Teachers' unions: Speaking as one

Alyssa McDonald talks to teachers' unions about education reform.

The new school term - and a new session of parliament - may be under way, but Michael Gove has only just received his report card for the last one. It's not good. In general, voters quite like the coalition government, but approval ratings for the Education Secretary's schools reform programme stand at a disastrous -19 points.

Gove's flagship policy, to set up academies outside of local authority control and "free schools" run by non-profit and profit-making groups, was pushed through parliament in July. It has been divisive even within the government, yet has had the effect of bringing teachers' unions together. "There's nothing like the election of a coalition to get the teachers' unions all speaking as one voice," says Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT). In June, the NUT, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) united to oppose the bill, writing to every school approved for academy status to outline the shortcomings of the government's reform plans. Brendan Barber, the general secretary of the TUC, has promised further co-ordinated opposition in the coming months.

Like Blower, the ATL's Mary Bousted and Chris Keates of the NASUWT both say that fighting the academies programme is their top priority. At the TUC conference, the ATL will unveil "a major piece of research" into private companies interested in launching free schools - who they are, how they are structured, what their educational goals are. It will reveal, Bousted tells me, the truth about the government's policies: that they are not about improving school standards, but about "letting the private sector make a profit out of state education".

The Academies Act is just one of several issues on which some, or all, of the teachers' unions in England and Wales (which between them have more than 860,000 members) see eye to eye. The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) does not oppose academies, but the general secretary designate, Russell Hobby, believes that "if we want to see a real change in standards of education it will come from effective teaching, not from structural reform".

All four unions - along with a fifth, the non-TUC affiliated Voice - agree that scrapping Key Stage 2 Sats would allow teachers to work better (although only the NUT and NAHT boycotted last year's tests). The same is true of national curriculum reform. Each union has a different slant on exactly what is required, but all want teachers to have more freedom to do their jobs as well as possible. None will mourn the death of the General Teaching Council (GTC), scrapped by Gove in early June - but all are anxious about how teacher regulation will be managed in the months ahead.
In part, the GTC was unpopular because teachers felt it had been imposed on them, undermining their authority. But dumping it without consulting the unions smacked of the same lack of respect for teachers' professionalism, something that frustrated both Bousted and Blower. Keates says the government's failure to communicate with the NASUWT goes even further. "Virtually every day since 12 May, something has been announced which will have a profound effect on education - and, indeed, on the working conditions of our members," she explains. "We haven't even been alerted beforehand, let alone consulted. So it becomes very difficult to have any sort of constructive engagement."

At a time when unions are struggling to be heard, would a single teachers' union be stronger? The question is not a new one; since 1996, there has been a dedicated campaigning body, Unify, to promote it. A single union has been "on the NUT's agenda for a very long time", Blower tells me. Hobby sees the need to "work with a wider range of organisations", though he does not commit to "anything formal".

But Bousted worries that "highly innovative" ATL policies - for example, a "local curriculum" that would work within a national context but reflect local needs - would disappear. Keates is also protective of her union's curriculum policies. "People have a free choice of which union they want," she says. "Our main aim is to represent the interests of our members."

However, Sally Hunt of the University and College Union (UCU) - itself the product of a merger between the AUT and NATFHE in 2006 - is more positive. "Competition between unions is a luxury we can no longer afford," she argues. "What we need is simple: one union in each sector." The UCU's focus this year will be on "the punitive cuts that have already been announced for both further and higher education" - a concern over funding that is shared by all British teachers' unions, including those in Scotland and Northern Ireland for which Sats and academies are not an issue.

A single teachers' union is unlikely to appear on the agenda any time soon. But Unify campaigns for both "unity in action and organisational unity". If less formal collaborations - such as the joint action against academies by the NUT, ATL and NASUWT - are effective, there will undoubtedly be more to come: there is plenty of common ground to fight on.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.