THE education secretary, Charles Clarke, chose the conference of the second largest teachers' union, the NASUWT, to launch a tirade against anyone who dares to oppose him. He attacked the larger National Union of Teachers (NUT) and its leader Doug McAvoy for refusing to agree to a plan to 'remodel' the job of teaching. The leaders of the NASUWT signed up to the agreement in January.
Despite their assurances, the government hopes to use it to reduce the number of teachers by getting appallingly paid teaching assistants to take classes instead. Implementation of the agreement and the gathering revolt over national tests (SATs) are set to dominate schools from September.
After a short debate the NASUWT conference voted overwhelmingly with the leadership to back the agreement.
'I accept the vote,' one delegate told Socialist Worker, 'But I hold no trust for this government. And it does not make me feel good to be lined up by Charles Clarke to have a go at fellow trade unionists in the NUT.'
That is Clarke's aim as he enters months of possible confrontation that goes to the heart of New Labour's two-tier education system. He praised what he called 'modern, responsible' trade unionism at the NASUWT and contrasted it with the NUT union, which he implied was in the grip of 'militants'.
In fact the NUT conference unanimously called for a boycott of the SATs tests and for opposition to reducing the role of teachers. And significant numbers of NASUWT delegates said privately that there was a strong feeling for joining the boycott of SATs and for opposing the government's deal among members in their schools.
'The government's strategy is divide and rule,' one delegate from the Midlands told Socialist Worker. 'We shouldn't fall for it.' Delegates did vote for the union's executive to call strikes if the government does not provide the money for teachers to progress up the new pay ladder that it has imposed.
But no one in the conference made the point that the 'remodelling' agreement is being funded by limiting teachers' pay rises to below inflation for the next three years. The disagreement between the NASUWT and NUT leaderships over the agreement meant that forces in the NASUWT were able to delete any reference to merging the teacher unions in a debate on the future of their union.
The conference pushed talk of a merger further into the background with a card vote of 89,273 to 65,295. But the minority vote strongly reflected the desire of large numbers of NASUWT members to work with colleagues in the NUT and not be used as a battering ram by the government.
The NUT has recruited 25,000 members over the last year. Local officers report people joining because of the strong stand the union has taken against the government. The NUT's stand against SATs tests will also win wide support among parents and school students.