The annual conference of the National Education Union (NEU) took place, virtually, over three days last week. Almost 1,000 delegates debated the key issues facing the union as schools have reopened and educators look to face the challenges of a new term.
The NEU is the largest educators’ union in England and Wales and has grown and become stronger during the pandemic. It has put on tens of thousands of new members and some 5,000 new school reps, taking the total number of reps to around 12,000.
This is largely a result of the union repeatedly challenging the government when it attempted to enforce unsafe school openings.
The shadow of Covid-19 and the worry that the government’s plan to open society up is a gamble that could go wrong hung over the conference. But debates focused more on other.
The online format of the conference made debate harder and tended to lead to fewer speeches and arguments than would normally be expected.
And the round of informal discussions and fringe meetings which are a key feature of a proper conference were also largely missing. An excellent Stand up to Racism fringe was one important exception.
Nevertheless, some key decisions were taken on specific issues ranging from testing and assessment to pay and workload to opposition to school exclusions.
There were also good motions agreed on wider questions such as challenging racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia and also on the climate crisis and the fight against the police and crime bill.
A key early debate saw discussion of how best to challenge the government’s primary testing agenda. The Tories want to reimpose SATS and a new baseline test for reception-age children this September.
Some argued that we should immediately ballot all primary members on a boycott of all such tests. But such a ballot two years ago failed to come anywhere near meeting the necessary thresholds under anti-union laws.
Others argued that such a strategy was not likely to produce a different result right now. They argued it would be better to focus on building a campaign immediately around stopping the introduction of the new baseline test in September and seeing if such a campaign created the conditions for a successful ballot on boycotting that.
This approach was decisively backed by delegates, and activists have called a meeting for primary members later this month to develop the baseline campaign.
Delegates agreed motions making a fight against the pay freeze a priority as well as one stressing the urgent need to take up the question of workload. This has soared under the pandemic and is likely to become a key battle in the months ahead.
An excellent emergency motion supporting the fight against the police and crime bill and defending the right to protest was passed So also was one on challenging sexism and violence against women.
And an important motion committing the union to further develop its solidarity with the defence of trans rights was also agreed.
A key feature of conference was that activists at the heart of the new NEU Left, which was formally launched recently, were at the heart of all the key debates.
This bodes well for building the NEU Left now. There is a national meeting set for the end of April and then a round of regional meetings before the summer.