Unite, don't fight

18th April 2003 at 01:00
The 'big three' unions must put differences over the workload deal aside and redouble efforts to create a teachers' super-union, says Steve Sinnott

The workload agreement recently signed by the teacher unions, except the National Union of Teachers, has not been met with jubilation in staffrooms.

Though it was hailed as historic, there was no punching of the air in triumph; not even the opening of the odd bottle of muscadet left over from last year's holiday in France.

Those who signed it have been on the defensive and the key criticism made by the NUT, that people who are not qualified teachers should not be undertaking tasks rightly the preserve of teachers, has been telling. This criticism has had a resonance in a profession suspicious of decades of cheap, quick-fix government solutions and initiatives that undermine teachers' freedom to use professional judgment.

I abhor the destructiveness of cynicism but I understand the feelings of many who have been in teaching for some time who believe that things will not change. I don't believe it has to be this way. Things can be different and better. We can have a profession well-respected and properly rewarded.

Space can be created that allows teachers room to advance their professional skills. It is possible for teachers to have a life outside of school, and teachers' organisations have a pivotal role in making these things possible.

The key is professional unity - bringing the unions together through mergers. I have believed that throughout my 20-year career as a teacher. In the past eight years as deputy general secretary of the NUT, I have come to understand the need for professional unity with complete clarity.

Teachers face deep-rooted problems: intolerable workload, persistent recruitment and retention difficulties, ill-conceived initiatives, a lack of trust by the Government in the profession. Many teachers feel their leaders neither understand the problems they face nor have the bottle to do anything about them.

Unity is strength. Teachers in other countries have learned this lesson. I have been inspired by teachers' leaders from across the world who have responded with unity and determination to enormous challenges. A strong and united profession, through a strong and united union, would understand when to say no to government, and mean it; and have the confidence to know when to say yes. A strong profession would be listened to. A confident and strong union would enrich the quality of teachers' working lives in school and re-establish their life outside. A leader of this union could demand action from secretaries of state without the general secretary of a rival union getting on the phone to offer an alternative.

Governments have always found it tempting to play the game of divide and rule. Teachers and the education service are the poorer for this division.

As a result children suffer from a regime in schools dominated by targets and testing; teachers have found it impossible to stop the juggernaut of initiatives and criticism.

Teachers would once more be able to play a part and energise all areas of civil society. They would again lead religious groups, political parties, pressure groups and musical and cultural societies. This is how it used to be and can be once more.

The time is ripe to bring about the professional unity that most teachers want. The election of Eamonn O'Kane as general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers has been a breath of fresh air. His open-mindedness about unity presents an opportunity to those in the NUT, and others who believe in this ideal, that should not be squandered because of petty points-scoring.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers has a new general secretary and this too presents opportunities. At the TUC, increasingly a centre for white-collar trade unions, general secretary-elect Brendan Barber would respond enthusiastically to requests for assistance should teachers' organisations ask. Current disagreement does not make unity less urgent - it makes it more important that disagreement is handled within one family where it can be resolved in favour of all teachers.

The key task of addressing workload will continue for some time at national and local level. A united profession could consolidate real cuts in workload. Professional unity would make improvements a reality.

This needs to be the agenda for the profession for the next few years. If it is not pursued teachers and the education service will have been let down. Teachers' organisations abroad often look to the NUT and teachers in the UK for support and assistance. A powerful union with a confident, united membership, conscious of its responsibilities, would not let them down.

Steve Sinnott is deputy general secretary of the NUT

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