A candid document has cast doubt over the ability of the UK's largest teaching union to win a national ballot, claiming its work is “invisible” to its members, and in danger of “withering on the vine”.
It has been written by NEU national executive member Alex Kenny, and circulated to activists. Here you can read the document in full:
Exclusive: 'Invisible' NEU risks 'withering on vine'
Exclusive: Teachers to be balloted over pay action
Organising in the workplace • a “turn to schools”
This is an updated version of a document written in the summer of 2019 when a general election looked imminent and the prospect of a Labour government looked possible.
It is not a commentary on the election – there are many words being written on that - but I would argue that the outcome of the election makes the central argument much more important if we are to face up to the challenges posed by a Johnson-led government.
The only comment I will make on the election is that it does appear that the slogan “Get Brexit Done”, which was all to all people cut through more effectively than many people were suggesting – it was an example of nudge theory applied to the maximum effectively.
1.1 We are still going through a period of immense political turmoil, which created a crisis for Parliament and a polarisation across the political spectrum.
1.2 Education is in crisis through lack of funding, an inability to recruit and retain teachers and an overloaded curriculum and assessment system which has created an exam factory culture in our schools and widespread demoralisation amongst teachers.
1.3 Thirty years of reforms since 1988 have proved that wealth and class are still the dominant factors in pupil’s experience of the schooling system.
1.4 The thirty-year ruling class project of education reform has passed its zenith and is breaking up; and we must be ready to push this to the limits. In doing this we need to establish the union as a “voice for the profession” and challenge the ideological penetration of anti-progressive ideas around such things as the knowledge curriculum and behaviour.
1.5 Currently many schools are dominated by a test-focused notion of teaching. MATs are increasingly developing standardised approaches to curriculum and pedagogy based on dogma of the educational right. This is an issue which goes to the heart of teachers’ everyday work.
1.6 Industrial struggle is at historically low levels and that this will impact on what we can achieve.
1.7 The outcome of the general election has serious implications for the Union and we need to develop a strategy to put the Union in the best place to meet the challenges ahead.
1.8 We can expect education and education unions to be unfinished business for Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, who are at the heart of government.
1.9 At the very least we can expect further fragmentation of the system, further erosion of national pay scales, attacks on facility time and perhaps further restrictions on trade unions, perhaps including an attempt to curb strikes in “essential public services”.
1.10 So, we have to make an assessment of where we are post-amalgamation, what recent events inside the Union are telling us and where we go from here.
2. How are we doing?
2.1 There can be no doubt that the NEU has become a major player in the education debate and that the combined forces of the NUT and ATL have transformed education trade unionism.
2.2 The NEU operates at a level that is well above what its constituent parts were capable of; our size, and proportional dominance of the profession, has provided a legitimacy that was difficult in a more divided union context.
2.3 This has made forming alliances easier with corresponding impact on effectiveness and on a number of campaigns and key issues the Union has built meaningful alliances with other unions, parents and other organisations.
2.4 The school funding campaign is an obvious example; has had a huge impact politically, most notably during the 2017 general election, and is a campaign that continues to have a real cutting edge.
2.5 The recent announcement of extra funding by the government, and their election promises is a sign that this is an issue that continues to hurt them and a cynical calculation to take the NEU out of the equation inthe general election.
2.6 A strategic aim of the NEU has been to politically isolate the Tories on education policy – we have done that – to some degree the neoliberal hegemony is broken and we must make sure we don’t allow that position to slip.
2.7 The NEU is also seen as a significant force in the extra-parliamentary protest movement through its involvement in People’s Assembly, Stand Up to Racism, Stop the War, PSC and others.
2.8 In education the NEU is at the centre of the push to break the Tory-led reforms on accountability, assessment and pedagogy and we must make sure that the importance of this work is embedded across the Union.
2.9 The NEU ran a very good campaign during the election with a strong central message, backed up with key statistics, excellent graphics and images and plenty of activists out and about in constituencies.
2.10 The Union’s campaign had three strands – members facing, public facing and engaging with PPCs - and the scale of the campaign is impressive:
• 1 million leaflets ordered via the website
• 350,000 ordered for Super Saturdays
• 850 leaflets sent to parents in key targets
• 1.3 million leaflets sent to members
• an estimated 20% of members distributed leafelts in some way
• On social media School Cuts reached 4 million people
2.11 I doubt whether any other union made this impression on the election and we should view this as groundwork for the battles ahead.
