The conference of the largest teachers’ union has slammed the New Labour government and the TUC’s policy of working in partnership with it.
The NUT union voted by a margin of four to one for “an alliance of public sector unions to oppose social partnership, job cuts and modernisation” at its conference last weekend.
Social partnership is the policy championed by the TUC and many union leaders. This policy seeks to cooperate with the government rather than confront it.
The partnership approach led the leaders of the other two main teachers’ unions in England and Wales to sign up to a “remodelling agreement” with New Labour. This allows teachers to be replaced with less qualified support staff on poorer pay.
Those unions have also agreed to proposals that will cut the pay of many thousands of teachers and abandon safeguards for those who are made redundant.
“Partnership has to be between equals,” Catherine Brennan from Croydon, south London, told the conference, “and we are plainly not on equal terms with the government.”
Jan Nielsen from Wandsworth, south London, added, “I am not prepared to seek a partnership with a government that has lied to me to start a war.
“The alternative to fruitless talk of partnership with New Labour is preparedness to fight it. The call for strike action against the government’s attack on our pensions led to us recruiting teachers to the NUT and support staff to Unison in my school.”
The break from social partnership and the condemnation of the government on every issue underlined the chasm that has opened up between New Labour and teachers. The general election of 1997 was the first in which a majority of teachers, 67 percent, voted Labour.
A recent poll put the number intending to vote Labour in five weeks’ time at just 29 percent.
Iraq is one reason for the collapse in support. The NUT conference overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for an end to the occupation.
Lorraine Hunte from Croydon contrasted the conference’s view with the “three main parties who pretend that occupation is somehow good for the Iraqi people”.
Recent government moves on education policy have further alienated teachers. The conference voted unanimously to condemn New Labour’s proposed reorganisation of education for 14 to 19 year olds.
The education White Paper ignores the recommendations of the Tomlinson report, which New Labour commissioned and which pointed away from endless testing and a narrow curriculum.
Instead, said delegates, New Labour is proposing the kind of divide between academic and vocational education that characterised the education system introduced by the 1944 Education Act, leading to secondary modern and grammar schools.
“In addition,” said Bill Anderson from Birmingham, “they are introducing a third tier of work-based training at the age of 14. That’s from a time before the 1944 Act.”
The conference voted unanimously to coordinate a national campaign against the city academy programme. The government wants to set up 200 of these schools, where private sponsors get public money to run the school and determine what goes on inside it.
There was a standing ovation for Ken Muller, a teacher from Islington Green school, north London. He described how his school faced becoming an academy after the then chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead intervened to declare it failing in 1997. In fact, the school was doing well.
What marked out this year’s NUT conference from the last three, which also condemned New Labour, was a greater confidence that it is possible to take action against the government.
That was reflected in a significant decision to change the union’s antiquated rules on taking strike action. Before last weekend a successful ballot for action that could require strike pay needed to get 50 percent of those entitled to vote endorsing it, and a two to one yes vote.
It will now need only to get over 50 percent of those who return their ballot papers.
Under that rule the NUT would have gone ahead with a boycott of compulsory national SATs tests last year. It makes the threat of balloting in a few months’ time for national strikes over pensions more credible.
There was intense discussion on the conference floor about the possibility of making a left breakthrough at the general election. That led to an upbeat fringe meeting organised by Respect, attended by over 100 delegates.
For more on the pensions debate at NUT conference see NUT conference