Unify. Reform. Or die?

28th October 2011 at 01:00
As the pensions row brings thousands of new recruits to the teaching unions, their future may seem secure. But with academy freedoms all but destroying their national bargaining power and the spectre of strikes reviving old jibes about lack of professionalism, are they weaker than they look? Stephen Exley reports

In 1986, Russell Hobby was a pupil at John Mason School in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Two years of rolling strikes by teachers across the country had finally come to an end. The action had failed to yield concessions over teachers' pay from the Thatcher government and the teaching unions were left damaged, drained and, effectively, defeated.

"I remember, one day, every extra-curricular activity disappeared from my school and never came back again," Mr Hobby, now general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, recalls. "All the clubs and everything disappeared. As a result of those strikes we had a decade of damage to the education system. It would be a shame to repeat it."

But, a quarter of a century on, the row over changes to teachers' pensions means that a repeat could well be on the cards. And, most tellingly, it could be Mr Hobby himself - acutely aware of the disruption strikes cause to children and their families - who leads his members to the picket line, alongside their teachers, for the first time since the union was formed in 1897. "What it's done," he explains, "is push us back into a very old-fashioned model of industrial relations."

Since the dark days of the 1980s, the teaching profession has changed beyond recognition. While it cannot be denied that - in terms of membership, at least - the unions remain strong, the profile of the members they represent has evolved. To a generation of enthusiastic newly qualified teachers armed with postgraduate qualifications and keen to take advantage of hard-won improvements to their pay and conditions, the concepts of rolling strikes, pickets and scabs are largely alien. For them, of course, it is difficult to appreciate how shamefully small classroom wages used to be, and how low the profession's public esteem had sunk.

But while the unions argue that they have achieved much over the past two decades, their battle is by no means won. The Government's confrontational stance over pensions, as well as the rapid expansion of the academies programme - and with it the gradual dismantling of the traditional local authority structure through which the teaching unions operate - means that the bodies that represent hundreds of thousands of teachers across the country are under more pressure than at any time in the past 25 years.

Here, then, is the hidden narrative, the story behind the public rage. As this campaign of disruption - complete with strikes, marches and barnstorming speeches - converges with other huge changes in the education landscape, could it be the beginning of the end for the teaching unions in their current form?

On that warm day last June, it seemed so different. The first day of strikes by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the NUT over unpopular proposals to overhaul teachers' pensions fully or partially closed around 85 per cent of schools in England and Wales. The strike garnered national headlines; you could hardly turn on the TV without seeing a union logo.

ATL general secretary Mary Bousted became the campaign's unlikely figurehead. She was thrust into the spotlight on the back of her members' decision to strike for the first time in the union's 127-year history - precisely because, she admits, they are not "the usual suspects".

"You know the saying, 'Beware the wrath of a quiet man.' Well, beware the wrath of a moderate union," she jokes.

The impact of the strike has been profound, Dr Bousted says. "I do think there is a new energy in the union. We've had an upsurge in membership. It's had a huge impact, which is very counter-intuitive, because ATL always believed we gained membership when we didn't take industrial action. When the cause is right, and the cause is just, members will come to you because they want to be part of standing up and being counted.

Never the same again

"We've had an upsurge in members who want to become reps and want to stand on the branch committees. The week before the ballot, in the London office, it was like the Mary Celeste, because people were out meeting the members. All those conversations and those meetings are huge unifying forces in unionism. There is a much greater sense of ATL, which we're very proud of. And you won't put that back in the box. ATL will never be the same as it was before the action."

But the very fact that moderate members of the ATL - long the spiritual home of teachers opposed to strike action - were marching shoulder to shoulder with left-wing firebrands from the Socialist Workers Party indicates that something very strange has been going on in the union movement.

Looking back, former shadow education secretary Andy Burnham feels the unions allowed themselves to be backed into a corner. "I think the Government laid a trap," he says. "It wants to provoke the teaching unions. I have considerable sympathy for the trade unions, but I didn't feel like I was in agreement with them. I can understand why they took the action they did, but I didn't feel it could be justified at that time."

Within the union stable, the loudest criticism of the industrial action came from the smallest teachers' union, Voice. General secretary Philip Parkin claims its anti-strike platform has earned it hundreds of new recruits in the wake of 30 June. "We don't think that children's education should be disturbed by industrial action," he says. "We don't think the 'might is right' view is the right way to teach children to behave; it's not a good role model. In a civilised society, we should be able to resolve issues by negotiation. Some unions say striking is the last resort. I don't believe that. Too often it seems to be the first resort."

His thoughts echo comments made by Michael Gove in the run-up to the action. "As professionals," the education secretary argued, teachers should not go on strike. "You don't see hospital consultants going on strike, and I don't believe that teachers and headteachers should. It's within their rights, it's a civil right, but I think it is wrong in terms of the reputation of the profession," he insists.

