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There is power in an education union

The announcement of a pay rise for teachers shows that the education unions have the Tories on the run. Now it’s time to push for radical change, says ROBERT POOLE

I READ once, probably on a mug in the staffroom, that teachers are solar-powered. They recharge during the summer. Though so far this summer doesn’t look like one where we can expect much sun. 

As I write this, I’m looking out the window at grey skies and putting aside any plans of travelling abroad for any sunshine. 

There has been some good news for the profession, though. Fears of the government trying to impose a “summer of catch-up” on teachers thankfully hasn’t materialised and it seems that the government may even be trying to win teachers back on side with a pay rise. 

Last week the government published its response to the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) report. 

The STRB is meant to be an independent body which decides if teachers deserve a pay rise. 

It has, though, constantly disappointed. In a period of massive teacher shortages and a crisis of retention, one would suppose that the market would dictate a large pay rise in response. 

Instead there has been a 15 per cent cut in pay against inflation since 2010. Add to this the toxic system of performance-related pay and, as the National Education Union said in an email to members, “this falls well short.”

Many schools, thankfully, are quite rightly rejecting performance-related pay. 

According to the well-respected Education Endowment Foundation, this pay system has been rigorously tested and scientifically evaluated and has been conclusively proven to have an average impact of — drum-roll please — zero months’ progress. 

Not only that, in some situations it has a negative impact. Creating unintended consequences encouraging teachers to focus solely on tests (what gets measured gets done), leading to a narrowing of the curriculum and to focusing on groups of pupils on the borderline of a grade to the detriment of others in the group. 

Any review of pay should proscribe this pernicious practice.  

This pay rise shows though that the government is starting to worry about the rising power of the education unions. 

For 40 years we’ve seen repeated attacks on unions by successive governments, from anti-union laws in Parliament to anti-union rhetoric in the papers. 

We’ve seen the number of workers in trade unions fall to almost half of what it was in the 1980s. 

For those still in trade unions many, especially in the teaching unions, have come to see membership more as a form of insurance than what it once was — a force for change in society.  

This decline in trade unionism came at the time when it is needed most. In an era of wage stagnation; below-inflation wage rises (which have led to a real-terms fall in pay); the rise of precarious working and zero-hours contracts. 

Somehow the Tory government has managed to preside over an era of falling unemployment and falling wages. 

A decade of austerity has done irreparable damage to our public services leading to a crisis in education as well as in wider society. 

Overcrowded classrooms, decaying, crumbling schools and an alienated workforce. 

Schools, of course, have to also pick up the pieces for wider cuts in their communities. 

Cuts to children’s mental health services, the closure of Sure Start centres, removal of education maintenance allowance and so on have all had health and financial impacts on the most vulnerable in society.  

But, with Covid-19 came a change. People started to realise that alone they may be powerless but together they are strong. 

They set up mutual aid groups to take the place of the slow-to-react government. 

They saw their unions force the government to close schools in the face of Tory opposition. 

They have seen again that they need the union. In a single week at the start of the crisis 10,000 new members joined the National Education Union and the number of reps started to rise too. 

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent five hours pre-recording his epic speech about relaxing the lockdown, he was very confident that, as of June 1, schools would start to reopen. 

Unions said this was too soon, doctors and scientists pointed out that evidence didn’t support the decision. 

The NEU ran a fantastic “Only when it’s safe” campaign and then government ministers started to seem less confident when they talked about a June 1 opening date; councils rebelled; parents proposed a boycott. 

In the end only a quarter of eligible pupils returned in the first week of opening and the government was forced into yet another U-turn as a result, to back down on its ambition to get all primary schoolchildren back in class for a month before the summer holidays.

This latest pay rise should be seen as a victory for the union. We flexed our muscles and they flinched. We need to learn from this. We have thousands of members who were inactive suddenly realising that there is power in a union, but we need to organise these members in our schools and we need political education.  

When we do return to our workplaces in September, we need to harness this newfound energy and direct it towards our other struggles. 

Already people are talking about what a post-Covid society will look like and they are very certain that they don’t want it to go back to the status quo.  

We have a historic chance to rethink what our school system looks like and we have the power to shape it.  

Let us demand an end to all the things which alienate us from our jobs. 

Let’s do away with the pointless performance-related pay system. 

Let’s campaign to reduce teacher workload and improve teacher well-being. 

Let’s campaign for proper funding for our schools. 

Why not be even more imaginative? Let’s get rid of league tables, GCSEs and the toxic testing culture in our schools. 

Let’s abolish Ofsted. We won on June 1, and we will win again — we should see this as an opportunity to prove to our workforce that when we fight, we win.

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