Union leaders are hardly the edu-crème de la crème

8th April 2016 at 01:00

Just a tiny bit of me admires union leaders – spending the whole of their Easter weekend cooped up in the airless and certainly joyless environment of the Brighton conference centre, while the rest of us contemplate the physical possibility of just one more Creme Egg.

But it wasn’t just the lack of Creme Eggs in the conference hall that had delegates all of a lather. For the NUT teaching union had a very special guest up their sleeve, designed to rouse the rabble that little bit more: Comrade Corbyn was there to congratulate Christine Blower on her calls for a “coalition of horror” to be built.

But quelle horreur? What was the focus of the collective ire that was causing some to froth so at the mouth? Was it perhaps the desperate inequalities still facing some of our children and how best to unite to overcome these? Was it how to tackle the persistent under-performance of white boys compared with other ethnic groups?

No, it was neither of these. It was, instead, about structures. Not one single thought about children or young people was driving any of this. This particular fit of pique was instead all about collective pay bargaining. Nothing more.

And so my tiny bit of admiration was gone in a flash. Perhaps if some of the delegates present spent as much energy in the classroom and on teaching, as on pontificating about the evils of academies, we might begin to address some of the actual challenges in education.

And it’s at this point that you simply have to ask yourself: just how representative of their full membership are the Christine Blowers, the Mary Bousteds, et al? How many classroom teachers genuinely feel up in arms about schools becoming academies?

Surely, that dislocation between union leadership and membership can only grow ever wider – the vast majority of their secondary school members are, after all, already teaching academies. Are they really going to be that bothered about what is, in effect, more of the same?

While I am sure there will be some chuntering and muttering on the sidelines, most are more interested in, y’ know, how to give young people the absolute very best education that they are capable of delivering.

And it’s not just in the classroom that people will be scratching their heads. Parental sympathy will be thin on the ground for this strike too, if it goes ahead. And I say this as someone who has in the past withheld their labour. Most will not understand why a change in structures necessitates the taking of an extra day’s holiday as schools shut up shop. And those that do, will see it for what it is: serving the interests of the union leaders themselves, not the children and young people in their care.

Meanwhile, over at the NASUWT teaching union, our heroic education secretary braced herself to address the brethren and sisterhood, perhaps hoping to win them over with her rather alarming “hypnotic” gaze. It was meant to be her “Maggie moment”. And although it was a gutsy move to even show up, it was hardly a tour de force.

All of this raises a wider point. Not since the early Gove days have unions and government been so daggers-drawn. But the question remains, how much of this is real, and how much of it is “sound and fury, signifying nothing”? The news that the NUT and ATL will merge to form a “superunion” (really?! Give me a break…) does little to convince that this is about genuine representation rather than just plain old survival.

But whether we are about to see a renaissance in unionism in education or whether they are set on a course of self-immolation, once thing is clear: striking achieves very little other than to penalise those who need our help most. And for that reason alone, not in my name.

The Secret CEO is the chief executive of a multi-academy trust somewhere in England

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