International workers’ solidarity can wait…

15th July 2016 at 12:00

At a time of unprecedented political turmoil, it could be easy to miss the fact that two of the great membership organisations of English education revealed new leaders this week.

Move over Theresa, we’ve got new general secretaries at ASCL and the NUT. Malcolm Trobe has magnanimously agreed to caretake the ASCL top job for another year, but let’s concentrate on Kevin Courtney, tipped to complete his elevation to the NUT top job today.

There are, of course, three major classroom unions and, while its status as the “biggest” may be subject to scrutiny, the NUT remains the brand that resonates beyond staffrooms. Gone, perhaps, are the days in the late 1980s when the name Doug McAvoy tripped off the tongue of the man on the Clapham omnibus, but I would wager that most people still have an idea of what the ‘T’ in NUT stands for.

As such, when its third-of-a-million members elect the latest successor to Mr McAvoy, it should be big news. But it’s not really. The fact that union bosses don’t have the profile they once did makes sense in the private sector, where membership has been in decline for decades, but less so in the public sector, in which penetration remains deep.

Why is the NUT’s voice so muted? Mr Courtney believes there are many reasons for this, not least that too many teachers see unions as little more than a professional insurance club: sign up, pay your dues, but that’s it.

Mr Courtney correctly believes that the NUT needs to rediscover its va va voom. It needs to ramp up its campaigning. It needs to talk more about education: think Sats, league tables and funding cuts. It needs to engage with its younger members and recruit them as activists.

It must also form alliances with parental organisations, he tells this week’s TES, such as the Brighton-based Let Our Kids Be Kids, which made headlines in May with its “kids strike” against Sats.

After all, it is teachers and parents who can most clearly identify what’s wrong with schools, and their voices in unison will be all the more powerful, Mr Courtney believes.

No doubt, he is right that there is potential in such informal alliances. But there is a danger that Mr Courtney is setting off like Chris Froome on an Alpine descent before he had checked the integrity of his bike frame. Mr Courtney, who tweets as @cyclingkev, would surely know that such antics are foolhardy.

The fact is that there is a profound structural problem with much of the teacher union movement, which needs urgent fixing before any other avenues are explored. It is riven with hard-left factionalism that has almost nothing to do with the everyday experiences of classroom members, and that undermines much of its good work. Too often, the NUT’s day-to-day output is diverted by demands for general strikes that will never happen, pronouncements of solidarity with the workers of Venezuela or anecdotes from the latest delegation returned from Havana.

Be in no doubt: this is one of the chief reasons that teachers feel alienated from their unions and that many politicians have stopped listening.

As British politics is torn asunder, we need pluralistic unions more than ever (the proposed merger with the ATL could certainly help here), and the voices of everyday teachers need to be heard loud and clear throughout national educational discourse (including in Theresa May’s office in No 10).

We need an NUT at the top of its game and until that is achieved, Mr Courtney should leave the liberal parents of Brighton, or indeed the workers of Cuba, to find their own voices.


This is an article from the 15 July edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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