The formation of the National Education Union (NEU) is an extremely significant development. It establishes a union of nearly half a million educators at a time when the challenges facing teachers and other education professionals have seldom been greater.
Many of these problems stem from the ideological experiment that is English education policy, and which have extended over a period of nearly three decades.
During this time successive governments have consistently imposed curriculum and assessment changes on the school system without any meaningful engagement with the teaching profession. Teachers have been forced to make the unworkable work as they have dealt with the relentless wave of ill-thought-through and incoherent reforms.
At the same time, a combination of Ofsted and school-against-school competition has driven teachers’ workloads to unsustainable levels.
Children in the English school system are tested to the point where mental health issues are increasing exponentially; teachers work 19 per cent longer hours than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average; and one recent report highlighted that English state education is increasingly taking on the features of a privatised system.
By all these measures, the English system is an outlier – the victim of an approach to policy-making that has privileged narrow ideological goals over building consensus and working with those who work in the system.
Teachers have paid a heavy price for this policy experimentation and for many the situation became untenable long ago – labour markets don’t lie and the current crisis in teacher supply tells its own story.
These issues are the result of an approach to education policy-making that has sought to work against teachers rather than with them.
Both Conservative and Labour governments, at different times, have portrayed teachers as resistant to change, while the teacher unions have been singled out for particular criticism.
Conservative governments have been most antagonistic, consistently dismantling bodies in which teachers had collective and independent representation. Unfortunately, this task has been made easier by divisions within the teaching profession itself, most obviously in the form a divided teacher union movement.
Such differences have been easy for governments and employers to exploit. They are not the only reason why English education has become the world’s laboratory for neoliberal experimentation in schooling, but few can deny they are an important part of the explanation.
A strategy of divide and rule
Such divisions are a luxury those who work in schools can no longer afford. Governments rely on setting school against school, teacher against teacher, and teachers against teaching assistants, in order to maintain a strategy of divide and rule.
System fragmentation is now chronic and those who work in schools cannot afford to compound those divisions by being divided among themselves.
The formation of the National Education Union is a recognition that fragmentation has caused chaos in almost every aspect of education and that the challenge is to begin to put the system back together.
This requires more than teachers to unite; also an organisation that reflects the reality, and diversity, of the modern school workforce – one which is now unrecognisable from that 30 years ago. Hence the coming together of teachers and teaching assistants in the NEU.
Forming and developing such an organisation will not be easy – at times it will be difficult. The constituent unions, the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, have different structures and cultures reflecting different histories and traditions. The future of the new organisation, therefore, is inevitably uncertain but the challenges identified are far from insurmountable.
What is clear is that a union representing nearly half a million educators can give teachers and education professionals a formidable voice in all aspects of education policy debate.
Indeed, the aim must be to shape the discourse rather than simply respond to it. Equally importantly, however, it can help to build greater unity "on the ground" – in local authorities, multi-academy trusts and, in particular, in individual schools.
Increasingly, these are the sites where key decisions are made, and education professionals need a voice in their own workplace at least as much as they need to be able to influence government.
Moreover, it is in the workplace where NEU members will see and connect with their fellow members and where collective confidence will be developed. Whether or not the new union proves successful will ultimately depend on the extent to which it can inspire and mobilise its considerable membership to act collectively and make the voice of education professionals heard.
A new, bigger union creates new possibilities but only if members engage, participate and work together will it realise its potential.
Howard Stevenson is professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Nottingham. He tweets at @hstevenson10
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