Editorial - It's a devilishly tricky job playing militant when the radicals are occupying Whitehall

24th September 2010 at 01:00

It is one of the ironies of British education that a Government eager to introduce schools to the benefits of the market is opposed by trade unions that embraced them long ago. Most parents have to rely on a sole supplier - the state - to provide children with an education. Thanks to a competitive market in unions, teachers have a choice. There is the ATL, the "thinking teachers' union", the NUT, "the largest teachers' union", and NASUWT, which apparently means "shan't" in Cherokee.

For the past few years they have expended as much energy fraternally opposing each other as they have the Government. Now the world has righted itself and they face an administration that has as little love for them as they do for it. The academies and free school programme appals them all but the prospect of budget cuts, a pay freeze, the demise of national bargaining and an overhaul of pensions has united them in fury (pages 34-35).

Will the unions succeed in thwarting the Government? It would be foolish to underestimate them. They cannot be played off against each other as they were under the last administration, and they can rely on pretty solid support from Labour, whomever it crowns leader tomorrow. Their organisation on the ground is formidable and their telegenic leadership more articulate, reasonable and convincing than many of the brothers, some of whom were clearly planted by the CIA to frighten the public.

And they have some pretty good lines. Free schools seem an exotic and indulgent gamble for austere times, concern over the Coalition's commitment to fairness extends well beyond the unions, and the details of funding, admissions and much else remain hazy. Crucially, if the Government mishandles its public sector pension review, the unions will have little difficulty mobilising even the most equable members of the profession.

National school strife, however, is not a certainty even if the Government presses ahead with its plans. Union opposition to academies has been largely ineffective. As education becomes increasingly atomised, co-ordinated protest becomes harder. Teacher militancy, a minority pursuit in the toughest of times, has been soothed by several years of relatively generous pay deals, while the sympathy of the public for large-scale walkouts will be limited.

The odds must be that if the unions choose to ride ideological hobby horses and use the language of the agitator rather than the sober professional defending schools from the Whitehall radicals, they will lose. If, on the other hand, the Government alienates the public with cack-handed cuts, ill-judged pension reform and sheer zealotry, it could be thwarted. The most conservative radicals will surely win. But it's not at all clear who they are. gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

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