a non-starter.

Yours sincerely, Martin

Next week:Teaching assistant Pat Cooper and Mick Carney of the NASUWT Hilary Bills - a member of the NUT-is head of Holyhead primary, Wednesbury. Martin Lawes, an ATL member, teaches at Paget high school, Burton on Trent. Both are expressing personal views

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