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We're here to fix society for our students

Education workers are at the cutting edge of reforming society – not simply patching it up. Politics is central to our mission, writes joint NEU president KIRI TUNKS

THIS week sees the first conference of the National Education Union take place in Liverpool. Amalgamations are never straightforward but we have come a long way and our journey has been a reminder of the power of what drives any great union: the sheer will, determination and hard work of members, reps, activists, local officers and staff who share a common cause in a united struggle.

Since I became NUT president a year ago, and more recently as joint NEU president, I have had the privilege of visiting our members in their districts and workplaces. Like trade unionists everywhere, our members are doing amazing things under extremely difficult circumstances.

And it is the role of this movement to support and empower them. They look to us to fight for properly funded public services; for decent pay, decent pensions, and decent working conditions; a reasonable workload; to have their expertise and skills acknowledged and recognised; to be treated with professionalism and respect.

We’ve seen some valiant victories but even where we have lost a battle, we have built the union. Action builds confidence and empowers us to move forward to fight again.

This union matters to our students and their families too. As the biggest education union in Europe, we are well placed to campaign for an education system meets the needs of all young people, whatever their needs or aptitudes; whatever their background; wherever they’re from. This is a union which believes in an inclusive education with a broad, rich, global curriculum that nurtures and challenges all young people.

But we understand that the living conditions of our young people have huge implications for their chances in school and in life. That’s why, like many other unions, the NEU concerns itself with issues of social justice such as poverty, equality and youth violence to demand real solutions; not just soundbites that come cheap but solve nothing.

This is why we speak out about exclusions and SEND (special educational needs and disability) provision. This is why we stand up to racism. It is why we challenge sexism and campaign for statutory inclusive Relationships and Sex Education, which values and accepts us all for who we are. It’s why we find ways for members from marginalised groups to have their voices heard across our structures.

Unions matter to our communities where people can see trade union activists campaigning for an end to austerity; to save libraries; in defence of the NHS; on anti-racist demos. Trade union members are at the heart of movements rooted in our local communities and we support each other in our struggles. Solidarity benefits us all.

Unions matter to decision-makers and to politicians, too, who know that we are serious about defending our members and upholding their rights. They know that we will call them out and challenge them. We make them move.

Take education funding — who now believes the government’s claims that education funding is higher than ever?

Working in broad alliances, through the School Cuts campaign, we have built a movement of parents, students, educators and other workers, councillors and MPs demanding fair funding for all schools causing 750,000 people to change their votes in the last election. Education funding is now high on everyone’s political agenda — whatever they say in public.

And this union movement matters to our sisters and brothers around the world. Increasingly, the struggles we face are global, and we will need to build a global force to turn the tide of neoliberal education reform movements that fatten big business and fail our children. We support our international colleagues in their struggles, and they support us in ours.

And we learn from them and their successes which will help us build our own: the inspiring school strikes in Chicago, West Virginia and elsewhere; the high standard of child-centred learning in Cuba & Finland; the fight for human rights in places like Turkey and Palestine.

The NEU may be newly formed but it is built on the historic legacy and experience of two great unions. We believe that our new union gives us new and growing strength. We intend to use it.

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