His fellow Conservative MP Graham Stuart, chairman of the Commons education select committee, concurs: the sense of teachers' professionalism can only be undermined by their unions' "Luddite" leanings, he warns. "They need to change step and act as if they represent teachers in a way that reflects the status and professional respect in which they are held. Too often, they appear to be some sort of throwback, rather than as well-marshalled, calm, professional exponents of their undertaking.

"They have got to come over as being professional and committed to the improvement of the education sector first. With that, their ability and persuasiveness as the voice of their members will be enhanced. They have not got that balance right. It feels as if the unions are out of step with the profession," he says.

Indeed, many opponents of the strike were quick to highlight the 35 per cent turnout in ATL's strike ballot ahead of 30 June as evidence that the unions are not representative of normal classroom teachers.

Of course the unions - with some justification - argue that they were doing nothing more than defending the interests of their members by protecting one of the central pillars of the profession, a Class-A public pension. They bridle at suggestions the Teachers' Pension Scheme is "gold-plated", arguing that it is merely part of a notional contract which teachers sign: in recognition of the years of long days, exhausting workloads and a salary well below what teachers could be earning in the private sector, a good pension is the least they deserve.

For the unions who took part in the 30 June strike, this was the key message they wanted to get across. As Dr Bousted puts it: "The public discourse and debate, and public knowledge about public sector pensions ... None of that would have happened if we hadn't had the action. The Government would have believed they could just carry on carrying on. They know now that's not the case."

There does, however, appear to be more to this story than meets the eye. Barring a shock compromise deal being struck in the pension negotiations, further industrial action looks likely, culminating in a day of public sector strikes on 30 November. The collective willingness of the union leaders to make a stand in a grand public show of strength demonstrates just how rattled they are by the changes in education policy imposed by the coalition Government. The NASUWT's dispute, for example, lists concerns about workload, pensions, pay, conditions of service and job losses.

There are a number of structural issues facing the unions which threaten their very existence. Undoubtedly, the biggest threat comes from the explosive expansion of the academies programme. The unions are keen to portray the issue as a matter of educational philosophy, centred on what they perceive as a loss of local accountability and greater freedom from local authority control. But their fears are not only ideologically motivated. Beneath the righteous rhetoric railing against privatisation and the weakening of national teachers' pay and conditions now that academies can set their own, the subtext of self-preservation is palpable.

At present, the unions are structured around a network of local authorities, with councils paying for facility time, in which a union rep tackles casework for members and deals with individual disputes. Thousands of staff members who work, to a lesser or greater extent, for the unions are actually paid for by local authorities. Figures released earlier this year revealed that the average bill among councils for classroom union reps was just under #163;100,000 a year. This system allows the "big three" unions to have a state-funded national network of professional staff, not paid for through subscriptions.

But with council budgets being slashed by the Government, not to mention the prospect of more and more schools converting to academies free of local authority control, this funding is likely to be cut. For unions with limited manpower and funding, the scenario looks problematic at best; at worst, it could be potentially life-threatening.

"In this increasingly fragmented system, we will have to become more of a workplace-by-workplace organisation," Mr Parkin concedes. "It's going to need a big reorganisation of the way we operate. We are going to have to work in a different way, negotiating with individual workplaces or chains of workplaces. We are going to need more bodies on the ground. That's going to be difficult."

So, with as many as half of secondaries - and a decent chunk of primaries - likely to make the status switch by this time next year, the situation facing the unions looks increasingly difficult. Put simply: either they must undertake a complete overhaul of the way they do business or face a real possibility that they will cease to exist in their current form.

Just as significantly, academies have powers to set their own pay and conditions, independently of national negotiations, historically a key raison d'etre for organised labour in schools. The consequences are serious: an erosion of union leaders' powers to negotiate on a national basis.

"How we, or any other union, would cope with bargaining in 5,000 different workplaces remains to be seen," Mr Hobby admits. "Facility time is less available, so as workload and pressure on members rises, unions' resources are under quite considerable pressure. That's a huge shift for us, our organisational structures and our culture."

This can only exacerbate another union frustration. The fact is that, since the departure of the Labour ministers from Downing Street last May, unions' influence on politicians has dramatically dropped. The most obvious example is the death of the Social Partnership, the formal structure that saw the education unions - apart from the NUT and, intermittently, the NAHT, which opted not to take part - meeting with government officials on a weekly basis and playing a key role in shaping policy.

Union bosses all accept that the new crop of coalition ministers are happy to meet - indeed Mr Gove is almost universally described as "charming" - but there is an overwhelming sense that what they have to say is largely ignored. "There are more government talks now, but we are not used to people who are not really listening," NUT general secretary Christine Blower says.

