From The Editor - Unions, a prolonged sulk does not count as action

9th November 2012 at 00:00

History is littered with doomed campaigns: the Fourth Crusade, Gallipoli, New Coke, John Major's "back to basics". One of the most forlorn was concocted by the Communists. In an effort to get Poles to eat more freshwater fish in the 1970s, the authorities came up with: "Eat trout, cod tastes shit".

Our two biggest classroom unions are engaged in an equally daft campaign at the moment. They have instructed their members to refuse to carry out certain duties in schools because they are unhappy with the state of pensions, pay, workload, lesson observations, the imminent end of Downton Abbey, the nights drawing in... nobody is exactly sure what. Resolution would be an option, say headteachers, if only they had an inkling of what the unions wanted (pages 12-13).

The number one rule of successful campaigns is to have a clear goal. Sadly, not only is this action short of a strike, it is also action short of an objective. "What do we want? We'll get back to you on that" really lacks impact on a placard.

Successful campaigners must also be sure of their support. But fewer than one in five NUT members voted for action. True, the NASUWT achieved double that, but the ballot was held before the pensions settlement. It has been officially uncooperative for almost a year. It's not really a work to rule, more of a prolonged sulk. You didn't notice? That could be because most teachers have been sensible enough to ignore their union and carry on as normal.

Unfortunately, a handful of schools have been badly affected. The unions claim that this sends a powerful message to government. "Back off, Michael, or the photocopier gathers dust." How they must be quaking in Whitehall. Refusing to submit lesson plans, boycotting appraisals, ignoring meetings, snubbing timetable changes - Lord preserve us, is this a profession with legitimate grievances or a bunch of malcontents in a strop?

There is no denying that teachers are extremely hacked off. But is this any way to amplify those concerns? The third rule of effective campaigning is to build as broad a coalition as possible. Declaring war on headteachers who are not responsible for government policies and forcing other colleagues to pick up the slack isn't clever; it's self-defeating.

For a campaign to be truly successful, it needs to meet one final condition: an exit strategy. How many goals can be realistically achieved? When is a good time to quit? Of course, this is difficult if objectives were never defined in the first place. But does anyone seriously expect a better pensions deal than the one negotiated? Does anyone seriously think that workload is going to be addressed nationally when it's generally a local issue? Does anyone seriously think that ministers will be so shocked at the union go-slow they'll bin their reforms?

This campaign has patchy support, no clearly defined objectives, no winnable strategy and no obvious end game. It has bypassed most staffrooms but left a few bitterly divided. If the government were able to pick its adversaries, it would be hard pressed to come up with more hapless opponents. For sheer strategic stupidity, only the Polish Communists come close. This foolish campaign should end, and it should end now.

gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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