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