It used to be the annual Easter ritual. With news at a premium, as most of the population scoffed chocolate and enjoyed a double bank holiday, teaching unions would dominate the headlines with stories of extreme overwork and multiple threats of strikes and other industrial action.
Some of these threats would amount to no more than wishful thinking from confrontation hungry activists. Education correspondents used to indulge in counting up just how many motions proposing industrial action you could squeeze into a single National Union of Teachers (NUT) or NASUWT conference agenda.
But others had more intent behind them. After the factional, choreographed, battles of attrition of a typical NUT conference had played themselves out, all sides would often unite over an agreed and therefore much more dangerous threat of industrial action.
It might be a strike over pay, a boycott of Sats, or a work to rule over workload. But ministers tended to take these threats seriously. They would have been stupid not to. And if there was the possibility of the NASUWT joining the NUT in a pincer movement the education secretary could be facing real problems.
Longer school days and shorter holidays
But would the prospect of national teaching union action be taken as seriously by government today? Would it be enough to stop ministers unleashing policies that would hit teachers with longer school days and shorter breaks, for example?
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At the moment that kind of conflict feels like history. The rhetoric is still there - this Easter’s teaching union conferences heard the DfE being accused of incompetence and education secretary, Gavin Williamson, compared to Pinocchio and King Canute. But much of the menace has gone. Actual threats of industrial action were noticeably few and far between compared to previous years.
The NASUWT agenda, for example, contained no references to strikes and only two to possible industrial action in England, both of which related to school level disputes rather than anything national.
Even the agenda of NUT successor, the NEU, had only two motions with any references to possible national strikes (and one of them was never heard). And in both cases they were heavily caveated. Delegates, for example, didn’t actually vote for a national pay strike, or even to ballot for one. They voted to survey members to “build towards a ballot for national strike action at an appropriate time” - a threat unlikely to have Mr Williamson quaking in his boots.
Now much harder for teaching unions to strike
There is a simple reason for this and it has nothing to do with the pandemic. It’s down to the government’s introduction of laws that limit unions’ ability to act. Since 2017 teaching unions have had to jump through extra two hurdles before they can take industrial action. They don’t just have to get majority in a ballot in favour of action, they also have to ensure that at least half their eligible members vote in the ballot, and that at least 40 per cent of eligible members vote yes.
When the NEU’s forebear, the NUT, carried out a national strike ballot in 2016, just before the new Trade Union Act came in, it secured a turnout of just 24.5 per cent. So you can understand the caution about going ahead with such threats since then.
Activists still talk a good game; this Easter NEU delegate Sean McCauley said the debate on national industrial action on pay needed to be “thrashed out”, adding that voting of members in some NEU districts had already shown that the thresholds needed for strike action could "be beaten". But they’ve yet to prove it can be done nationally.
Teaching unions insist they are fighting fit – the NEU’s joint leaders said last week that they had recruited 35,000 extra members since the pandemic began - and they may yet need to be.
Revenge for battles over Covid school closures?
Some in government and on the Conservative benches are still smarting about the political damage incurred by education ministers during the pandemic. Many would argue that these wounds were self-inflicted, due to shortcomings on everything from exams policy to free school meals and laptops. But others are, rightly or wrongly, blaming the teaching unions, remembering the way they went head to head with Gavin Williamson over school Covid closures.
Since those confrontations last year Tes has heard whispers leaking out of Sanctuary Buildings about a desire to “kill the unions”. Now they may well represent nothing more than a minority view at one extreme end of the spectrum. But some animosity towards teaching unions clearly resides in the Department for Education, the wider government and the Tory party.
Could they be about to attempt to get their revenge? On the face of it the long trailed Covid catch-up plan due to be unveiled next month offers an ideal opportunity. Two ideas being considered – shorter holidays and longer school days – have huge potential to provoke an explosive conflict with teaching unions.
