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The NUT is rising to the academy challenge

In her second article for the Morning Star on the union’s strategy to energise and organise its lay activists, CHRISTINE BLOWER says new tactics put the future in the hands of ordinary NUT members

Even for a profession buffeted by upheaval for several decades, the past four years have witnessed a profound acceleration in the speed of change for teachers.

As noted in the first article of this series the symptoms of the Global Education Reform Movement (Germ) are competition within and between schools, the notion of “consumer choice,” standardised testing and test-based accountability and consequential performance-related rewards. And these have encroached on and increasingly shaped the education system in England since the 1988 Education Reform Act.

But the more recent growth of academies is a useful way in which to demonstrate the increasing speed of change and the challenges this poses to teacher unions.

New Labour opened the first academies in England in 2002. Eight years later, on the day the current government was elected, there were 206 academies in operation.

Today, according to Department for Education figures, there are over 3,700 academies. They comprise over 50 per cent of all secondary schools, and nearly 10 per cent of all primaries.

So in the space of four years there has been a huge increase in the number of academies — and the emergence of academy “chains,” with each chain comprising a number of schools.

Why does this matter to the NUT? Well, let’s put aside our ideological differences with academisation and the Germ more generally, and focus on the impact of industrial relations and union structures.

Academies, despite being publicly funded, are outside the democratic control of the local authority. Each academy therefore is a stand-alone employer, with the “freedom” to operate outside national or local agreements around pay and conditions of service, not to mention the curriculum.

In other words, each academy is a “bargaining unit.” So in a very short space of time the NUT has moved from having to deal with 153 employers in England (local authorities) to something approaching 4,000, where, on average, each NUT division (branch) has to deal with 26 separate employers.

In reality, and depending on the geographical area, the number may be many times higher.

Further, with the devolution of pay scales and pay progression to individual schools — maintained schools as well as academies — we are arguably witnessing the implantation of school-level bargaining on a wider basis. This is a trend that may well be intensified by the recent legislative changes around the protections for workers whose employer changes enshrined in the Tupe regulations.

This is a major issue for a union that is primarily structured around mirroring the traditional bargaining unit of the local authority.

Is it reasonable to ask or assume that local divisions will be able to cope with having to deal with a growing number of employers?

The problem is compounded by the threat to the amount of facility time available to local lay officers.

The question of how the NUT adjusts to this new environment, not only to survive but to grow as a lay-led democratic organisation that pursues a progressive vision of education and effectively protects the interests of its members, is at the heart of the NUT’s organising model.

The NUT is trying to protect its current structures while at the same time better positioning itself for the new world we find ourselves in.

So while divisions are engaged in — generally successfully — protecting local facility time arrangements through engaging with local authorities and getting academies to “buy in” to local facility time, a concurrent element to our organising model is that our divisions are identifying, training and empowering school-based representatives in their area.

There are clearly issues with a strategic approach that puts a large emphasis on reps in schools rather than broader-level negotiations.

First, there are over 20,000 schools in England.

Second, most of these are small workplaces with a micro-culture that can make organising difficult.

Third, the question of time in terms of workload pressures on teachers in schools, and with caring responsibilities outside work, is immense — a particular issue for a union that is 76 per cent female and 42 per cent under 35 years old.

However, there is a dynamic to this situation. One which opens up the possibility of renewal, both for the union and for education, based on the participation of members.

School reps are often already very active within their school, even if this is not always recognised. They may not be able to attend all division meetings, but this is not to say they are passive or apathetic in their workplace.

And the issues that are potential obstacles to union activity are also often the issues that teachers feel the greatest sense of injustice over and are therefore potential trigger-points for mobilisation.

The NUT is not seeking to reinforce the isolation and fragmentation of schools. Rather we are seeking to “cluster” reps together on an issue and a geographically logical basis to allow the development of a collective identity, where reps, with the assistance of local lay officers, begin to discuss issues and solve problems themselves.

By bringing reps together, we are also seeking to win and generalise the best national policies and practice — engendering a race to the top rather than a race to the bottom, and thus setting the general tone for industrial relations within schools in each area.

This is particularly important for reps in academy chains. A chain can be made up of a handful of schools within the confines of a local authority area, or it can be made up of dozens of schools across the country.

In this situation it is vital that reps in these chains talk to each other, not only to inform and take part in negotiations with their employer but to ensure policies are being implemented evenly in all schools within the chain.

In addition, we want reps to have discussions across chains, again in an attempt to level up to the best national standards and not allow fragmentation and diversification of policies and practices between chains.

This approach, while still in its early stages, is finding considerable support among NUT members. We have increased the number of reps by 60 per cent since the union adopted its organising model.

We’ve also seen a 250 per cent increase in the number of trained reps. Crucially, we’re beginning to see the confidence of reps rise, which is a key prerequisite of effecting positive change.

After a recent training event where over a third of all NUT reps in the larger academy chains met together, one rep encapsulated much of our aims and methods.

“Was this the day that the union was given back to the membership? Well, it felt like that to me.

“It’s clear that the traditional ways of bargaining at a national and local authority level are changing. What replaces it is on the one hand quite ominous, but also quite empowering.

“Increasingly in the future it will be down to union members to organise themselves and take up the cause at school and academy-chain level, as well as within local authorities.

“As a consequence, the union has to adapt and this is all about engaging reps and members on the issues that are most pressing.

“The days of waiting for ‘the union’ to do it for us are disappearing fast. I left the day having made some firm connections with colleagues and feeling that what I always wanted to be true had been reaffirmed — the union belongs to the members and it’s the members who will determine what happens next.”

Christine Blower is general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.


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