The NUT teaching union must woo parents in order to win debates with the government and change education for the better, the man tipped to lead the organisation has said.
In an exclusive interview with TES, Kevin Courtney, NUT’s acting general secretary, argued that getting more parents onside in the union’s battles over funding, testing and teacher workload could be key to making politicians listen.
Teachers felt that parents had “bought into the narrative” that classroom staff were to blame for problems in the education system, he said, but there was scope for this to change.
He also said that it was vital for the union to encourage younger members to become activists, rather than simply seeing the union as an “insurance club” that helped teachers out “when they were in trouble”.
Mr Courtney, who is running for NUT general secretary after Christine Blower retired from the role, added that future campaigns could also be more effective if the NUT formed a new union with the more moderate ATL (see “‘Superunion’ on the cards” box, opposite).
Mr Courtney, who is expected to win today’s contest against former NUT president Beth Davies, said: “For a long time teachers have felt that parents might have bought into the government’s overall narrative that it is teachers who are to blame. Just recently, we have seen concretely that there are parents who have seen through that and want to stand with us.”
Just 10 days ago, the NUT staged a national strike over funding cuts that gained support from parent campaign groups such as Let Our Kids Be Kids – the organisation that took primary children out of school in May to oppose the tougher new assessment regime.
Parents’ backing was growing, Mr Courtney said: “I think [the strike] has had the highest parental support. They can see the consequences of the cuts and changes to assessment as having a negative effect on their children.”
Funding was also “an area where parents and teachers have common interests” – such as bigger class sizes and the threat to creative subjects, he said. Parents could support the NUT by lobbying MPs and taking part in demonstrations, Mr Courtney argued, and union reps should make contact with parents’ groups so that the two could join forces.
Funding on the agenda
Schools minister Nick Gibb has accused the NUT of having “no justification” for its recent “pointless” action. He stressed to Parliament the inconvenience of the strike to parents.
But Mr Courtney believes the strike put funding issues and their impact on teaching and learning conditions “firmly on the political map”. He added: “If I were the government, I would be worried.”
This month’s industrial action has led to an “unprecedented” surge in teachers joining the union, Mr Courtney said, with 6,000 new members signing up since the strike was announced three weeks ago.
The unionist has always been a man on a mission. Although he is now a non-believer, as a teenager, he dedicated his energies to the Presbyterian Church of Wales. He later committed to the socialist cause at Imperial College London, where he helped found a society for gay students, despite being heterosexual.
He now hopes to make the NUT an organisation that more members are active and invested in, rather than just a service for when things go awry. “I think the unions need to be campaigning organisations involving members,” he said. “It is important…when a teacher is in trouble that we help them out – but, in the end, that is not enough for a trade union.
“I worry that trade unionism has become too much [about members’ services], with members starting to think that is what the union is – an insurance club of some sort – and that’s not what trade unionism started as.”
‘Superunion’ on the cards
The prospect of the NUT joining forces with the more moderate ATL to form a new “superunion” is looking increasingly likely.
If he becomes leader of the NUT, Kevin Courtney said that he would head the new organisation jointly with the ATL general secretary, Dr Mary Bousted.
Both unions have already voted to push ahead with talks about forming a new union, and conferences are due to take place in the autumn to consider whether to ballot members over the plans.
Mr Courtney said: “I think that we will succeed in taking it forward. I get along really well with Mary. If I were elected, then I would be joint general secretary of the new union.
“It would genuinely be a new union – taking the best from both – and it is a very high priority for teachers and for education. [All the organising campaigns] work better if you have one union for teachers.”
But professional unity between all the teaching unions does not appear to be in the pipeline. Earlier this year, NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates said it was better for ministers to receive six letters from unions on issues such as pay than one letter with six signatures.
“I wish the NASUWT was interested in doing this with us. But you can’t make people do it,” Mr Courtney said.
CV: Kevin Courtney
Born 1959, Pontypridd, Wales
Education Trefforest Primary and Pontypridd County Grammar School – which became Coedylan Comprehensive while he was studying there
1977 Studied Physics at Imperial College London, helping to found a society for gay students
1983 Worked as a physics teacher and NUT rep at the Camden School for Girls
1990 Became NUT branch secretary in Camden
2005 Camden Council increased the period of full maternity pay from four to 12 weeks for teachers working in community schools after a campaign led by his NUT branch
2005 Elected to the executive committee of the Southern and Eastern Region of the TUC (SERTUC), becoming a vice-president
2006 Elected to the NUT national executive for inner London
2010 Became NUT deputy general secretary
2016 Standing for NUT general secretary