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I believe in unity.
I believe that teachers would be best represented by a single union, organised across all schools in England and Wales, representing all teachers.
In fact, I believe there are strong arguments for a united union to represent all education workers, drawing on the words of our colleagues in the US — “If you’re in the building, you’re in the union.”
So it should come as no surprise to find me writing in the pages of the Morning Star in favour of closer co-operation between the teacher unions in England and Wales and for a concerted move to form a single teachers’ union.
However, this is no longer simply the right thing to do. It is now the only thing to do.
Professional unity has moved from being an aspirational aim to being a necessity.
Education faces the most sustained attack since the formation of our education system in the 1870s. Under this government, we have seen the greatest attempt to undermine the state education system, to deprofessionalise teaching, to take away parents’ right to be involved in their child’s education and, most significantly, the right of every child to be taught by a qualified teacher.
At the same time, teachers have faced pay deregulation, pension cuts and a punishing increase in workload — the “Gove increase” of between six and 10 hours extra a week for the average teacher — which sees the average primary school teacher working almost 60 hours a week.
This is destroying our education system and ruining our children’s life chances.
I feel my heart break when I hear colleagues tell me that they can no longer be the teacher that they want to be, that they can no longer teach inspiring, creative lessons because they are simply struggling to keep up.
These teachers are racked with guilt because they know their students are not getting the best of them but they are powerless to do anything about it.
And this workload which is crushing them has nothing to do with teaching and learning.
It is about bureaucratic accountability. Data collection for the sake of data collection and measures which are meaningless.
This was drawn out on Saturday when both the NUT and NASUWT conferences were simultaneously debating Ofsted and reaching the same conclusion.
Teacher after teacher spoke about the need to replace the discredited Ofsted inspections with a system of genuine accountability which was about supporting and developing teacher professionalism.
These same comments were also reflected on social media. But they were accompanied by several comments like the following from an NUT delegate: “Time for the unions to get it together and pull together.”
This really hits the nail on the head. We cannot fight these damaging changes alone. That is the entire point of a union — coming together to raise our collective voice.
This has become acute, as the recent NUT action has shown.
It was a very successful day of action and there was a huge level of support from parents and the general public. But we cannot get away from the fact that it would have been stronger if the NASUWT had joined us in taking strike action. It would have been stronger still if ATL had also joined us.
At this point we cannot afford to be divided and, as NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney puts it, “where we have a multiplicity of organisations, we will have a multiplicity of tactics.”
The problem is that this multiplicity of tactics weakens our response to government and, ultimately, our defence of children’s education.
Now there are those who would argue that unity does not necessarily make us stronger and that a single union would actually weaken teachers’ voice.
An example of this was the colleague who argued at the ATL fringe meeting on professional unity a week ago that “a choir is better than a soloist” and that by having a number of separate organisations our voice is stronger.
But this is a flawed analogy.
A choir is not made up of separate groups of people, each choosing their own music, key and tempo.
It is a group who sing together, whether in unison or in harmony. In fact it is the perfect example of how a single democratic union would operate, drawing on the individual strengths and the diversity of its membership. Everyone would have their own role and be able to express their voice but they would also co-ordinate together and raise their voices together.
The reality is that a single democratic union, speaking for the entire teaching profession, organised in evey school and every workplace, drawing on the strength of all its members, would be the single biggest obstacle to this government’s attempt to destroy education.
Members of all unions recognise this in schools up and down the country. Members of ASCL, ATL, NAHT, NASUWT, NUT and UCAC attended the professional unity conference in London on March 1 and expressed their support for the development of a single teachers’ union.
Now we need to build on the ideas which came out of this conference, to hold regional conferences across England and Wales over the coming year, culminating in a second national conference in 2015.
We need to take this argument into every school and every staffroom.
United, we can win.
The Morning Star-backed fringe Professional Unity — Let’s Get On With It! takes place at 5.45pm TONIGHT in the Brighton Centre, Syndicate 4. Gawain Little is NUT Oxfordshire secretary and a member of the union’s executive. He blogs at email@example.com.
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