'Professionalised' union officers 'severely restrict' teacher power

Social partnership with Government sidelines members' influence on decision making, argues new study

Irena Barker

The 'social partnership' between the Government and teaching unions that makes decisions about teachers' working lives has reduced accountability and cut ordinary members out of key debates, a new book suggests.

It claims the secrecy surrounding the discussions between ministers and union officials "severely restricts" the unions' ability to communicate with members and gives teachers less chance to contribute to discussions.

The book, Industrial Relations in Education: Transforming the School Workforce, based on 100 interviews with union officials and employers, claims that unions now tend to go to members with the task of "selling" fully formed policies to teachers, rather than engaging them in talks about them.

It also raises concerns about how an imminent collapse in public spending could present "significant problems" for unions trying to represent their members' needs and remain on good terms with government policymakers.

The book's publication comes amid increasing speculation over whether the social partnership has any meaningful future working with a potential Conservative administration.

One of the study's co-authors, Professor Howard Stevenson, from the Centre for Educational Research and Development at the University of Lincoln, said: "The decision-making process has been professionalised by a relatively small number of union officials.

"Although there's still the opportunity for democracy at annual conferences, there is now less discussion and debate among the membership."

But Professor Stevenson pointed out that teaching union the NUT, which has pointedly refused to sign up to the social partnership, had "failed to capitalize" on teachers' dissatisfaction with the outcomes of the social partnership.

"There has been little shift in the membership numbers of the unions," he said.

Members of the social partnership - the signatories of the 2003 Workforce Agreement - insist that the arrangements give them unprecedented access to the Government and genuine influence in decision making.

The book analyses the impact of the Workforce Agreement on teachers and schools. Interviews with staff reveal that the reforms, designed to raise standards and reduce teachers' workloads, had not necessarily led to a reduction in hours worked.

Case studies of 12 schools over three local authorities suggest that the agreement has actually reinforced the focus on performance and tests, since roles involving pastoral care or administration were taken outside of the teachers' remit.

"They may paradoxically be experiencing an intensification in work effort," said Professor Stevenson, pointing to an increase in unpopular policies such as performance management and classroom observation.

One key stage 1 primary teacher explained how the "24 tasks" that teachers are no longer expected to do, such as photocopying and displays, had been quickly replaced.

They said: "I know we're not supposed to be doing all those administrative tasks but the amount of other things that we're requested to do is phenomenal ... the amount of assessment, the amount of planning.

"You have a literacy plan, a numeracy plan, half-termly plans for art, history, geography, PE, RE, music ... You've just got plans and plans and plans."

However, Chris Keates, general secretary of teaching union the NASUWT, stood up for the social partnership format.

"The impact of the partnership has enabled members and their unions to have a voice and an influence right at the heart of national policy making, and to shape development of legislation," she said.

"It has intensified, not diminished, the impact of trade unionism and there is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate this."




Association of Teachers and Lecturers

Association of School and College Leaders


Department for Children, Schools and Families


NUT (has never signed up to the Workforce Agreement)

NAHT (opted out indefinitely earlier this year after a dispute over leadership pay).

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Irena Barker

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist.

Latest stories