Unions speak out where others dare not mary bousted

4th November 2011 at 00:00

Reports of the death of the teachers' trade union movement are greatly exaggerated (TES cover story, 28 October). More than three in four teachers are union members, three times the UK workforce average, so their unions must be doing something right.

Teachers, more than those in any other profession, know that things can go wrong, and if they do, their union is there for them. From false allegations to bad management, unions protect their members by providing support, experience and expertise so that problems can be solved at school level, before they escalate into a crisis.

But unions are far more than an insurance policy. For many years now, if teachers were looking for good continuous professional development that actually met their professional needs (rather than tablets of stone from the mountain of the strategies) they have gone to their union.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturer's motto for members is: join up, join in and get on. And they do: nearly 4,000 are now studying for master's-level qualifications through the ATL's partnership with Edge Hill University - a prime example of a union working with a higher education partner to raise the qualifications and status of the profession.

Nationally, the unions represent the interests of the teaching profession to powerful interest groups such as politicians and the press, and to the public, too. We base our suggestions and reasoning on our extensive member research and policy making. The teaching unions used their huge expertise in negotiating pay and rewards for teachers to achieve salary rises of 45 per cent in the 10 years from 2000 to 2010.

This was accomplished by the unions working together, to give well-reasoned and compelling joint evidence to the School Teachers' Review Body. And it proves that, when it comes to our members' collective interests, unions are increasingly happy to put aside what divides them, to band together and share expertise to make their case.

And now, when the Government wants to attack teachers' pensions - which will result in an already over-burdened and exhausted profession paying more, working longer and getting less in retirement - it is union members who have, and will, go into battle, and union leaders who will be, and are, fighting the case against the Government's arguments about affordability and fairness. Our success was such that, when we went on strike on 30 June, no government ministers went on any news programmes to defend the indefensible.

So why the bad press? Why are unions accused of being out of date, hopelessly behind the times and unnecessarily critical of Government policy? Let's take the Coalition's flagship policy - the academy and free schools programme, which has become an article of faith with ministers, their civil servants and some commentators. Under a banner of freedom from the dead hand of the local authority, autonomy and raising standards, academies, and now free schools, have been established at a breathless pace.

But now we see the truth emerging, far removed from the Government's propaganda, and the reality is uncomfortable for politicians who like the broad horizon but get weary of important detail. The reality is that many headteachers in academy chains are finding they are far from free; the school's curriculum, teaching strategies, resources, human resource policies and procurement policies are all decided by the sponsor, who charges 5-7 per cent of the school's budget for providing these services.

When the unions have pointed out that there is no accountability for taxpayers' money in academy chains, because their accounts do not have to be published now that they have all, in recent months, become exempt charities, education ministers have been furious.

Without fear or favour

Some arguments need to be made, and it is usually the unions which have the strength and ability to make them and get heard. Who else has the clout to object to the plans of the Exclusive Brethren to run a free school in Lancashire which will be funded by our taxes and will teach, if it follows the beliefs of this sect, that the world is the work of Satan, that IT, in all its guises, is under the influence of the devil, that Christmas should be banned, and that young people should leave education at 18?

Will pupils who go to such a school have any rights beyond those their parents deem allowable? No-one should be in any doubt that the free schools policy is a nonsense which gives large amounts of scarce cash to any hare-brained, self-appointed minority group. And, even more seriously, the policy is fundamentally undemocratic and non-productive.

One of the most important roles of a union general secretary is to speak the truth, without fear or favour, to the powerful. We do not strive to be unthinkingly oppositional. We are prepared to work with politicians from all parties, but never against the interests of our members, and the pupils and students they educate. And if that makes unions a thorn in the side of the powerful, so be it.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL.

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