What do we want? No direct action!

30th November 2012 at 00:00
When do we want it? Not right now, says former union rep Anna Trethewey

Bedlam has been unleashed in our schools this term, as all over the country teachers taking "action short of strike action" have refused to attend unscheduled meetings, take part in observations and respond to correspondence outside directed time. Classrooms have slid into chaos as unsupervised pupils have been unable to put pen to paper because teachers refusing to carry out administrative tasks have left stationery cupboards bare and declined to cover for each other.

If teachers were to follow the instructions issued by the NUT and NASUWT teaching unions, this might well be the consequence, and their hope is that, as a result, the government will have no choice but to reconsider its "attack on teachers' professionalism". However, look at most schools and the reality is entirely different. The evidence on the ground seems to suggest that the "quiet revolution to take over the classroom" is so quiet that very few people can actually hear it.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, argues that while unions are "a lively, necessary and enduring part of professional life", it is time for them to "reinvent themselves to remain relevant". Having seen the issue from both sides, I agree. On one hand, I have worked in schools where the concept of a work-life balance is so distant that it is laughable. That is why I became a union rep: I wanted to stand up for teachers in the face of unreasonable workloads. I know only too well that we need our unions most right now, when we are faced with changes to pensions, performance management and assessment.

On the other hand, as a part of a school's management team, I have seen members refuse to attend essential meetings because they have not been scheduled a year in advance. I have had to listen when members cry "union" as a byword for "too much effort". And I have been frustrated when much-needed initiatives have been binned because they were vetoed by the unions. I became tired of explaining why members were obliged to attend events and, horror of horrors, that yearly reports should be written individually, not copied and pasted. It became too much. I was unable to satisfy the demands of the union without sacrificing my role in management, and vice versa. Eventually I stepped down as a rep.

The recent LKMco report, Collectivists, Functionalists and Critics: what do teachers think of their unions?, also showed that there was a problem with the feasibility and desirability of this industrial action. One teacher commented: "To me, this seems completely unrealistic, I don't really understand how that (action short of strike action) is actually meant to be implemented or measured." Another explained that "it hasn't affected my work at all". For those who are in teaching because they are committed to increasing pupils' opportunities, there is a real difficulty in combining action short of strike action and doing a job they feel proud of. As an NASUWT member, I'm supposed to have refused to answer emails out of hours or to undertake exam analysis since December 2011. However, it would have been nigh on impossible for me to work to rule and still feel confident that I was doing a good job.

Unions are therefore running the risk of alienating themselves from their members by asking them to take part in such action. Take the recent NUT ballot, for example: although there was an overwhelming vote in favour of action, turnout stood at just 27 per cent. This is a strong message that union leaders should ignore at their peril, especially as there is now a new organisation, Edapt, claiming to offer protection, support and training for teachers without being a union. Edapt commissioned the independent LKMco research, which found that the right to take industrial action is considered one of the least important reasons for being in a union and that strikes are one of the main reasons for teachers leaving their unions.

However, the report also contains good news for unions: a large proportion of teachers are becoming increasingly engaged with unionism as a result of the strikes and levels of satisfaction are extraordinarily high. As Professor Howard Stephenson, deputy head of the University of Lincoln's Centre for Educational Research and Development, pointed out in a recent TES article: "Being part of a union is about being part of a powerful professional identity for teachers." It remains to be seen whether an organisation like Edapt can give teachers the same sense of belonging. Furthermore, with 85 per cent of teachers represented by the NASUWT and NUT, there is a risk that Edapt could potentially open the way for a "divide and conquer" approach on the part of the government.

But let's take this debate back to the classroom: have we been greeted with unprecedented mayhem since action short of strike action commenced? Hardly. In fact, the teachers I speak to are either baffled by what is being asked of them or admit that action short of strike action is unworkable. "Working to rule?" one said. "Working to a minimum, more like. What self-respecting teacher would do that?"

Anna Trethewey is a senior associate at the thinktank LKMco. She has taught in schools in London and Norfolk. Find her on Twitter at @annatreth.

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