We must join forces in these troubled times

29th March 2013 at 00:00
On the eve of the two main teaching conferences, Fred Jarvis makes a plea for the profession to unite in a single union

"Dissension and disunity between various unions not only affect their image, they can also lead to a dissipation of energy and a waste of resources. In the case of teachers, over the years of disunity, thousands of pounds that could have been spent on servicing members has been spent on competing for them. With the growing threat to public education and teachers' jobs and rights, in no area is unity more desperately needed."

These words are from my speech to the 1989 Trades Union Congress (TUC) as NUT general secretary. Sadly, it did not bring a positive response outside the ranks of my own union, and for years no progress was made towards professional unity. There was some hope when Steve Sinnott and Eamonn O'Kane were, respectively, general secretaries of the NUT and the NASUWT teaching union, but that faded with their tragically early deaths.

Although teachers are divided in other countries, it is often not for the same reasons as here, and in some nations one organisation predominates or there is only one.

In France, for example, the differences are largely political; in Australia, the divide is between public (state) and private schools; and in Germany the difference rests on the issue of striking. Significantly, in Finland, whose educational performance tops the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) table, and whose teaching profession is hugely respected, there is only one teaching union. There is nothing in the nature of teachers or teaching to make organisational division inevitable.

Moreover, the issues that lay behind the divisions between our main unions are no longer valid today. In the case of the NASUWT, the raison d'etre of its parent body was rooted in opposition to equal pay, while the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) emerged from the Assistant Masters and Assistant Mistresses of the Joint Committee of the Four Secondary Associations, recruiting on the basis that it was not TUC-affiliated. The NUT, meanwhile, has always been open to all qualified teachers and led the campaign for equal pay. It was affiliated with the TUC, as was the NASUWT and, later, the ATL.

All three organisations have developed policies well beyond their origins. Today, not only are the NUT, NASUWT and ATL all TUC-affiliated, but all criticise the government's policies in a similar way. And there is now more agreement between them on educational and professional issues than ever before. It is for them to say whether the differences that remain warrant separate organisations but it is surely encouraging that, with the possible exception of pensions, there is so much common ground. The NUT and NASUWT even recently agreed to take joint action in a way that was unthinkable not so long ago, while the ATL took national strike action for the first time in June 2011.

But there is another compelling reason for merger. In my 1989 speech I warned of the threat to public education and teachers' jobs and rights - but the threat is now immeasurably greater. The unions face an entirely new ball game, with their members needing more help than they ever sought before.

Profession under pressure

With the spread of academisation and free schools and the undermining of local authorities, we are witnessing the fragmentation or destruction of our education system. Instead of dealing with some 150 or so local authorities, the unions will have to contend with thousands of semi-autonomous workplaces, umpteen federations and a growing number of chains.

Add the introduction of performance-related pay by the education secretary Michael Gove, who has let it be known that his department is on a "war footing" - doubtless urged on by Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, who has voiced his support for performance pay - and one can foresee major trouble ahead. Can anyone doubt that this will mean that many more teachers are likely to need union help?

And all the while, union facility time is being reduced, if not eliminated entirely, increasing pressure on union resources.

The current situation should lead the unions to consider the value of pooling their resources in a single organisation. They should also discuss comments made recently by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, on the need for unions to explore new ways to win support for public education. This fundamental issue would be best discussed within a united body.

There should also be debate within such a framework as to how it is that doctors had more success in opposing the government's policies for the NHS than teachers have had in opposing the equally damaging education policies. Does the fact that doctors spoke with a single voice explain their success? The public sees doctors as a united profession, and teachers should want to be seen in the same way, not as professionals separated by the age of those they teach, by the responsibilities they have or by divisions on issues lost in history.

Nobody should think that a merger will be an easy task. There would doubtless be anxieties and practical problems, with much to discuss in respect of governance and policymaking. But with goodwill and recognition of the challenges now faced by the teaching profession, these problems could be overcome.

In 1989, my plea for unity fell on deaf ears. But if the unity of the nation's most important profession is not worth discussing today, when it could be within reach, then tell me what is.

Fred Jarvis was general secretary of the NUT, 1975-89.

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