'NEU is lost on a sea of dogma, with no moral compass'

The NEU union insists that it is relevant to teachers – how long can it continue this self-deception, asks David James

David James

The NEU teaching union is all at sea after Labour's election defeat, claims David James

If this year follows the clichés that have already been attached to a worrying number of CPD presentations that you’ll soon be attending, then 2020 will be the year of “vision”, of “clarity”, of new “insights”.

Even the year's constituent numbers are, well, even: 20 and 20: what balance, what neatness. Ring out the Brexitty shrivelled old 2019. Ring in the Brexit-free, tumescent, smooth new decade.

Or not, because here it is again, the NEU, like the dotty relatives who won’t leave, trotting out old slogans, mangling words, boring on with the same phrases that were tired and old in 1978, but which now have all the relevance of those Citizen Smith repeats on ITV4.

Open-mouthed, we listen to them explain away their own nightmare before Christmas, claiming it was planned, a success, which – in their own la-la-lands – it may well be. That is where they live: not here and now, but in some imagined, timeless utopia from which reality is excluded.

The NEU living in the past

Familiar faces refuse to return to their half-lit care home: Corbyn and Burgon, Bastani and Sarkar. They jabber at anyone who slows down in a studio or on Twitter, tribute acts to themselves, propping each other up with their own delusional self-belief. 

It’s like watching an amateur adaptation of Awakenings, but without the laughs. It’s a momentary flowering of an amorphophallus, of hope, before darkness descends. It is a danse macabre, played out for the benefit of their Nurse Ratcheds, the trade unions. 

One wonders, when they are alone, if they even recognise themselves any more. Self-delusion is a difficult mask to rip off once it has become your only face.

And new depths of self-delusion were plumbed last week by Robin Bevan, an executive member of the NEU. In his article, he attempted to persuade us that the NEU is as essential to teachers as biscuits and ibuprofen. He didn’t succeed. 


This obvious failure to defend the indefensible was hugely helped by his choice of words. Take his opening sentence: “Election results...have a tendency to trigger disproportionate soul-searching from the ‘losers’ and wildly misplaced triumphalism for those revelling in the outcome. Tes’ output was not immune from this infection.” 

Well, where to start? Perhaps with those inverted commas around “losers”, used like sugar-tongs to keep such a subjectively defined concept like losing away from admitting that Labour really didn’t win. I struggle to think how else to describe Labour’s worst election defeat since 1935, but perhaps that’s my own monorail thinking kicking in. 

Then there is the “misplaced triumphalism” of those “revelling in the outcome” (note the careful avoidance of “winners” here).

Astonishingly, for Bevan, Tes’ publication of a leaked document by fellow NEU executive member Alex Kenny was a sign of “infection”. For many others, it was a useful contribution to the debate around the role that unions have in teaching. 

But, for the NEU, any journalism that reports truths that are alternatives to its own is an indication not of freedom of speech, but of diseased judgement, even if that infection originated with the NEU executive. 

Tyranny of false prophets

Bevan plays with words with all the carelessness of a toddler playing with Lego on Christmas Day. He describes Ofsted’s inspections as “tyranny”, which raises the question: how would he describe fascism? Assad? The Stasi? Surely words should roughly align with their meaning. 

And, in a remarkable piece of prophesying, he refers to future education policy as “a matter of fact”, which, by attributing long-term planning and certainty to the Department of Education, shows he clearly has no understanding of how Whitehall works. 

But his central argument concerns the ongoing importance of his union. He rejects claims that it does not connect with at least 50 per cent of its members, conveniently forgetting that it was Alex Kenny, in his “high-quality introspection”, who claimed this, and that the NEU is in danger of “withering on the vine”. 

The evidence of – and the argument for – redundancy sit side by side with Bevan on the executive committee. 

No apologies

Most depressingly of all is, once again, the NEU’s attitude to its 32,000 members who work in independent schools

Not once was there was an apology from Bevan on behalf of the NEU that its uncritical support of the Labour Party left these members exposed, their jobs less secure. Nowhere in the article does he accept that this was an immoral position to take, and that if Labour had “revelled in the outcome” of the election (or “won”), the NEU would have supported policies which would have resulted in many of its members losing their jobs.

Astonishingly, he makes things worse by insulting these teachers, saying that now is the best time for them to join the union, as if anyone would join a gang that had just tried to mug them. 

This basic lack of self-awareness suppurates in every paragraph, whether it is to make false claims about the NEU’s ineffective campaign to protect the Teachers' Pension Scheme in the sector or in his attack on the sector’s “privilege” (this from a headteacher of a highly selective grammar school).

A huge political gamble

All that Bevan concedes is that it is “right to remind” the NEU “to be attentive to the needs of members in the independent sector”. Why does a union need to be reminded of its fundamental duty to support all of its members? 

And, in a sentence that is entirely free of meaning, he attempts to justify the union’s abandonment of a whole sector by writing that “it is no wonder that the NEU’s position, in response to the wilder claims of the #AbolishEton brigades, has to ripple with the subtleties of deeper understanding”. I never knew silence could be so nuanced, or that surrender could be so principled. 

If you tie yourself so closely to a political party, then you gamble your future with them when a vote is called. The NEU put everything, including many of its members’ jobs, on a red Number 10.

They lost, and are now themselves lost on a sea of dogma, unburdened by a moral compass. 

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

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