2.12 Unfortunately, it appears that we were not able to have the influence on voters that we did in 2017 – partly because the Tories neutralised some of the impact of cuts – but once Brexit is “done” voters, particularly Labour votes who have “lent” their vote to Johnson, will return to issues that are affecting them so this is not wasted work.
3. BUT, and this is the big BUT…
3.1 However, our big concern must be that, despite some high profile campaigning, clearer communications and some excellent campaign initiatives, much of it is invisible to the mass of members in schools and colleges.
3.2 In short we have not yet made a breakthrough, or won a victory, that can make a difference to the daily experiences of teachers and support staff.
3.3 Members in schools are struggling in the face of crippling workload, stifling of creativity and punitive policies on pay, sickness etc.
3.4 It is here that the Union must be seen to make a difference in order for us to be seen as effective in eyes of members – unless we do this our “big picture” campaigning may come to nothing.
3.5 This necessitates a key strategic drive to take the union down to schools and make it relevant to the daily lives of members to build confidence that they can be the agents of change and win things in their school.
3.6 The election of a Johnson-led government requires it – over the next five years we will need to build strong well organised school groups supported by local officers committed to organising at the base of the union.
4. What have recent events show us?
4.1 In the last twelve months the NEU has conducted two online indicative ballots – the first on pay and more recently on primary testing.
4.2 An enormous amount of work has gone into these and the data generated tells us a lot about the state of the union and should give us pause for thought as we think about a strategy for the future.
4.3 In the first ballot we achieved a turnout of 32% and the second was 39% - but in neither ballot were we close to achieving the legal threshold which requires 40% of the total ballot group voting for the proposed action.
4.4 Eight Districts passed the 50% threshold in the pay ballot and seventeen in the testing ballot – seven Districts managed it in both ballots.
4.5 In both ballots there was a very strong vote for the ice-breaking question, “do you support the campaign on x?” – 97% in both instances.
4.6 Support for action on pay and funding was 82% and on testing it was 59%.
4.7 There is some evidence that the increased turnout in the testing ballot was driven by a No vote which was increasing steadily the longer the ballot went on.
4.8 Any commentary on these ballots must acknowledge that online ballots carry many advantages in terms of communications that we would not have in formal postal ballots.
4.9 Crucially the data from these ballots have demonstrated that, as good as the work and communications from HQ are, the keys to driving up turnout and engagement are Rep density and a strong local base with good communications between Reps and local officers.
4.10 It’s clear is that the figures are an affirmation of the method of building at the base of the Union, recruiting and developing a cadre of local Reps, capable of taking the Union’s message into schools - a member-led
approach, which has paid off in those areas in the highest quartile of voting, and which we need to see embedded in the NEU..
4.11 At this stage in the Union’s life, and given the hurdles imposed on us, it is difficult to see a situation where we can win a national ballot on the terms set by the current government. To do this I think two things are required:
i) a transformation inside the Union, with a systematic turn to workplace organising;
ii) a transformation in the generalised industrial struggle.
4.12 It is true that the ballot exercise in itself does produce more member engagement through school meetings and so on but I would argue that this needs to be happening as a matter of course and not driven by a ballot – in fact if this approach is driven by a ballot it is in some ways happening too late.
4.13 Digital technology: By 2020 so called “millenials” will make up over 50% of the workforce, this is the generation we must engage and there is no doubt that unions must do more to look at how digital technology can be best used to enhance our organising.
4.14 However, our recent ballots have shown the limitations of “clicktivism” and relying on emails and social media to get the message across – they have their uses but their effect is to amplify what is already there and often this is limited to those who are already engaged, done wrongly it can create atomisation rather than involvement.
4.15 The general election only underlines the weaknesses in relying on social media to win arguments and the dangers of believing our own voices
5. How does the NEU relate to the wider movement?
5.1 Forward movements for teachers, or education workers, have always been against a backdrop of increased militancy or generalised industrial struggle – this is why it is important to build support for other workers, local community campaigns and participation in organisations such as the People’s Assembly.
5.2 In this respect it is important to look beyond the Union at what is happening in the wider movement.
5.3 Although it is possible to point to an increase in activism and protest, it is important to recognise that we are in a period of historically low levels of industrial struggle, the greatest indication being comparative figures for strike days lost over recent years.
5.4 The headlines for 2018 make for sobering reading:
• There were 273,000 working days lost due to labour disputes, the sixth-lowest annual total since records began in 1891.
