Labour promises to restore partnership with teaching unions

2nd September 2011 at 01:00

Education unions will be given a central role in shaping government policy on teachers' working conditions if Labour returns to power, The TES has learned.

The so-called social partnership, which brought union leaders and government officials together on a weekly basis, was scrapped by the Coalition after it took power last year.

But shadow education secretary Andy Burnham said he would restore the partnership with unions and put it back "at the heart" of relations between government and teachers.

"It is important for teaching trade unions, and the college union, as well as heads and leadership professionals, to engage in the process of dialogue," Mr Burnham said.

The social partnership - which did not include the NUT - was formed in 2003 by the previous Labour government and encouraged unions to reach agreement on policies relating to workload for teachers.

It was instrumental in delivering the workforce agreement, which radically redrew the duties expected of teachers and led to the rapid expansion in numbers of teaching assistants.

The current Government scrapped the partnership within weeks of taking office last May, replacing it with a less formal arrangement that calls together the unions and department officials only six times a year.

Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of teaching union the ATL, said the previous relationship between Labour and teachers had not been ideal, but he still supported Mr Burnham's proposal.

"To have a relationship where the Government, the unions and, hopefully, the employers talk together and attempt, where possible, to come to agreements about workforce issues, has to be better than stand-off and mutual incomprehension," he said.

Mr Johnson added that the previous incarnation of the partnership "could be extremely time-consuming for all partners and quite frustrating", but said a new version would bring benefits for all concerned.

"The unions would have a much higher degree of influence, but they are a massive reservoir of knowledge and experience which we could bring to bear on policy proposals," he said.

The proposal from Labour comes as teaching unions and the Government are engaged in their worst industrial dispute for a generation.

Members of the ATL and the NUT staged co-ordinated strike action in June over changes to their pensions, resulting in more than 12,000 schools being closed or partly closed. Further strike action is expected this term.

Professor Howard Stevenson, an expert in education industrial relations at Lincoln University, said the social partnership was regarded by many within the union movement as its "heyday", but said it was not without controversy. "From the outside, it sometimes looked like the unions were too close to the government," he said.

Chris Keates, general secretary of teaching union the NASUWT, said the partnership had delivered improvements for children, schools and government.

"Raising standards can only be achieved by working in partnership with unions representing all the staff who form the education team around the child," she said. "Only a foolish and shortsighted minister would fail to recognise this."

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