Workload, cuts, Sats and five other key battlegrounds in which classroom unions must prove their mettle

19th April 2017 at 12:47
Some 97 per cent of the profession is in a union – and they can be a force for good. But to win over young teachers, they’ve got to fight – and win – on multiple fronts, says one celebrated head

We are in the middle of the union conference season. And now a general election.  

What better time to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of our education system? Certainly, what better time to look at the issues we need our unions to fight for?

It may come as a surprise that 97 per cent of teachers are union-members. This is certainly to be applauded, but these figures are not evident at union meetings up and down the country.

Appealing to the broadest audience

The sad fact of life is that at the grassroots level the unions are dying, with very little participation from young teachers at the very time when we need them to be as strong as they have ever been.

There are, I believe, eight key areas the unions need to address with the government as a matter of urgency. All of them were covered to a lesser or greater degree by the recent NUT, NASUWT and ATL conferences, but there must be no let-up.

If the unions can win significant victories in some, or even all, of these areas then we might go some way to restoring teacher faith in their unions. But it is also imperative that, as members, we play our part by joining campaigns talking to all of those who will listen.


  1. Workload: We all know the present system is unsustainable at the moment. Government plans to address this have been next to useless.
  2. Funding cuts: Our schools are suffering major cuts and this is only going to get worse. I for one am fed up with the government telling me more money has been spent on education than ever before.
  3. Sats: The whole assessment system needs the revamp promised. But will the changes put the pupils happiness and wellbeing of the resting regime? It is a national disgrace what we do with children at such a young age in the quest for useless data.
  4. Pay: Teachers for too long have been treated as a lower class of the professionals and paid as such. Unions need to help the government change tha attitude hat the skills of teachers and therefore pay accordingly.
  5. Ofsted: We need an accountability system, yes, but one that works with the school rather than cut it into a hundred pieces and ask others to rebuild it.
  6. Curriculum: Surely we all recognise that our children deserve more than a curriculum aimed at content rather than skills.
  7. Retention and recruitment: Teaching is not perceived as an attractive job and unions need to work with the government to change this perspective.
  8. Divisive policies: Lastly we need the unions to ensure that the policies we are expected to follow as teachers are not as divisive than at present. Free schools that don't work and grammar schools that nobody wants are distractions to the need to make every school in every community as good as it can be.

Unions have an important role as a spokesperson for the profession, their members. This has never been more relevant than it is today. But as union members we have a role to play, too. We need to ensure we communicate to parents, pupils and governors that if we carry on the way we have been going, we will soon have no education system.

Never has there been a better time to support local union meetings. Education has become a political football, so it is time we all joined in. Pass the ball, please.

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsteds were 'outstanding' across all categories

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