Professor Howard Stevenson, deputy director of Lincoln University's Centre for Educational Research and Development, says many unionists regard the Social Partnership era as their heyday. "The partnership gave them a lot of influence," he explains. "They had the ear of government, and influence on policy development. It was, they would argue, a productive time in terms of exerting influence. But there was a downside. From the outside, it sometimes looked like they were too close to the Government. To some, it felt a little too cosy."

Disbanded partnership

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates, who built up a famously close relationship with Labour's education secretary Ed Balls, is defensive about the Social Partnership. "We saw improvement in the conditions of service for teachers, we saw pay start to get back to recognising teachers as highly skilled professionals," she says. "All of that was because of the recognition of the importance of the workforce."

But within weeks of coalition ministers taking up their new roles last year, the partnership was disbanded and replaced with a very loose arrangement, called the Education Partnership. It doesn't seem to be going well. In a letter to the education secretary in July, Ms Keates was frank about its failings. "(It) is in our view nothing more than an event at which the Department for Education profiles and presents its policies, listens politely to views and then, regardless of the comments made, does what it originally intended," she wrote. Relations with the Government are, it seems, a long way from the cosy "beer and sandwiches" of new Labour - and they seem unlikely to change any time soon.

So, if their bosses are not being listened to in the corridors of power and their reps are being snubbed by independently minded heads keen to use the powers associated with academy status, things look increasingly bleak for the traditional union model.

However, union bosses still have a joker up their sleeves, a card which would undoubtedly strengthen their hand and leave Mr Gove with no option but to pay closer heed. This, of course, is the holy grail of education unionism: unification.

It is a contentious proposal for unions which often appear fond of defining themselves through their differences. But even Mr Burnham candidly admits that it is the lack of constructive dialogue between the classroom unions which he feels is their Achilles' heel. "I think it's helpful for the unions to speak with one voice. I appreciate that there are different unions because they represent different styles or different approaches. But I think that if they can find a way to challenge that, a way where everybody works together, I think that will have the biggest impact."

While the possibility of a single teaching union has been mooted for decades, only the NUT has explicitly made it a goal. "The long-term aim would be professional unity, a single union, but it's not going to be achievable during my time in office," Ms Blower candidly admits.

Professor Stevenson also feels that the multiplicity of unions has not worked in members' favour. "The Government has been able to introduce change because of the unions not agreeing on issues. The fact they are often split has not helped them. You would imagine that, if you get even ATL striking (on 30 June), all of the unions would be on board. But the NASUWT wasn't. It's almost as if the unions are genetically predisposed to always have one of them not working with the other two."

But Ms Keates is adamant that a single teaching union would not be able to match the customer service that the separate bodies provide. "If you look at where there are big, dominant unions and there are no other players in the field, what you often find is they are not necessarily focused on their members' interests," she says. "It's always good if you can have common objectives and work constructively together, but I don't think that is necessarily an argument for one union."

So, with unification appearing to be little more than a pipedream, a wholesale reorganisation and re-structure of the existing unions seems not only advisable but essential.

Only those with a strong "bottom-up approach" and democratic structure will survive, Professor Stevenson believes. "National pay and conditions are becoming increasingly irrelevant. What we could see getting more and more important is the school-based rep. Historically, this has not been a significant figure; they used to be called school correspondent, recognising the fact they often just handed out the post. With the spread of academies, this becomes a key role.

"It may be that, by reducing these issues to school level, it could invigorate workplace trade unionism. Before, decisions were made in smoke-filled rooms. If they are happening on the ground, if people see this happening in their school, we could see more people taking an interest.

"But the more fragmented the system becomes, the more difficult it will be for the trade unions to operate. It is the biggest challenge the unions have faced since the mid '80s."

Changes to teachers' pensions could prove to be one of the last issues on which the unions have a national platform to make their voices heard.

The stakes have never been higher. The teaching unions are left with a stark choice. If they evolve, there is the potential for them to interact with their members in a more meaningful way than ever before. If not, they risk being marginalised and written off by an unsympathetic Government.


While the classroom unions have long been recognised as the voice of teachers in the UK, the picture in the US is more complex.

In recent years, a number of new bodies have emerged, with the aim of engaging their members in discussions about education policy. Groups include NewTLA, based in Los Angeles, and Educators 4 Excellence, which was formed by New York teachers Evan Stone and Sydney Morris in frustration at their lack of influence over policy decisions.

While NewTLA describes itself as a caucus within the city's teaching union, Educators 4 Excellence revels in its independence from the United Federation of Teachers, New York's biggest education union. The groups' shared goal is to provide teachers with research on topical issues in the sector, and help increase their influence over policymakers.

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