• The education sector accounted for 66% of all working days lost, due mainly to disputes involving employees of universities.
• The number of working days lost in the public sector (26,000) was the lowest since records for public sector strikes began in 1996.
• There were 39,000 workers involved in labour disputes, the second-lowest figure since records for workers involved began in 1893.
• There were 81 stoppages, the second-lowest figure since records for stoppages began in 1930.
Source: Office for National Statisitics
5.5 An interesting comparison is to look at the NUT ballot on SATs in 1993 where there was a turnout of 70% and a Yes vote of 96% in a time when there no access to members through emails and text messaging etc. What was significant is that all teacher unions balloted against a backdrop of significant industrial activity elsewhere (although this was in the decline).
5.6 These material factors are not something we can just o’erleap or ignore.
5.7 However, we must not be defeatist and none of this should be taken as suggesting that these things are static; things can and will change – they can change quickly and perhaps in ways that we are not expecting - and we can put ourselves in a position to beat the imposed balloting thresholds with the right lead in and preparation.
5.9 The CWU and UCU ballot results show that it can be done and we can learn lessons from them, notwithstanding some obvious material differences.
5.10 The question for us is how we get to that position – we cannot will things to be the way we want them to be but we can take steps to create the best possible conditions for us to rise to the challenge when it presents itself.
6. Building at the base
6.1 If being a member-led union is to mean anything, if we want the Union to become more relevant to members in schools and if we want to be in a position to win a national ballot then, across the Union, we have to transform our approach to recruiting, training and retaining Reps and engaging with members in schools. We have to make it part of our DNA.
6.2 Previous conferences have set out some positive ideas for building the Union in the workplace, which need to be brought front and centre of what the Union is doing and coupled with a concerted effort across Districts and Branches, Regions and HQ to implementing an agreed strategy for workplace organisation.
6.3 In short I think the Union needs to execute a systematic “turn to schools” to enable us to build the union at the base and develop confidence amongst members that they can be the agents of change that can benefit them.
6.4 This requires a conscious effort at every level of the NEU to build the Union in workplaces – recruiting members and Reps, organising school meetings and reviewing all our practices.
6.5 It means rethinking some of the work we do as local officers, including how we distribute facilities time and therefore the leadership of local branches.
6.6 Everything we do, every activity we organise, must address these questions, “Does this help us build the Union? Does this help us get workplace Reps?”
6.7 This means:
• striving to increase the number of trained Reps,
• a deliberate strategy to recruit Reps, or teams of Reps, in “hostile environments”
• building local and regional Reps networks, enabling them to communicate with and support each other
• establshing a bargaining agenda for schools and colleges – “every issue a union issue”, including curriculum and assessment issues – perhaps lifting the term, “nothing about us without us” – see EIS example in Appendix.
• consciously looking to intervene in schools to encourage some victories at school or MAT level
• making sure we publicise and highlight our successes, not just those that are won by strike action
• deepening our understanding of the principles of social justice trade unionism and the need to build alliances with local communities
6.8 There are currently 1337 MATs operating across England and the vast majority (1024) are operating within a single Local Authority so organising members in these should be possible.
6.9 In previous years some of our best work has been done on local campaigns around such issues as, sickness policies, maternity leave, observations part-time working, something we can perhaps turn back to.
6.10 This will require some hard graft and some rethinking of how we organise in local Districts but, unless we are able to do this, the Union is at risk of withering on the vine over the next few years.
6.11 Many of the problems we face are fundamentally due to the ideological triumph of Thatcherism and its continuation in Labour under Blair - that has to be challenged ideologically.
6.12 The entry point for struggle however is often the bread and butter issue that is the source of my grievance (eg workload) – but we must seek to develop the activists who can help people ‘make sense’ of their injustice and see the need for an alternative.
6.13 The work we have done at school level on pay implementation and are beginning to do on Ofsted should be seen as the beginning of this approach but it needs to be taken up on a much wider scale.
6.14 To achieve a real breakthrough in this requires strategic “goal alignment” and for us to get to a position where the lay side and full-time staff work together to reach the scalability that will be required.
6.15 We do need to recognise that the workforce is still split between unions in many areas and factor this into our thinking – the election of a new GS for the NASUWT may open the door to greater collaboration on some campaigns.
7.1 In short we have arrived at a critical junction and things cannot stay the same, we cannot carry on down the same path.
7.2 This document sets out the why and from here we need to look in detail at the how.
7.3 The words are simple enough, it’s the deeds behind them that matter.