Unify. Reform. Or die?

Pension fury is boosting teaching union numbers, but their future is uncertain

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In 1986, Russell Hobby was a pupil at John Mason School in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Two years of rolling strikes by teachers across the country had finally come to an end. The action had failed to yield concessions over teachers' pay from the Thatcher government and the teaching unions were left damaged, drained and, effectively, defeated.

"I remember, one day, every extra-curricular activity disappeared from my school and never came back again," Mr Hobby, now general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, recalls.

"All the clubs and everything disappeared. As a result of those strikes we had a decade of damage to the education system. It would be a shame to repeat it."

But, a quarter of a century on, the row over changes to teachers' pensions means that a repeat could well be on the cards. And, most tellingly, it could be Mr Hobby himself - acutely aware of the disruption strikes cause to children and their families - who leads his members to the picket line, alongside their teachers, for the first time since the union was formed in 1897. "What it's done," he explains, "is push us back into a very old-fashioned model of industrial relations."

Since the dark days of the 1980s, the teaching profession has changed beyond recognition. While it cannot be denied that - in terms of membership, at least - the unions remain strong, the profile of the members they represent has evolved. To a generation of enthusiastic newly qualified teachers armed with postgraduate qualifications and keen to take advantage of hard-won improvements to their pay and conditions, the concepts of rolling strikes, pickets and scabs are largely alien. For them, of course, it is difficult to appreciate how shamefully small classroom wages used to be, and how low the profession's public esteem had sunk.

But while the unions argue that they have achieved much over the past two decades, their battle is by no means won.

You can read the full article in the October 28 issue of TES.

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