'The NEU has become irrelevant to most teachers’ lives'

The teachers' union has forgotten what it stands for and who it represents, says David James

David James

Shoes, with labels on reading "left" and "right"

There were many losers in the recent general election, ranging from Jeremy Corbyn to Lord Buckethead (which, to be honest, isn’t much of a range at all). 

Fallout continues to rain down on us, like an outtake from Chernobyl: a black dusting of recriminations and accusations that characterises the now-traditional period of Labour “reflection”. 

Momentum – in the gnomic figure of Jon Lansman – was immolated live on television, to the silent applause of millions at home.

And Novara Media went from dominating the Left’s political agenda, while gulping down vast amounts of media airtime, to resembling not so much Rosa Luxemburg, but Radio Luxembourg, with equal relevance to modern-day life. Buffeted by forces it couldn’t control or understand, it floundered, its shrill and sanctimonious voices slowly sinking into an indifferent sea. 

As they drown and wave for attention, let us return their gestures with those of our own. Ash to ash


After any battle, fatalities take some time to be accounted for. But the teaching unions, and in particular, the NEU, are currently missing in action. Reports from the frontline are not looking good. 

In a “frank document” (yes, it was that bad), Alex Kenny, a senior member of the NEU national executive, has warned that the union risks “withering on the vine”: an appropriately tired metaphor for an ideologically exhausted organisation. 

Joining those voices on the Left who are calling for “rethinking”, Kenny admits that the NEU has not made the breakthrough with members it would have hoped for. Which is rather like Jo Swinson saying that her campaign hadn’t been quite as successful as she would have liked.

No doubt the NEU leadership will also soon be calling for a period of “reflection”. Perhaps they – and Momentum and Labour – could continue to peer into their sunken eyes, hoping for an epiphany and, Michael Jackson-stylee, think about adopting the lyrics of Man in the Mirror as a workable first manifesto that would at least be an advance on those that have so clearly been rejected. 

And it’s got a beat, so that’s a bonus. Conferences in the future could Unite and sing together: “If you want to make the world a better place/Take a look at yourself, and make a change.” The choreography is already sorted; the (single) gloves can be worn aloft, middle finger raised, twinkling in the darkness as comrades wave their jazz hands at a departing future. 

Failed extremist experiment

The failed extremist experiment that was Corbyn’s Labour Party is replicated in the outdated political positions adopted by the NEU. It has become irrelevant to most teachers’ lives: a pressure group trying to bend society to its own archaic, purblind vision, irrespective of how many times it is rejected. 

So we have pointless NEU pronouncements on climate change and overseas aid, but nothing on the concerns of its 32,000 members who work in independent schools and were openly threatened by Labour’s policies. Instead of challenging Corbyn and @abolisheton, and standing by their members, they salivated over him at their conference. 

The NEU leadership are the enablers who stand around on the edges of the playground, silently fiddling with their phones, while the bullies close in on their victims. Where were their voices condemning Labour’s antisemitism? Muted at best. They should be ashamed of looking away, of staying quiet.

The NEU has been impotent in protecting those members who are fearful of the changes to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. Instead, they talk, and talk: an echo chamber that makes the People’s Front of Judea look like a rapid-response unit. 

Their website, suddenly outdated, still reports how, when it comes to Labour’s vicious attacks on the sector, “discussions are on-going...policy proposals have a long way to go...significant practicalities and decisions on priorities”. Blah, blah, blah, ad infinitum, tedium and inertia, until the crack of doom.

Owning its crisis

It used to be so different. Once upon a time, for those of us working in independent schools, there was a moderate trade union called the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). It represented our interests, was small enough to provide a personal service to its members, and was clearly on our side. 

Then, in 2015, it merged with the NUT. If the government had a Prevent strategy for organisations that are at risk of being radicalised, then it would surely have intervened at this point, removed the ATL to a safe space, taken its mobile off it, and blocked Kevin from calling.

For moderate Labour read ATL; for Momentum read NUT; for irrelevance read NEU.

Like the leadership of the Labour Party, the NEU’s national executive has to own its current crisis (and we know where that should end). If, as the document reports, it has become so removed from all their members that they cannot guarantee a national ballot, that it has become “invisible” to those who, each month, pay out their membership fees, then what purpose does it serve? 

A moral core

Unions have to have a moral core, a set of values, a commitment to all those who need them. They can’t pick and choose who they protect, just as teachers can’t have favourites. They must campaign for all their members. 

The NEU has, since its loveless conception, and particularly during the latest general election campaign, abandoned such basic principles. It exists in an amoral vacuum. 

Like the Labour Party they were so happy to take selfies with, the union's leaders have forgotten who they are, and who they stand for.

Why, then, does the NEU exist? While they stare into the mirror contemplating that question, perhaps it is time for a new organisation to take their place. 

David James is deputy head (academic) of an independent school in the South of England. He tweets @drdavidajames

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