The voice that teachers need: independent, democratic, united.

March 8, 2014 — 1 Comment

On the 1st March 2014 I spoke at the Professional Unity Conference.  This was called by teacher unions seeking to working more closely together, possibly involving mergers.  My speech made the case for a single union.  This is my re-writing of the speech after the event. It isn’t word for word what I said from my rough notes – but it is near enough.


Teachers assemble at the Pullman Hotel London to discuss teacher union unity

Thankyou for the invitation to speak at this conference.

The term historic is one that is often over-used.  Only time will tell if today might genuinely be referred to as historic – but this does feel like a very important event. I am grateful to be asked to speak here.

I am here speaking as an academic – I have been researching teacher unionism for over 20 years.  However, I have been directly involved in teacher union activism for longer than that.  So today I am both academic and activist – and I am speaking with both head and heart.  That isn’t always easy – but it has always been an important aspect of my work.

I want to provide a historical overview to today’s discussions.  History is important. Michael Gove understands that.  We need to understand that history is important – it is our history.

I want to start in 1870 – when state education was first established in this country. The system was fragmented and chaotic, with schools competing against schools.  Teachers were paid according to results.  Sadly it is a rather accurate description of where we are today.  Teachers experienced this system as highly divisive – a race to the bottom.  And for this reason they soon realised what they needed to do – they formed together into a union and they organised.

Initially their demands were simple –they were against the pernicious system of payment by results, and instead they wanted a national system of pay and conditions.  However, they wanted more than this. They didn’t just want to replace payment by results with national pay – but they wanted to be involved in the processes that made these decisions. Hence they campaigned for national collective bargaining – the process whereby employers and unions negotiate together, and with the aim of reaching a formal agreement between the two sides.

And teachers were successful – first they defeated payment by results, and in due course, in 1919, they secured national collective bargaining.

Today, it is worth remembering that it took teachers 49 years to achieve national collective bargaining.  This should remind us that nothing is forever, and that everything is possible. It may take longer than we might hope for, but we should never give up.

Teachers’ involvement in national collective bargaining gave them a voice, and in the years after 1919 that voice became progressively more influential in education policy. This was most apparent in the period after the second world war when the welfare state was established.  Education reform was at the heart of the welfare state, and in the post-war period there was tremendous innovation in development in every sector of education – primary, secondary and higher.

Those who argue that teachers are resistant to change, or that teacher unions are resistant to change, should not be allowed to make their points unchallenged.  The education historian Brian Simon described this period as the age of ‘breakout’ with an unprecedented level of pedagogical and systemic innovation. All of this took place at a time when union involvement in policy making was substantial. This was teacher-led change and improvement.

Of course the problem was not, and is not, that teachers don’t ‘do change’ – the real problem was, and remains, the type of change being advocated.  Most obviously the changes towards a genuinely comprehensive system of schooling, often driven by teachers, were not always welcomed in certain political quarters. This is why the political forces that were antagonistic to these reforms began to push back against the welfare state generally, and against school sector developments in particular.

That push back was specifically aimed at teachers – because those opposed to the welfare state were particularly hostile to the influence of professional opinion in it.  However, these attacks on teachers were made easier by the divisions that had, over time, emerged between organised teachers.  Since the first teacher union was established in 1870 various groups had broken away and formed new unions.  This ‘multi-unionism’ created a weakness that those opposed to teachers’ influence could exploit.

Delighted Fred Jarvis in the audience - 27 years since I first saw him speak in Manchester Free Trade Hall

Delighted Fred Jarvis in the audience – 27 years since I first saw him speak in Manchester Free Trade Hall

I had my first experience of this when I was training to be a teacher in 1987.  I can remember leaving my lectures at the University of Manchester to attend a strike rally at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. The rally had been called jointly by the NUT and NASUWT because, following the industrial action of the previous years, the government had unilaterally, but temporarily, suspended collective bargaining arrangements. On that day both unions stood together – from memory I can recall speeches by Fred Jarvis and Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of NUT and deputy general secretary of NASUWT respectively.  As a trainee teacher this was an inspiring event. Over 2,000 teachers packed into the FTH – united in defence of a right it had taken their predecessors 49 years to win.

However, this unity between the NUT and NASUWT was not to last and the unions divided on the issue.  The government was immediately able to exploit this division, and it was not long before a temporary suspension of negotiating rights became a permanent abolition.  What had taken 49 years for teachers to achieve took a lot less time to destroy.

And since that time, the push back has continued. Payment by results has returned, national pay has been abolished and Qualified Teacher Status, for long a campaign objective of organised teachers, is in peril.  On wider professional issues the pattern is the same – our education system is dominated by relentless testing, whilst a never-ending process of curriculum ‘reforms’ have been imposed on teachers, often against the weight of professional opinion.  More recently, the drive to privatise the state school system has become increasingly apparent.

I am not saying these things would not have happened if teachers had been organised in a single union – but I don’t think it is a difficult argument to sustain that they would have looked very different.  Teachers, and their students, have paid a high price for the divisions between teacher unions.

