Coalition unionism – an idea whose time has come?

March 6, 2013 — 1 Comment

powerI often hear it said that teachers and parents are ‘natural allies’. Indeed this is exactly the phrase Lois Weiner uses in her excellent book ‘The future of our schools: teacher unions and social justice‘. In fairness to Lois I don’t think for one minute that Lois over-simplifies the issues when she discusses how such alliances might be constructed.  Rather she absolutely accepts that developing alliances between parents and teachers can be extremely difficult.  However, I wonder whether we too often assume that such alliances represent the natural order, and that if we can only find the right rallying cry, the resulting alliances will naturally coalesce. My own view is that alliances between teachers and parents (and the wider community) are potentially very powerful, but they are by no means naturally occuring.  In short, they should be aimed for, but they also need to be worked for . . .

I am currently involved in a small-scale research project exploring these issues in the context of campaigns that have sought to challenge the ‘academisation’ of schools in England.  The work is being undertaken with Alison Gilliland of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (Alison is currently on a career break from INTO undertaking doctoral research on teacher identity and teacher unions).  The work will be published in a special issue of Leadership and Policy in Schools focusing on activism in education. The special issue is being edited by Lauri Johnson.

Academy schools are removed from local government control and either stand alone as public schools funded directly by central government, or are run as part of ‘Academy chains’ – private (currently not-for-profit) providers that manage groups of Academy schools. Academy schools are widely recognised as accelerating processes of privatisation in the English state (public) school system.  Some schools choose to become Academies (based on a decision of their governing body) and some schools are forced to become Academies by central government (following claimed poor educational performance).  In many cases, whatever the driver to academisation, campaigns have developed to oppose conversion to Academy status.

There are many are varied reasons why teachers and parents might oppose Academy conversion. The aim of our research is to develop a better understanding of these campaigns, and in particular the way in which teachers (organised through their unions) and parents have joined together to maximise their influence. There are a number of questions that interest us:

  • Have teacher-parent alliances formed, and under what circumstances?
  • Were the campaigns successful, or not, and on what terms?
  • What factors appeared to have helped these coalitions form, and what has hindered?

Our belief is that such coalitions have the potential to assert significant influence, and that a progressive agenda in education requires the support of teachers, parents and the wider community – but that such alliances are not automatic and can never be assumed.  At risk of over-simplifying, we need a better understanding of what works, under what circumstances and why?

In order to help answer these questions we are talking to parents and teachers that have been involved in community campaigns opposing the academisation of a single school, or schools in a locality.  Successful or not, major campaign or damp squib – we are interested in talking to anyone who has a story to tell about being involved in trying to mobilise a community campaign opposing Academies.

We have a number of people we are talking to – from all sorts of different backgrounds and perspectives.  But if you have been involved in such a campaign, and you have a story to tell, we’d be interested in talking  to you.  Please feel free to drop me an email and I’ll get back to you and arrange a way we can have a conversation.

We are hopeful there is much that can be learned about how unions and community groups (not just teachers and parents) can work together effectively to achieve social change.  At a time when market forms of accountability seem to be replacing popular democratic participation then it becomes doubly important to see if there are ways in which people can be re-engaged with participative democratic processes.

The work we are undertaking draws on frameworks presented by scholar/activist Amanda Tattersall from Australia who has considerable experience researching the possibilities of ‘coalition unionism’.  Her work is set out in her book ‘Power in Coalitions: strategies for strong unions and social change‘.  A summary is provided here (CUPE-5-principles-of-strong-coalitions-CA ) and there are several you tube clips featuring her presenting her ideas:

If you are interested in this project, either to participate in it, or just to receive a summary of the outcome, then please feel free to get in touch.

UPDATE: I am speaking at a fringe meeting at the NUT Conference in Liverpool on Sunday 31st March (Jurys Hotel, 8pm). The focus is ‘social movement unionism’ – and I will be referring to some of the research from this project in that presentation.  Further details are here NUT_conf13_Chicago_A6_EDIT(1) (1)(1)


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  1. Local elections 2013 – time to rediscover local government and ‘thick democracy’. « Howard Stevenson - May 6, 2013

    […] of the extraordinary community organisers we have come across in our research project looking at parent-teacher alliances. It is important to point out that these organisers are overwhelmingly women – usually mums who […]

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