Report of the 2008 NUT Conference – Education, Professionalism, Solidarity
(Philippe Harari is an NUT activist and teaches Politics at a Sixth Form College in Cambridge).
The annual NUT Conference can be quite an argumentative affair, with delegates engaging in robust debate and motions being won or lost by pretty small margins. This year, there was a genuine sense of unity in the conference hall and just about every single vote was unanimous, or nearly unanimous. This is partly as a result of the fact that this year we all have a common enemy in a government that is trying to impose below inflation pay rises. But it is also a result of a genuine desire to act together in order to act more effectively.
There were several key themes to this Conference, and as delegates listened to the debates, it became clearer how these different themes are all inter-related and underpinned by the government’s current ideological approach.
At the time of the Conference, the NUT was still awaiting the outcome of its ballot for a national strike for all schoolteachers on 24th April, the first national teachers’ strike for 22 years (we have since heard that the ballot was successful and the strike will be going ahead). UCU were balloting members in FE Colleges for action on that day, and other public sector unions were also thinking of joining in. There was a real sense of common purpose in the Conference hall and a strong feeling that the action on the 24th April would be the start of an ongoing pay campaign. The NUT agreed to ballot its members for discontinuous strike action, giving the National Executive real flexibility in pursuing the campaign. There is a real sense of anger amongst teachers about the government’s attempts to control public spending by cutting the pay of public sector workers, while people in the private sector are seeing their pay rise by more than inflation and while billions of pounds of public money are being used to fight an unjust war in Iraq and to shore up a failing bank. At the same time as having our pay cut, we are being asked to work harder…
It is impossible to achieve a reasonable work-life balance if you are a full-time teacher and the main driver of unacceptable teacher workload is the top-down target driven agenda set by the government via School Improvement Partners and OFSTED. This includes league tables, SATs, prescriptive target-setting, OFSTED and self-evaluation, performance management etc. When unacceptable workload is combined with pay cuts, is it any wonder that 1 in 3 newly qualified teachers leave the profession after one year? The Conference agreed that, following the pay strike on the 24th April, we would link our campaigns on pay and workload when planning future action. Of course, one of the main factors in increasing teacher workload is over-sized classes …
The reason class-sizes are so large in our schools is very simple – the government is not putting enough money into education. The UK comes only 23rd out of 30 developed countries in the 2007 OECD survey of average class size and the gap between average class size in state primary schools (25.8) and independent primary schools (10.7) is higher in the UK than anywhere else in the developed world. The body of research that shows that smaller classes leads to better education is enormous. The Conference called on the government to implement a phased legally binding maximum class size of 20 by 2020 in both primary and secondary schools, and a moratorium on school closures. As well as affecting attainment, large classes have a major effect on how students behave in the classroom …
This year’s Conference motion on classroom behaviour made it clear that there is absolutely no contradiction between defending members against harassment, abuse and assault on the one hand, and promoting a student centred approach to classroom management on the other. The NUT is very effective in its robust defence of teachers faced with extreme forms of bad behaviour in the classroom but now, unlike other teacher associations, is trying to debate the root causes of problem behaviour, rather than retreating into an increasingly authoritarian position. The motion sets up a national NUT classroom behaviour working group whose role will be produce and disseminate literature aimed at teachers, parents, policy-makers etc. outlining the root causes of problem classroom behaviour and setting out strategies to create a classroom ethos that is fully inclusive and at the same time conducive to effective teaching and learning. As well as over-sized classes, factors that effect behaviour in the classroom include institutional racism, inadequate resources, the ethos of league tables and testing, an inflexible top-down curriculum, insufficient learning support, inadequate or over-authoritarian on-site provision for dealing with classroom incidents and an ethos in which education is done ‘to’ students rather than ‘with’ them. The motion also referred to perhaps the most significant factor in determining how well students do at school: social class …
In his address to the Conference, newly installed national President Bill Greenshields spoke at length about the links between social class, poverty and education. In 1931, R.H. Tawney wrote “The hereditary curse upon English education is its organisation along lines of social class … the barbarous association of differences of educational opportunities with distinctions of wealth and social position”. Since then, a wide range of educational researchers have reached the same incontrovertible position; that there is a direct, sustained and devastating correlation between educational attainment and social class. The government recognises this link; as David Milliband, then Schools Minister, said in 2004 “…when it comes to the link between educational achievement and social class, Britain is at the bottom of the league for industrialised countries”. In Britain today, the richest 10% of the population own 71% of the wealth. Instead of setting the elimination of poverty as an absolute priority, governments have continued to blame teachers and the education system for continuing inequalities in educational attainment. Of course, as teachers, we must continue to do everything to raise all students’ aspirations, motivation and achievement, but we have to refute the notion that schools can in themselves put the matter right. The problem has its roots in our wider society, in a system that relies on the existence of ‘have-nots’ in order that the ‘haves’ can have a lot more of their share.
The Conference also passed excellent motions drawing attention to the financial difficulties faced by young teachers and pledging robust support for Local Associations and School Representatives, who sometimes put themselves on the line in order to represent their members. There was a motion deploring the way that supply/agency teachers are exploited and another pledging support for overseas trained teachers, many of whom face serious discrimination. Delegate again agreed to campaign for the end of SATs and for the abolition of OFSTED and the creation of a much fairer system of inspection. The Union reaffirmed its strong opposition to academies and the way that the new specialist diplomas are being developed. There was a powerful motion on gender equality, including a commitment to defend abortion rights. A motion that was widely reported in the press will make it easier for teachers and students to oppose military recruitment in schools, and there was an excellent motion on inclusive education. More details of specific motions will appear in The Teacher magazine.
Finally …. this was a great Conference, showing the NUT at its best – united in fighting for a fairer education system within a fairer society.