An unpredictable conference of the National Education Union showed an instinctive aversion to oppression and a desire to take action, but competing visions and priorities about how to deliver it. Conference delegates John Stephens and Andrew Stone report (in a personal capacity).
Luigi Brindisi, Parliament Square rally in support of Girls’ Day School Trust strikers, 23 February 2022
The cost-of-living crisis is increasingly affecting education workers, whose pay has already dropped substantially in real terms during a decade of austerity. Conference heard how some young teachers are forced to live in squalid, overcrowded accommodation, and how one support staff member was unable to bake a cake for a fundraiser as it was not one of the two days that she could afford to heat her oven. So it was perhaps no surprise that a motion to launch an indicative ballot on national pay was passed overwhelmingly.
The motion was unambiguous about the timeframe – the ballot will follow the release of the School Teachers’ Pay Review Body recommendations, which are highly unlikely to be above inflation. The aim is to incorporate other sections, such as college teachers, if their pay offers are also unsatisfactory. Any national action faces the challenge of the Tory anti-union laws, including the requirement to run atomised postal ballots that deliver an absolute majority of the eligible membership (rather than a simple majority of those voting, as in virtually any other democratic election). So the primary task across the union is to improve turnout on a recent pay survey that showed two thirds support for strike action but still fell short of the required threshold.
Delegates were urged to set up reps’ briefings and members’ meetings, to recruit, and to refresh and update membership lists in preparation. This is something that new reps – the union has increased its rep base during the pandemic to over 10,000 – can easily agitate around even in relatively unorganised workplaces.
There was also a widespread desire to challenge the ‘toxic testing’ that blights our education system, particularly in the way it distorts the primary curriculum with synthetic phonics and standardised tests at the expense of a play-based, exploratory method. This led to an impassioned debate about whether to also ballot for a national boycott of these reductive and counterproductive tests, in which the frustrations that we have yet to banish them was all too understandable. However, a similar indicative ballot had fallen short of the necessary threshold in 2019, and delegates ultimately chose to focus on the pay ballot this time. If we make a success of the pay action this year, we should increase our capacity to take on further battles such as testing in the near future.
Fighting on one front
The desire to focus our energies on one front also convinced the majority of delegates to maintain our position on a TUC agreement on national bargaining for support staff. Despite the steady growth of this section of the union, it was felt that to challenge the exclusive rights that the agreement gives to Unison and GMB would damage co-operation and could lead to membership poaching, which would be in nobody’s interests when we are trying to forge united campaigns. Strikes can – and already do in some exemplary cases – unite teacher and support staff members regardless of formal collective bargaining.
However, a different strategy was suggested by the motion passed to deregulate the awarding of honoraria, meaning that districts can award significant sums to officers (even if they have facility time) or any lay member undertaking voluntary work for the union. This undermines a rank and file strategy, and is a symptom of a transactional and bureaucratic approach amongst the majority of delegates – ironically in rebellion against much of the national left bureaucracy. Support for this motion was strong and organised, a fact that rank and file partisans ought to observe and analyse closely as we develop our approach to the pay campaign and next year’s conference.
The Labour Party was barely mentioned throughout conference, and no speaker suggested that the party is even a factor in our fight with the government. This did not prevent the shadow secretary for education, Bridget Phillipson, from addressing the conference. Her speech was received coldly to begin with but delegates began to become indignant when she insisted that Ofsted be reformed rather than abolished – directly contradicting policy that we had passed less than 24 hours before. As the proximate instrument of many forced academisations and a motivating spectre in workload-sprouting accountability regimes across the country, Ofsted is despised by teachers.
A significant proportion of delegates walked out in disgust rather than listen to the remainder of her insensitive harangue, which also offered no critique of academisation or solidarity with our pay campaign. This was in stark contrast to the rapturous reaction that Jeremy Corbyn received when he spoke to conference in 2019, as well as when he addressed a packed fringe meeting of the NEU Left (a grouping that emerged from the Socialist Teachers Alliance) on the eve of this year’s conference.
Ukraine and the left
The NEU Left motivated an urgent motion on the war in Ukraine, and there was full agreement that solidarity with all refugees, not just those from Ukraine, was needed. This was illustrated when virtually the entire conference wore ‘Refugees are welcome here’ t-shirts produced to raise money for the Care 4 Calais refugee charity. But disagreement arose due to the phrasing of the motion and amendments on Ukraine. The original motion expressed criticism of NATO, but an amendment, backed by an unusual alliance of the broad left, other left delegates and independents, was tabled to remove this. Strong internationalist arguments were made for the original motion, condemning Putin whilst emphasising that de-escalation was required, rather than military alliances.
