The new National Education Union held its first conference last month, and delegates met amid much prior speculation and some trepidation. Would the merger of the NUT and the ATL prove a block on moves to action, and how would the turn out in our pay and funding ballot affect teachers and support staff’s commitment to taking on government cuts? Would the commitments of National Union of Teachers to international solidarity, to social justice and the fight for an equal society be side-lined in favour of a narrow agenda? How would we continue our work on curriculum and pedagogy?
These fears proved largely unfounded. NEU conference reflected much of both the simmering anger and bitterness in our schools and in our society. It also reflected a sense of frustration that, despite excellent NEU policies, the lives of both educators and our students continue to be blighted by an education system that is collapsing under the weight of cuts, privatisation and a view of education and learning that looks back to the worst of the 19th century.
It sent out a message from delegates that we need to fight, both nationally and locally — on primary testing, on pay and funding and on sixth form pay. The union is to conduct an indicative ballot of members on primary testing in June, and a further ballot on pay and funding in the autumn. The NEU ballot on pay and funding in the autumn of 2018 did not reach the undemocratic thresholds set by the Tory anti-trade union laws, but it told us that 100 percent of those voting wanted to see the union continue to campaign on these issues, and over 80 percent of those voting wanted to see action on this.
There has been little movement on this by the union since the end of the ballot, and we need to revive the funding campaign. This means building local meetings and activities and supporting initiatives such as the School Cuts conference in June. It also means taking the building of the ballot over pay and funding very seriously. All the evidence shows us that there is no substitute for organisation and that means going out into every school, getting union reps in schools and giving members the confidence to act collectively.
We also need to build the kinds of networks that can deliver action on the ground, and the launch of the new NEU Left, which was addressed by Jennifer Johnson from the Chicago Teachers Union.
This is even more true of the ballot over primary testing. The issue of what education is for ran through conference like a thread, and there were impassioned debates on curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. We are totally opposed to the culture of endless testing and target setting, which has nothing to do with educating the child and everything to do with setting schools up against each other, and punishing them if they don’t jump through the right hoops.
Excessive testing causes huge distress and mental health issues, and is leading to students arriving in secondary school already feeling they are failures. Moreover, the pressure on results both the primary and secondary sectors is fuelling a huge rise in the exclusion of our most vulnerable children: SEN students, black students and those on Free School Meals. Indeed, when Jeremy Corbyn announced at the conference that a future Labour government would abolish primary testing he was received with huge cheers, and we should be reminding members of this.
We should not, however, underestimate the challenge we face in building support for a boycott of SATs. Organisation in many areas is weak, especially in primary schools, and we have to work systematically with teachers and parents to get a turn out. Moreover, we can’t take it for granted that it will be easy. Many teachers and support staff have never known a different system, and already there are questions about what a boycott would mean, and how the education system — and indeed our society — could look different.
The first morning of conference was the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy, and the Mayor of Liverpool spoke movingly about the 30-year struggle to achieve truth and justice.
The desire for a better, more just society was reflected throughout conference, both in debate and at fringe meetings. It was hugely significant that the new union affirmed support for Stand Up To Racism, and to continue to campaign against the far right, as well as expressing its concern over the exclusion of black students from our schools.
Stand Up To Racism, No More Exclusions and Show Racism the Red Card held well attended fringe meetings. In addition, the NEU affiliated to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and an emergency motion affirmed the union’s commitment to proper Sex and Relationships Education for all children, while condemning both homophobia and Islamophobia.
And in the week in which Extinction Rebellion occupied the streets for days, some 90 delegates attended a fringe meeting on System Change Not Climate Change organised by the Socialist Workers Party.
There is a lot to fight for in our schools. But we can also be part of changing them and changing society.
Jane Bassett is a member of the NEU in Hackney, east London.