Monday 28 June 2021

Some more questions to a DGS candidate - support staff and the voice of members in the NEU

Following a further hustings for NEU members in Wales, held on 23 June, I have been asked to respond to two additional questions. For transparency, I am sharing my responses below.

If you are interested in watching the speeches and responses from all three DGS candidates at the 23 June meetings, the Zoom recording has been posted here:

Q: Where do you think Support staff fit into the educational landscape in the future? Do you think that Support staff are viewed differently since the pandemic and not as previously described as "paint pot washers" or "playtime helpers"? Do you feel proud to have support staff stand beside you as members of the NEU?

Firstly, I would want every NEU member to strongly challenge any colleague who demonstrates such an insulting attitude to Support Staff colleagues. Support Staff play an essential role in the work of every classroom and every educational institution, as essential a role as all other members of the staff team. Sadly, however, it is these members who suffer the lowest pay-rates, including too often term-time only pay, are pressurised into taking on duties outside their contracted duties, and are often the first to be targeted when schools look to 'restructure' in order to meet the demands of the education cuts being imposed by the Westminster Government.

If anyone doubts the role of support staff, I would draw their attention to the April 2021 Report published by the UCL/Institute of Education about the "unsung heroes of the pandemic". It focussed on the work of TAs, although, of course, support staff posts encompass a much wider range of roles as well.

The UCL report concluded that "our research reveals how essential TAs are to the day-to-day running of schools. This is true in more normal times as well as during a pandemic. If we are to build a more resilient education system going forward, then their voices need to be heard. The unique understanding and clear view of what matters most within their communities, which they have gained from working on the frontline, should be respected and recognised". While this was research funded by Unison, it's a message that should be emphasised across the education unions.

Increasing numbers of support staff members are choosing to join the NEU because they believe we can provide the campaigning strength to represent their needs. I certainly feel proud to have them alongside me, and all colleagues, as members of the NEU. One of the chief strengths of coming together as the NEU is that we could then start to build a stronger, genuinely all-educator Union, bringing together all staff across the workplace. However, as things stand, the TUC Agreement means that we still can’t ‘actively’ recruit support staff – nor are we recognised for collective bargaining purposes at local nor national level.

NEU Conference agreed to instruct the Executive to review this Agreement and, as DGS, I’d want to make sure that was done with urgency. We need to say to our UNISON, GMB and UNITE colleagues that having our voice at the table will strengthen all our hands – and that support staff colleagues need to be able to openly choose the union that they think fights best for them – whichever it is – and that we work jointly as unions to protect education and Support Staff pay, jobs and conditions together.

Finally, their place in the educational landscape of the future depends on how strongly and successfully we can organise that fight. If we are to succeed in delivering our vision of fully-funded, genuinely comprehensive education that meets the needs of every learner, then support staff will very much be part of the future of education. 

Support staff will be vital as essential support to learners - and the teacher - in the classroom, as mentors and help to those with specific needs, as lunchtime supervisors, cleaners, catering and office staff and, of course, as staff carrying out a wide range of essential administrative and other functions within the workplace. However, if we fail to do so, then support staff will continue to face low pay, 'job creep' and job cuts.

That's why I am standing to be a DGS with the experience, commitment and campaigning record needed to strengthen our leadership team so that we can make sure it is our vision that is implemented, not that of the Westminster government.

Q: Since the amalgamation of ATL and NUT the voice of certain sections of education has diminished drastically: namely education leaders, post 16, especially FE, and the clear voice of Wales. What strategies would you implement to stop any further loss of voice, and possibly members for these sectors, and the needs of devolved nations, especially Wales.

I'd like to thank the member for raising their concern that they feel that the voice of these sections of the union has diminished. In a union the size of the NEU, covering members from different nations, regions, and educational sectors, there is inevitably a risk that some voices will feel they are not being heard. As DGS, I would remind both staff and Executive members that, in all our work, careful attention must be made to making sure that all voices feel they are being heard and included in the union's activities.