In a strange twist, delegates voted down the more militaristic amendment but were then swayed by jingoistic speeches about the need to force Putin’s ‘unconditional surrender’ and went on to vote down the entire motion. The most bellicose argument deployed was that not all conflicts end in a negotiated settlement, as shown by Japan’s surrender after the Second World War. The fact that the devastating use of nuclear weapons was required to produce that result was left hanging in the air like radioactive fallout.
Overall, it appeared that many delegates’ instinctive empathy for Ukrainian victims of the war could swing between more internationalist and tacitly pro-NATO arguments depending on emotive speeches and the mood of the hall.
An urgent motion requires the gathering of over 200 delegate signatures and a two-thirds majority vote in order to be heard. Unusually a total of four motions were successfully tabled in this way. As well as the Ukraine motion, debates on Child Q, the Education White Paper and Conversion Therapy were taken.
Against police and exclusions
The shocking case of Child Q, a 15 year old schoolgirl removed from an exam to be put through a humiliating and abusive strip search for drugs (none were found), shone a spotlight on the institutional racism within the education system and way that police participation exacerbates this. Too often welfare and safeguarding issues are treated as criminal ones, with the adultification of black youth a major factor.
However, it took two attempts to pass definitive policy against police in schools, after the urgent motion on Child Q was amended to weaken such a statement. Success was only assured when the urgent motion on the White Paper included a strengthening amendment to this effect. This is not a ‘common-sense’ position, as ‘community policing’ has become normalised as part of the school environment. Challenging the status quo on the ground will require patient campaigning and the explanation of alternatives.
In a related campaign, the abolitionist group No More Exclusions (NME) continues to shake up the union’s cautious approach to anti-racism. NME held an engaging fringe event with an emphasis on utopian thinking about inclusion and abolition, attended by at least 40 people. This meeting was a breath of fresh air compared to the bureaucratism of conference proceedings, with a diverse group of attendees speaking insightfully about the alternatives to exclusion and zero-tolerance behaviour regimes.
It was clear in this setting what a powerful and radical critique NME is developing by focusing on exclusion as a symptom of what has gone wrong at every level of schooling. Exclusion was debated on the conference floor but the NME-endorsed motion was watered down, meaning that the union is committed to reducing exclusions but accepts that in some cases they are necessary.
This is perhaps an unsurprising outcome, given that the current system makes it so hard to imagine radical alternatives to ‘behaviour management’. It is a system that disciplines education workers just as much as students through the pressures of league tables, inspections, lesson observations etc. But a more emancipatory curriculum would radically reduce the necessity for sanctions and reimagine how they would be implemented.
Challenging the spread of academies
The third urgent motion, on the Education White Paper, addressed the government’s renewed attempts to create an entirely academised system by 2030. This follows a similar such aim set out in 2016 by then Education Minister Nicky Morgan, which was due to be completed this year but which ran aground in the sands of opposition.
The government has played fast and loose with statistics in order to support its case, and the reality of academies is that they deliver ‘freedom’ from local democratic accountability, they undermine national pay and conditions, they have enriched a layer of executives and they have contributed to the largest ‘off-rolling’ of students in history in order to massage exam results. Conference was united in voting to challenge this model.
The final urgent motion was a condemnation of the government’s decision not to ban conversion therapy for trans and non-binary people. The fact that this motion was heard and then overwhelmingly passed would appear to testify to a pro-trans liberation mood amongst delegates.
This contrasts with the so-called ‘gender critical’ sections of the left leadership, who have been active within organisations such as Woman’s Place UK, which was founded to challenge proposals to change the Gender Recognition Act to allow trans people to legally self-identify. There have been tensions since the NEU’s formation about their influence over union training, campaigns and publicity around trans rights.
The motion was very difficult for transphobes to be seen to oppose, as it narrowly focused on the practice of conversion therapy. Even despite this focus, one delegate did speak in dog-whistle terms about the ‘funnelling’ of young people into gender reassignment. In another debate a speaker challenged an amendment that used the inclusive term ‘pregnant people’, but found very little support in doing so, and it was overwhelmingly passed. In contrast, Yvonne Hardman, voted union officer of the year, spoke movingly and to a very warm reception about the impact of Section 28 on her as a young cisgender lesbian and the parallels she saw with attacks on trans and non-binary siblings today.
Finally, the penultimate day of conference heard that members at John Fishers school in Croydon had voted by 90% to strike in opposition to the ban imposed on gay author Simon James Green. This could be a landmark action for the union. As Green has said: ‘We have to make a stand against LGBTQ+ book censorship. And these school staff have. I applaud and thank every one of them. But it’s not about me—it’s about the students, LGBT or not, who deserve (and need) to see their realities, and those of their peers, reflected in books.’ The first day of strike action is planned for Thursday 28 April and solidarity visits are encouraged. Messages of support can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com