But if we accept, for one moment, that these divisions were ever tenable in the past (and I would dispute that) I want to argue that they are not tenable any longer. This is for two reasons:

First, the landscape has changed – in some important respects it is unrecognisable from when I entered teaching in 1987.  Let me illustrate this with an example that was brought to my attention yesterday.  It isn’t typical – yet.  But it does reflect a direction of travel.  The example is a job advert in a new Free School that a colleague showed me. It reads like this:

Staff Representation: The staff will be represented by a staff involvement group with nominated (my emphasis) representatives from across the staff roles. Trade unions are not recognised.

This is a reflection of the new landscape.  It was always the intention of those opposed to organised teachers to create an atomised and fragmented system in which teachers were forced to compete against each other.  This was their goal – to divide, and thereby weaken and even, as the example shows, seek to eliminate.  My view is that teachers cannot afford to compound this fragmentation, by being divided themselves.

Second, teaching is changing – teaching is always changing but my view is that we are perhaps on the cusp of seeing really dramatic changes to what teaching might look like, driven by technology.  Technology is well established in schools – rightly.  But perhaps we are just beginning to see how technology might be used to radically transform what the educational process looks like.  Furthermore, we must recognise that technology is not value-neutral.  It is often owned, controlled and developed by huge global corporations that seek to make profit from education.  In the United States there are already virtual schools where children ‘go to school’ by sitting in front of their computer.  It is not clear how many qualified teachers for example ‘work’ in these schools.  What is clear is that the business models of these corporations are not based on large numbers of highly qualified teachers with decent salaries and pensions.  We simply don’t know how teaching may be transformed in the years ahead but the more that these changes are business driven the less likely it is that these changes will reflect the best interests of students and their teachers.

Given this new landscape, and the potential changes to teaching and the teacher workforce, teachers have to ask themselves how they can make sure they not only influence, but shape, the future.

My view is simple . . . teachers need to learn the same lessons that teachers learned in 1870 – teachers need to unite, and organise. The teaching profession needs to re-learn the lessons of 1870 and show the same level of commitment, conviction and courage in order to ensure the voice of the profession is at the centre of education policy making.

Specifically, I believe teacher unions need to face up to change in three key areas.

1) Organise at the workplace – the devolution of decision-making to school level, and the much diminished role of local authority structures means that many of the key issues that impact on teachers’ professional lives are determined at the workplace.  Teachers need to organise at the point where these key decisions are made.  The workplace is also the point where teachers have contact with their union – through contact with fellow members, and critically through their school representative.  There is a need to build a lively and active workplace based unionism in which the union is a central element of teachers’ working lives. Teachers need a voice at their workplace. [for information – I do not see this as an alternative to local branch organisation, but complementary to it].

2) Be a national voice on professional issues.  This is a role teacher unions have always provided, but divisions have made that voice less audible in recent years.  It is absolutely essential that teacher unions are able to speak on matters of education policy and on professional issues. Teacher unions must not retreat into a narrow ‘pay and conditions’ agenda, but rather there is a need to recognise that education is political – and teacher unions need to engage politically.  There can be no defeating the policies that undermine teachers’ professional judgement, and worsen their working conditions, if the ideas that drive those policies are not being challenged. Teachers therefore need a national voice to speak up for the education service – speaking as teachers, and for students.

I am now of the view that 1 and 2 cannot be achieved without 3 . . .

3) teacher unions must find ways to unite.  There are no other organisations, that exist now or are possibly imminent (such as a College of Teaching), that can articulate the teachers’ voice. Only teacher unions can claim to represent all teachers, be genuinely independent and robustly democratic.  Teachers need that collective, independent, democratic voice. Unions provide it – but to provide it effectively they need to unite. That will not be easy – but we should not allow something being difficult to stop us from doing what is right.

I want to end on an important point – teachers may need to relearn the lessons that teachers learned when state education was first formed, and when they united and organised – but teachers in 2014 are not starting at the same point as teachers in 1870. Not anywhere near.  Teachers in 2014 already have strong, robust, well organised unions – and teachers are already highly unionised.  We know this from the DfE’s own research.  In 2012 the DfE commissioned research into the strength of the teacher unions – this was as it laid the ground work for a confrontation with teachers over the attack on national pay and conditions (and before the teacher unions even knew these changes were coming). That research revealed, to quote the report ‘All but 3% of the teachers [that] responded belonged to a teaching union.’  The DfE’s own research therefore indicates that there is a 97% trade union density rate in the teaching profession.  By almost any standards, that figure is extraordinary.

Teachers have the power in their own hands – it already exists. The problem of course is that it is weakened by being divided. The challenge therefore, and why we are all here today, is to discuss how we overcome those divisions and bring the different unions together. As I have indicated – it will not be easy.  But we should not underestimate what a popular and galvanising message it can be.  The argument for a single union, and for a teacher voice that is impossible to ignore, is very attractive to a profession that often feels marginalised and devalued.  Campaigning for such a union also offers huge possibilities to reconnect teachers to unionism and to reach out to many younger teachers who have little experience of being in a profession that is valued and respected. There is much to play for, which is why today is so important.



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  1. The future of Teacher Trade Unions | levdavidovic - April 21, 2014

    […] to communicate our ideas. Some fine contributions to this debate has come from Howard Stevenson. In this blogpost he distills down the prospective route for teachers’ unions to organising in the workplace, […]

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