The long summer holiday is regarded by many teachers as the only way they can cope with the “devastating” workload they endure in term time. And lengthening lesson hours when many teachers already work long into the night might seem guaranteed to push them over the edge.
'Teachers shouldn’t be left to pick up the pieces'
If these leaked catch-up ideas are designed to provoke a fight, then the union leaders are already biting. NASUWT leader Patrick Roach used his conference speech to issue a warning. “Teachers and children didn’t create this crisis and schools shouldn’t be left to pick up the pieces left by this pandemic,” he said.
“Our members must not be coerced into working longer hours or delivering summer schools in order to deliver on the government’s short-term fixes.”
But what kind of reception would a refusal to co-operate with the government’s education recovery plan get from parents alarmed at reports of hundreds of thousands of children falling behind with their reading? Is it a fight the teaching unions could win in the most important forum of all – the court of public opinion?
Big change does appear to be on its way, with reports of a four year catch-up plan. Mr Williamson has already been rolling the pitch with talk of the need for something "transformative" - for something as significant as the post-war reforms that introduced universal free secondary education. If unions do just accept this without question, is that a decision they could live to regret? But if they don’t, are they really equipped for a fight?
Teaching unions more vulnerable than ever?
The truth is that while membership might be increasing (for the NEU at least) in many ways teaching unions may be more vulnerable than ever. And their problems go beyond the legal barriers they face over industrial action.
The fragmentation of national teacher pay deals that has come with academisation makes it much harder and more resource intensive for the unions to negotiate for their members. And there is also now an alternative to teaching unions on offer - Edapt, a company offering legal advice to teachers who don’t want to join a union.
Despite being promoted by Michael Gove Edapt still presumably doesn’t have that many members as, more than eight years after it was set up, it still won’t reveal a total. But it does have patient supporters who still believe it could gain some traction and a foothold in the profession.
And a new law that could make Edapt’s job much easier, by allowing teachers to seek broader representation in legal hearings, passed its first Parliamentary hurdle last month.
Motive for a public bust-up over education catch-up
Is the timing of that legislation co-incidental or part of a more concerted wider attempt to further erode union power and influence? Are the Johnson government and the Conservatives engaged in a Putin like build-up of forces, hoping to use their forthcoming catch-up plan as a means to engineer a public bust-up with the teaching unions they are now confident they can win? Are they poised, like the Russians sitting on the Ukrainian border, just waiting for their moment to strike?
It is easy enough to discern a motive. Having had what many people would regard as an appalling pandemic, Gavin Williamson has come to be seen as a dead man walking as far as his current post is concerned. The only question in some people’s minds has been whether the education secretary will be kept on long enough to be able to take the blame for the next GCSE and A-levels controversy.
But Mr Williamson has clearly not given up on his career in government and appears to making a concerted effort to revive his fortunes. Observers on his own side note that to do so he will need to find a way to improve his standing on the Tory benches. And the education secretary already appears to have got to work on the task.
Take his recent launch of a drive for more discipline in schools. Order was needed in classrooms, Mr Williamson said, because "the lack of regular structure and discipline" during lockdown would "inevitably" have had an effect on pupil behaviour.
Williamson needs support on the Tory benches
Teachers may have wondered why the education secretary appeared to be contradicting his previous assertion that “behaviour and discipline has really improved over the last year”. But then teachers were probably not the audience Mr Williamson had in mind.
It felt much more like a pitch towards the Tory parliamentary party and commentariat - a constituency that no Conservative minister serious about surviving and thriving in government can afford to ignore. And it was a pitch that appears to be working. “Gavin Williamson takes classroom fight to woke teachers,” the Daily Express trumpeted last Saturday.
So if a tack to the right, and an apparent willingness to take on teacher unions, is winning support where Mr Williamson needs it, then might he now be keen to up the ante? And if he does then has he now got the ideal tools at his disposal thanks to the catch-up agenda?
A scheme for shorter holidays and a longer school day could easily be presented in a way guaranteed to anger union leaders and their members. And if the public are anxious about the learning lost to due to Covid, then could a union battle against Mr Williamson’s “transformative” plans play right into his hands?
