When I was a PGCE student, I was a member of the NASUWT, ATL and the NUT. I was courted with free highlighters, post-its and notepads because, as an NQT, I’d need to choose one. I needed to be in a union “just in case”. A union was an insurance policy; protection in case I ever needed it. I joined the NUT because practically everybody in my first school was in it. And that was all the thought I gave it.
As an in-school voice to protect and speak for teachers at a local level, I have always found unions to be constructive and helpful. Having your union rep by and on your side is a heartening and empowering thing. As a classroom teacher I was always grateful for the union reps who met with the senior team to negotiate on workload, vet the calendar, and feed back any concerns about the institution on my behalf. As a senior leader I am, if anything, even more grateful to the excellent union reps who now meet with me to do the same on behalf of the classroom teachers in my school.
My problem with teaching unions comes at national level. Whereas I felt the union reps in school spoke with my voice and represented my views as a classroom teacher, the same could not be said for the national executive. I used to read the NUT magazine and despair. It seemed to me to be a PR disaster. I resigned from the NUT in 2008 as they called strike action, transferring to the ATL as they were a non-striking union. I stayed with them, in AMiE, as I moved into senior leadership. ATL promptly went ahead and reneged on their non-striking policy, calling strikes in June 2011. I resigned my membership, joining ASCL. AMiE are still sending me their monthly publication, though, even though I haven’t paid a penny in subs for two years…
Now that I’m in ASCL I feel like I belong to a union that does speak with my voice. When I read Brian Lightman’s responses to the GCSE fiasco, to the EBac proposal, to the proposals for performance-related pay, they seem rational, reasoned and responsible. They represent the profession as a profession, and when I hear the national officers speak at conferences, they seem committed to constructive negotiation on our behalf with the Secretary of State and the Department for Education. This model of the representative voice constructively negotiating with the senior leadership on behalf of teachers is precisely that which works so well in school, scaled up to the national level.
I don’t believe teachers should strike. Not because the issues don’t demand it – they really do, perhaps now under this government more than ever. Newspapers and “the media” (awfully glib term) don’t often find opportunities to paint a positive picture of our profession – if we’re not exactly “enemies of promise” we’re usually to blame for not preventing most of society’s ills. I know – we know – how hard we work, but the perception from outside is that we have thirteen weeks’ holiday and a working day 8:30-3:30. And when schools close due to strike action we can’t underestimate the impact that has as parents rearrange childcare, as the self-employed businessman loses a day’s work, as grandparents are pressed into action, as shifts are rearranged, as an employee takes one day of her precious four weeks of annual holiday to look after her children. This is not, in my view, the means to garner public support behind the issues.
Of course Gove’s article in the Daily Mail aligning the striking teachers with a Marxist conspiracy is a fabrication. The fact that he attributes Marxist motives to a conspiracy he claims is “actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need” should be enough to prove this. But he is already manoeuvring so that, when the strikes begin, teachers will be perceived as “enemies of promise” rather than acting out of legitimate self-interest. He is, as I have said before, an incredibly gifted politician who is far more than a match for the union leaders who are trying to take him on. When they threaten strikes, he uses them as fuel to further his own agenda. Every blustering attack they make is used as ammunition against them.
So what should we do? Just roll over and accept what is proposed? Of course not. We must negotiate, lobby and protest. But the confrontational nature of strike action does our profession a disservice. And in the three schools I’ve worked in whilst strike action has been called, it has caused division and discord. The unions don’t strike together, so some staff go out and others come in. Even within union memberships in schools I have worked in, they have voted for staff to act with their consciences rather than follow the union call. It seems to me that the heart of the profession is in action, but not in strike action. By calling strikes, the unions risk fracturing what little unity we are able to muster.