Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1848

A mood to stamp on SATs

This article is over 18 years, 8 months old
KEVIN OVENDEN reports from the National Union of Teachers conference
Issue 1848

THE NUT conference, which took place over Easter, revealed growing opposition to the government on every front. Delegates representing local associations of the largest teachers’ union voted unanimously for a ballot to boycott the SATs national tests for school children. NUT general secretary Doug McAvoy captured the mood of teachers, especially those who voted Labour. He talked of ‘a creeping McCarthyism in government’ and ‘a sinister lack of tolerance’.

He warned ‘every trade union is threatened by this hostility and vendetta’ from New Labour. A clear majority of conference delegates also came out against the war and US-led occupation of Iraq.

There was also anger and a pledge to strike over the funding crisis that is leading to threatened redundancies across thousands of schools. An emergency motion contrasted the ‘inadequacy in the funding of public services’ to ‘the unlimited, ad hoc funding of military action in Iraq’.

Conference delegates also voted to reject government moves to ‘remodel’ the whole teaching profession by replacing teachers with classroom assistants in many cases. Since New Labour was first elected in 1997 NUT leaders have tried to balance selective attacks on the government with calls to embrace New Labour as an advance on the Tories.

But in every debate at last weekend’s conference there was not one warm word for the government. In the debate on boycotting the SATs tests, delegates spoke in anger at the damage that constant testing aimed at producing school league tables is doing to children.

They also voiced confidence that it is possible to beat the government on this issue. Such a victory would blow a huge hole in the market-driven education policy New Labour has continued from the Tory years. ‘We should be confident we can boycott the SATs next year and get rid of them,’ said John Wearty from Liverpool.

‘Doing that will be a blow to the league tables and will transform teachers themselves. ‘ The day after you stand up to the bully, the world looks a different place.

‘That’s what is at stake in this campaign. A new confident group of teachers and a new confident union is what we have to look forward to.’ The union is now resolved to launch a public campaign involving parents and school governors against SATs, which only exist fully in England.

The NUT is also to ballot to boycott the tests even if the other teachers unions, the ATL and NASUWT, do not. Many delegates thought the fight over the tests should already be under way. Speakers in the conference spoke of how angry they were that the majority of the NUT executive had pulled back from boycotting the SATs this year.

There was loud applause when Andy Parsons from Nottinghamshire said the responsibility for children suffering under the tests this year lay squarely with the executive. He told them, ‘You have a moral duty to lead this action for next year.’ Sarah Finigan said, ‘Parents support us. I know that from petitioning over the issue in Croydon. We are lagging behind public opinion on SATs.’ Feeling was so strong that the conference voted down an executive amendment that delegates thought could be interpreted to avoid calling a boycott ballot unless all the other unions agree.

That mood meant that executive members were at pains to promise that the campaign and boycott will take place. NUT general secretary Doug McAvoy gave journalists the same message.

The unanimous vote for the boycott left an overwhelming expectation in the hall that it will happen. An impassioned 250-strong fringe meeting the night before had already called for a campaign conference against the tests, called by NUT associations with a view to building a boycott unofficially if the union’s national leaders dare retreat.

New targets flow from opposition to war

THERE WAS near unanimous support for a resolution which was critical of the war on Iraq and which called for solidarity with the Palestinians. However, the bureaucratic committee that orders the agenda had removed large chunks from the motion that referred to taking a clear anti-imperialist stand and affiliating to the Stop the War Coalition.

Bernard Regan from Westminster, a member of the Stop the War Coalition steering committee, said in seconding the resolution, ‘We face the prospect outlined by Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and others of a new US century. In it, if their will is not obeyed by a state they will simply bomb them. There is talk of a road map for the Palestinians. But George Bush has said clearly that he backs Ariel Sharon. His government has given Israel $10 billion in aid.’

There were gasps of astonishment in the hall when executive speakers tried to claim that the NUT had led the opposition to the war as far as education unions are concerned.

In fact the NUT delegation to last year’s TUC conference refused to support a resolution which unambiguously opposed war on Iraq. The lecturers’ Natfhe union and the teachers’ NASUWT delegations were among those who did vote for it. The majority of NUT executive has also blocked discussion on affiliation to the Stop the War Coalition or backing for demonstrations like the giant 15 February protest, on the grounds that it would be ‘outside the aims and objectives of the union’.

The conference debate, however, showed most delegates want the union to be firmly part of the anti-war movement.

A 230-strong Stop the War Coalition fringe meeting underlined that. Mary Compton, vice-president of the NUT, told the meeting it was ‘shameful’ that the national union had abstained from opposing the war.

Lindsey German, national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, outlined the way the US occupation of Iraq is opening it up for corporations such as Bechtel, which is heavily involved in privatisation here.

Left Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn said, ‘The great achievement of the movement has been the politicisation of a new generation.’ People left the meeting determined to continue organising against the warmongers in the White House and to take up arguments about what the US is doing with Blair’s support.

Speakers raised three coming focuses: building big May Day protests over war and privatisation, supporting the demonstration called by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign on 17 May, and travelling to the counter-summit and demonstration in France when the G8 meets in Evian during the week of the summer half term.

Strikes threatened over sackings

THOUSANDS OF redundancy letters are about to go out to classroom assistants, teachers, support staff and other school workers. It is a result of inadequate funding and the crazy market mechanisms which make schools compete for it.

Pete Bishop, an NUT national executive member from Wirral, said, ‘In my area, out of 101 primary schools, 45 have declared redundancies. Out of 11 special schools, two have declared redundancies.’ Kevin Courtney from the NUT in Camden explained why the government’s claim to have increased funding to schools by 6.5 percent did not add up.

He said, ‘Our pay went up by 2.9 percent, the lowest in the public sector. Increased employer national insurance contributions added another 1 percent to the pay bill. Pension contributions have gone up by over 5 percent. The total pay bill has gone up by 9 percent but funding went up by only 6.5 percent. The money is not in our pockets. Taking account of inflation and our increased national insurance contributions, we are worse off. We should have no hesitation in pinning the blame squarely on the government.’

Determination to campaign to expose the funding crisis and to defend jobs in schools united the conference. Tony Brockman, who sits on the union’s body that decides on industrial action, said, ‘This union will resist compulsory redundancies with the full strength of the national union. We will have no hesitation in striking to stop them.’

Other speakers stressed the need to campaign nationally on the issue and not wait until redundancies are made and they are fought locally. The funding crisis has thrown education secretary Charles Clarke, who refused to attend the NUT conference, on to the defensive.

An electric meeting

SATURDAY NIGHT saw the most exciting fringe meeting at the NUT conference for years. About 250 people packed into a room to discuss how to build a boycott of the SATs tests and to get the union to back it. Among the speakers was John Illingworth, who is standing for general secretary of the NUT later this year.

His primary school in Nottingham was one of the last 11 schools to continue to refuse to do the tests when the NUT leadership called off its original boycott in 1994. The enthusiastic response he got reflected the widespread feeling not only against what the government is doing but also for a new union leadership committed to action to oppose it.

The meeting was enthralled by children’s author Pat Tomson. She described the absurd questions on a SATs test based on one of her books. ‘I failed the test,’ she said. ‘One of the reasons given was that I failed to understand the author’s intentions.’

Most of those who spoke in the meeting were delegates who rarely get a chance to speak in set-piece conference debates. The atmosphere inspired people to organise campaigning over tests in their areas.

It also further convinced delegates from the established left of the union that there is a wider layer of teachers (often new to the job) who want to organise in an outward going way to push their union leaders to stand up to the government. The conference also saw a packed 130-strong fringe meeting on fighting the BNP and racism in schools.


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