Could catch-up see co-operation triumph over conflict?
Possibly. However, for those who prefer co-operation to conflict and conspiracy, there is also an alternative, more optimistic scenario. The first point to make is that if there really is a desire to provoke a battle with the teaching unions it does not seem to be universally shared within government. The most detailed briefing yet on the forthcoming “four-year emergency” catch-up plan clearly came from No 10 rather than the DfE. And the talk in the resulting report was of a desire to sidestep a row with teachers rather than incite one.
“The catch-up plans are expected to offer teachers the chance to earn more money for working longer hours,” the Sunday Times reported. “But they will not be forced to do so, as ministers seek to avoid confrontation with unions.”
And, while a big row might conceivably help Mr Williamson to come out smiling from the next reshuffle, it is difficult to see what Number 10 would have to gain from a bitter conflict over one of its flagship post pandemic policy initiatives.
Downing Street is packed full of education old hands from the days when Mr Gove was education secretary. They may not be fans of the unions and many teachers won’t agree with their views on school reform. But these No 10 educationalists will not be advocating change as part of some sort of short term politically motivated stunt. These are people who are serious about education and want to change it for its own sake
It is also worth noting that control over the catch-up plan is said to lie firmly with Downing Street and not Mr Williamson - the minister looking to revive his fortunes. It is the prime minister not the education secretary who is supposed to be making the big announcement next month. And the fact that the government’s education recovery commissioner Sir Kevan Collins is nominally answerable to Mr Williamson, as well as the PM, is brushed away by insiders as no more than a "courtesy".
Catch-up commissioner who likes to take people with him
And then there is Sir Kevan. We may have come to him late but the ‘catch-up tsar’ is a hugely significant figure in all of this. It is Sir Kevan’s findings on learning loss that are reported to be jolting Mr Johnson into action. And it is Sir Kevan, with his impressive background in research, pedagogy and education leadership, who will give the whole project some heft and credibility.
He will also be doing his best to unite a broad consensus behind the plan. Because Sir Kevan, who has thrived under and had the support of both Conservative and Labour governments, doesn’t really do conflict for the sake of conflict. He tries to take people with him. And if he has anything like the control over the education recovery plan that some well-connected people have claimed, then the last thing that will happen is the deliberate incitement of a fight with the unions.
Part of the reason for that is that teachers are going to have to be central to whatever happens next. You can talk as much as you want about private tutors and drafting in a “citizens’ army” of retired teachers and students to help. But if teachers are not wholly on board with an education catch-up plan then there is no way that that is going to work.
Indeed, Mr Williamson acknowledged just how central teachers would be when he talked, this Easter, about how improving their training would be a “crucial” part of the recovery plan.
So just as you could see a short term political motive in provoking a battle with teachers, there is also much that points in completely the opposite direction.
Will teachers be paid enough for catch-up hours?
But what if a serious row developed even though nobody really wanted one?
That possibility has also got to be there. The latest reports emanating from government may be suggesting that teachers are paid for their extra work. But will there actually be new money from the Treasury to fund that pay? Or will schools have to find it from their already squeezed budgets? And will whatever is on offer be enough to satisfy the unions?
The public purse strings are already so tight that ministers’ have “paused” teachers’ expected pay rise. And why should their representatives welcome some money for extra hours if teachers’ main salaries are being subjected to a real-terms cut?
Sources close to Number 10 also believe there may also be a risk of “accidental” confrontation over the way in which any extra funding is delivered – for example if it went to heads to dish out, or even to a third party, rather than going straight to teachers.
The stakes are high. For government a big dispute could scupper the success of one of its flagship policies for a post Covid world. And teaching unions – that have spent the last few years picking their battles very carefully - also have plenty to lose. If they get tempted into taking positions they no longer have the capacity to follow through on they could quickly find that their bluff is called.
Both sides will need to plan their next moves very carefully.