Six things we learned from the 2016 union conferences

8th April 2016 at 01:00
Ministers come under fire as unions prepare for the many battles ahead

The three main classroom teacher unions held their annual conferences over the Easter break, and they were angry affairs, full of blistering rhetoric and anti-government sentiment.

From the fury over academies to the push towards a new “superunion”, it seemed like everything in education was up for debate.

Here, we explore what we learned from this year’s teaching union conferences.

Politicians who brave teaching union gatherings get mixed responses

Schools minister Nick Gibb was not given an easy time by delegates of the more moderate ATL teaching union this week. During a Q&A at the union’s annual gathering in Liverpool, the Tory minister drew laughter, jeers and heckles from teachers as he tried to defend the government’s academisation plans.

Meanwhile, Lucy Powell, shadow education secretary, went down well at the same conference. But she did not evoke the same explosive reaction as her boss at the NUT teaching union conference in Brighton over the Easter weekend. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stayed behind to take selfies with teachers who had welcomed him with two standing ovations, loud applause and cheers during his speech.

Mr Corbyn addressed members despite a long-standing NUT rule that politicians are not invited to speak at its annual conference. Christine Blower, the union’s general secretary – who is joining the Labour party in the summer – insisted that since he had asked to appear, his request should be granted.

Meanwhile, the NASUWT teaching union was able to replace its traditional cardboard cut-out of the education secretary with the real thing at its gathering in Birmingham.

Normally, education secretaries avoid the Easter conferences. But Nicky Morgan was not afraid to ruffle a few feathers – and to be jeered and laughed at – when she told teachers to “step up” and said that there would be no “reverse gear” on academies.

Academisation will pose a threat to union representation…

If the government turns all English schools into academies by 2022, it will become crucial to have a union rep in each workplace to tackle possible threats to teachers’ pay and conditions – yet union resources continue to be squeezed.

Unions are concerned that forced academisation, with the transfer of autonomy to schools, will mean the end of national and local pay and conditions for teachers and support staff.

Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT, insists that staff will be “left at the mercy of negotiations with individual academy chains, their chief executives and boards”.

However, teacher unions are struggling to get enough representatives in schools each year. Peter Pendle, deputy general secretary of the ATL, told TES: “We lose more reps in the ATL and NUT each year than we recruit.”

And the government’s Trade Union Bill has made it an even more unsettling time to be in a union. If the Bill, which is currently at the review stage in the Lords, goes through, then it will be harder for unions to carry out national strike action on pay and conditions as a result of forced academisation.

…and yet unions are optimistic that they’ll win the battle over the government’s White Paper

All three unions are united against the government’s White Paper – as evidenced by the overwhelming support for the three emergency motions on the issues during the conferences.

And there was a real sense among the unions that this is a fight that they can win, despite Ms Morgan’s assurances that she will not do a U-turn on academisation and other reforms.

But some may doubt how much of an impact the unions will have if they do strike – especially if the Department for Education tries to argue that there is no legal basis to do so. However, the NUT won its battle in the High Court to hold sixth-form strikes only last month so the government may be cautious to challenge again.

The unions will never shy away from raising the big classroom gripes du jour

It wasn’t just forced academisation that dominated the conferences – excessive workload and its effect on the recruitment crisis was high up on the agenda. The findings of the government’s workload review groups – released over Easter – failed to ease worries.

Meanwhile, the chaos around primary assessments and baseline tests for four- and five-yearolds continue to anger teachers. The difficulty of the key stage 2 spelling, grammar and punctuation (SPaG) test – and the expectation for Year 6 pupils to know what a fronted adverbial is – was subjected to much ridicule.

Professional unity is on the cards

A “superunion” is one step closer after members of the ATL voted for talks to continue with the NUT about forming a new education union – 10 days after NUT members backed the idea at their own conference.

But professional unity between all three teacher unions still seems a long way off, as Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, believes that six unions are able to apply more pressure on government than one.

The motions inspired John Dunford, former general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, to call for the merger of the ASCL and the NAHT headteachers’ union.

Change in leadership

While its members face up to the possibility of massive change, the NUT will also be under new leadership. Ms Blower will step down at the end of May after more than six years as leader. It is believed that Beth Davies, a former NUT president, will stand against Mr Courtney for the post when the ballot takes place in June.

A new ASCL general secretary is expected in January, with Malcolm Trobe taking the helm in the meantime, following the sudden departure of Brian Lightman recently.


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