NEU Conference 2021 has had to take place via Zoom, with delegates sitting at their own homes. Such a Conference has obviously not been without its glitches and idiosyncrasies but, in the end, managed to debate and agree a wide range of policy.
Disappointingly, one of the few motions that was never reached was a motion that I had hoped to propose on a “National Contract for Education”. Conference voted to close the debate before it was heard, even though there would have been time to debate it, and still leave time for another important unfinished motion on Pride in Our Union.
However, while the debate was not had at Annual Conference, it’s certainly a proposal that I want to continue to raise for discussion during the campaign for Deputy General Secretary.
As usual, our Annual Conference has agreed many good demands but the question for delegates as we draw Conference to a close is always the same – now, how do we achieve them? How can we defend pay, jobs and conditions? How can we get rid of SATs, Ofsted and League Tables for good - and build a curriculum based on equality and the real needs of children and our communities?
The last year of the pandemic has shown that lobbying alone will not succeed, especially now that the Labour Party front bench can no longer be relied on to support NEU policy as under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The successful use of Section 44 showed in January how we can win - by giving a clear national lead, calling on members to act together union-wide.
The Motion on the National Contract would have come at the end of a series of motions around pay, workload and conditions – but it was the motion that could have brought those together in one national strategy.
Because, while we can – and will – continue to win some gains at a school level, issues that affect every educator will need to be tackled by acting across employers – and across the whole Union. How do we do that?
We all know the organising watchwords we use when we train our reps – that our demands need to be “deeply felt and widely felt” if we are going to be able to act collectively. Now for some educators, their key grievance will be workload, for others pay, for others job losses and the lack of support for students. A campaign for a new ‘National Contract’ for all can bring together those key grievances into one unified campaign – and form the basis for such a unified national campaign of action.
The motion suggests a series of demands:
Firstly, to “Pay school staff properly” – linking the demands we agreed elsewhere in Conference, for significant pay awards for both teaching and support staff and for guaranteed pay progression, not PRP. The Contract must also include trade-union negotiated common pay scales – together with additional London and Fringe allowances – to replace the increasingly fractured pay scales across different employers.
Secondly “An end to excessive teacher workload” – to stop the burden of 50 hour working weeks and unpaid overtime driving staff out of the job through overwork. The Contract should add the long-standing demand for a minimum 20% PPA – plus additional time for those with additional responsibilities – so staff have time to prepare in the school day, not in their evenings, weekends and holidays. The contract must set a real limit to working hours. That doesn’t just mean limiting teachers’ “directed time” but an end to the open-ended wording in the STPCD that also asks for the “additional hours as may be necessary to enable the effective discharge of the teacher’s professional duties”.
Thirdly “Sufficient Staff to meet needs” - a limit on hours will only be feasible if it is combined with expectations of work that can be achieved within that limit – for teachers and support staff. That means a Contract that also sets out a requirement for trade union negotiated policies, not least on assessment and planning. It also means making sure employers have class size limits and staffing structures that provide the support needed for students, rather than just having to fit to an inadequate school budget.
Fourthly, “Collective Bargaining and Accountability”- having used our workplace strength together to win national demands, then, in turn, we need to use that national strength to insist that every workplace, and every employer, has its own negotiating structures to resolve how our national contractual rights are applied locally, and to negotiate the individual issues that can arise in a particular sector or school.
Where we have national recognition, we should use the opportunity given to us already via the Review Body process to call for these demands as part of an overhaul of the STPCD – while also seeking direct negotiations and collective bargaining for all our members.
Of course, those overtures will be rejected by this hard-nosed Government – unless they are backed up by the threat of national action that would be required to win a national contract.
As the Motion proposed, however, ballots could also be counted by employer so that, alongside national negotiations, the Union can also pursue disaggregated action to make gains on an employer-by-employer basis.
Clearly, union-wide action needs careful preparation. That includes the ‘technical’ preparations of making sure we are ‘ballot ready’ to meet the legally imposed thresholds, with correct home addresses and setting up mechanisms for reps to check we are getting the vote back postally in as high a turnout as possible.
It needs the campaign preparation - taking the campaign out to every member, using what we have learned from using online methods like Zoom, as well as the physical meetings and rallies.
It also need taking out more widely to parents – to explain why a National Contract for staff is also a National Contract for Education – to stop the constant staff turnover, to limit class sizes and insist on sufficient staffing to improve the learning conditions for young people
But above all, pursuing this approach means we move from lowering members’ confidence by emphasising the barriers in our way – and instead start to raise members’ confidence by emphasising what needs to be done – and then works out soberly but with determination, how we’re going to do it.