THE merger between the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) teaching unions to form the National Education Union (NEU) last year is seen as a breakthrough by many teachers.
The new union has over half a million members, which is hoped to give it greater industrial clout and strengthen teachers’ hand against governments which have relentlessly attacked their profession, scorned their expertise and turned too many of Britain’s schools into soulless exam factories.
As the fourth-largest union in the TUC, the NEU’s direction of travel is likely to have an effect beyond education as well, as a key player in shaping the approach of trade union organisation across the board.
Just before Christmas I had a chance to catch up with Amanda Martin (pictured above) — recently elected vice-president of the union.
Martin, the Portsmouth secretary of the NUT, is due to take up the presidency in two years’ time — meaning she will be the first president of the whole NEU, when its NUT and ATL wings no longer have separate structures within the union.
And she’s looking forward to it. “Being the first professional unity president is going to be amazing,” she says.
“For years I’ve been a member of Unify” (the cross-union campaign for a single education union). “Our division affiliated so we’ve written professional unity motions, I’ve spoken at the professional unity fringe three years in a row — last year was brilliant, with [NUT general secretary] Kevin [Courtney] and [ATL general secretary] Mary [Bousted].
“This is something I’ve wanted from the beginning — as a classroom teacher, your colleagues don’t see the difference between unions. They ask ‘why is there more than one?’”
Teachers might ask that, but others could argue there are character differences between the unions. The NUT has often been viewed as a union of the left — former general secretary Christine Blower was dubbed “Bob Crow with pencils” by Times journalist Camilla Long — while the ATL was long seen as a non-strike union, taking national industrial action for the first time only in 2011.
Martin doesn’t see the merger as likely to make the NEU less radical, though. “Strike action is a very powerful tool. My concern is how we get members involved.
“Portsmouth and Southampton for example have great turnout for strike action and I’ve run demos and rallies and worked with trades councils to bring everyone out and that’s brilliant, but you get out into Hampshire and participation can be as low as 7 per cent.
“Teachers are very selfless — they feel they should put up with it for the kids, but paint the bigger picture — what happens if we let government continue to treat us like this, what happens if we let Sats assessment protocols continue like this, what damage is that doing to education?”
Government and bosses always portray strikes as selfish, and the NUT — through initiatives including the Stand Up for Education campaign — has been a pioneer in countering the slur by rallying whole communities behind a vision of a better education for their children.
“When you’re a teacher, you don’t go home and shut the door on your work. You think about your kids,” Martin says.
“I went away with teachers at half-term and we sit around talking about the kids we teach, there’s a passion that comes out.
“And we see the impact that the world outside school has on children. In my city there’s a poverty officer looking at how do we close that gap, how do we make sure kids aren’t abandoned.”
Both Courtney and Bousted have flagged up the effect child poverty — which has surged by over 400,000 since Tory and Lib Dem austerity started to bite in 2012 — has on attainment, with children coming to school hungry and unable to concentrate.
“Poverty has definitely got worse. I teach in an inner-city primary school — 48 per cent of kids are BME, there are 30 languages. I’ve gone and taken all the PE kits home and washed them and brought them back over half term.
“We have secondary schools where teachers are providing breakfast club.
“We’ve brought in lunch, we’ve identified kids who need more than just the dinner they’re getting.
“One of the most heartbreaking stories is from a secondary school in Portsmouth, a girl who literally has nothing. An amazing student.
“They timetabled her PE so she has double PE on a Wednesday, during which her school uniform is washed, dried and stuck back on her peg so she can feel a pride in her learning — because that poverty is showing and that will affect her chances and how she feels about herself.
“I’m part of the Girls Network, which is a team of women which started in Portsmouth and London and has been rolled out to Liverpool and Newcastle.
“It’s entirely voluntary — you apply to be a mentor and are assigned a girl between 14 and 19. You meet them and have conversations, sometimes in school, sometimes outside — you talk about what they want to do with their life, with girls from very deprived backgrounds who don’t maybe have access to many opportunities or much advice, or perhaps role models.
“But it’s sad there’s a need for this because really this support should be available in schools, for example in PSHE” (personal, social and health education).
“Tutor time shouldn’t be checking you’ve got all the homework in, it should mean time with the kids to talk about what they want.”
That time is denied teachers forced to drill children for constant examinations, with a relentless focus on maths and English that has also narrowed their learning.
And the tremendous time pressures are one reason schools find it so hard to retain teachers. Government figures show that almost a third of the teachers recruited in 2010, for example, had left the profession five years later.
“It’s not a job for life any more — the workload is massive, huge,” says Martin.
“But if the workload was big but in the end you felt you were doing the best by the kids teachers would still do it.
“My passion is teaching, and my passion is also the trade union movement. Why would you give your time to the movement if you’re only going to stay five years?”
Martin does not have a trade union background. Her father was a policeman. Her mother worked in a factory but stayed at home after having children. Only her grandfather, a train driver, championed trade unions and talked politics with her. He also gave her a copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
“That’s the society we’re going back to. It’s a horrible, awful book, but you need to feel cross — life was like that.”
That’s where Martin’s socialism comes in. “I was sat on a panel looking at dyslexia the other day and mentioned that things have actually got worse for dyslexic kids, and one of the parents said: ‘Why do you have to make education political?’
“I said I’d love not to have to. I’d love a country where the schools system doesn’t change on a politician’s whim.”
It was her understanding that political change was needed that helped bring her into the trade union movement — and she credits the late Steve Sinnett above all others with inspiring her to take a leading role and get others involved.
Martin is a member of the Labour Party, but she’s aware the NEU contains members who will not be and some who are members of other parties — even the Conservatives. The union is not a Labour affiliate.
“That’s not a question that’s going to go quietly away,” Martin observes. “But in or out, we need to be able to scrutinise policy and politicians.”
Teachers, she believes, should have far greater input into educational policy — with the country needing “a discussion around what education is, what’s it for.”
The new union provides a platform for leading the discussion. “We can help combat apathy in the trade union movement.
“Education unions have bucked the trend, we are different, doing things differently.
“Now we have bigger numbers and people are going ‘wow,’ we’re deemed a ‘super-union.’ We need to make sure we retain that label — and not just because we’re the biggest. But because we’re the best.”
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