To make sure we are hearing the voice of different sectors, I pledged in my "Manifesto for Wales" that I will work to ensure that the whole Union is a genuinely “lay-led Union”, by encouraging thriving Local Districts, workplace rep and member networks. As DGS, I would provide committed leadership that emphasised the importance of building those thriving structures, rooted in the experiences and needs of NEU members in the workplace, but, just as importantly, I would be a DGS that ensured the issues and concerns being raised were heard and acted upon".

Similarly, I made the pledge at the June 23rd Wales hustings that "I would be a DGS who make sure the Union continues to build our networks of, for example, supply members, support staff and young educators - and acts on the specific concerns they face". I would, of course, extend that approach to the sectors referred to in the question. 

Specifically, as someone who has been working for the last year within the FE sector, I am aware of the particular pressures of funding and curriculum change, as well as the need to work collaboratively alongside other unions, notably the UCU, which the union needs to pay attention to by listening to the voice of post-16 members. 

In terms of NEU leadership members, as I have stated in a number of hustings, then they can play a very important role in arguing for and supporting the implementation of union policies - not least on curriculum. However, again, the particular pressures on them, not least when faced with managing funding cuts, needs to be better addressed, supporting Heads to work with the Union to campaign for Trusts and Local Authorities to work with us in demanding additional funding rather than putting pressure on Heads simply to manage unacceptable cuts.

In terms of the voice of members in Wales, I have written in an answer to a previous question from a NEU Cymru member that:

"In electing me, you will have a DGS who listens and takes account of different points of view and who recognises the need to go out to engage many members not involved in the Union. This commitment, of course, applies to educators across the Union but certainly to educators in Wales who are working in a devolved system which differs in some important ways from England. In listening to the experiences of educators in Wales, the Union also needs to ensure that it exchanges those experiences with colleagues from the rest of the Union, and, indeed, vice versa. In that way, lessons that may be learned on, say, curriculum changes in Wales, or, for example, on SEN/ALN issues in England, can be shared to best effect.

Fundamentally, of course, educators across the whole Union face the same pressures of funding cuts and excessive workload and these over-arching campaigns must be fought union-wide, bringing together educators from every nation. As DGS, I will strive to ensure that Union policy is written in a way that is applicable to educators across the Union to facilitate such united campaigning. I would also want to remind the various policy and campaigns teams at Head Office that the particular context of Wales is also always remembered in their work and proposals.

Practically, as a DGS committed to listening to the voices of members, it goes without saying that I will make myself available to speak to members in Wales both in person and through online conferencing. For example, I would be very happy to speak to, and discuss with, members at the Wales Council and NEU Cymru Conference. I would also hold regular "meet with Martin" calls where members could raise issues with me directly as DGS.

However, I believe that the key to making sure the voices of Welsh educators are heard, and, indeed, to ensure that the whole Union is genuinely “a lay-led Union” in practice, is to have thriving Local Districts, workplace rep and member networks. As DGS, my commitment would be, firstly, to provide leadership that emphasised the importance of building those structures, rooted in the experiences and needs of NEU members in the workplace, and, secondly, to make sure the issues and concerns being raised were heard and acted upon by the Union.

District meetings need to be well advertised, regularly held, and built for, with discussion topics that will attract members. The agendas should make sure workplace reps are given a voice and, at the same time, a direction to address the issues they are facing. For example, I would be keen to discuss further whether the possibility of a campaign around a "National Contract for Wales", seeking negotiations with the Welsh Government on key demands around pay, workload and staffing, might be one that would build interest and support.

I know that supply members have already done important work in Wales. This provides an example of how networks can be built bringing together educators facing particular issues for the Union, for example, as well as supply educators, support staff, women and young educators.

As DGS, I would commit to helping NEU Cymru in building in this way, and to discuss with Executive members and NEU Cymru what resources and staffing might be needed. Through such an approach, I hope NEU Cymru would grow and be strengthened and the voice of Welsh educators more clearly heard, not just by me as DGS, but within Local Districts, within the Union as a whole and, of course, by both the Welsh and Westminster governments"

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