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Issue 56, May 2001

Teachers' union conference

AFTER SEVERAL conferences where the right-wing leadership of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) has found it hard to win the support of delegates, this year the balance shifted in its favour. The only real victory for action in defence of classroom teachers was on a motion calling for a boycott of performance management - the setting of individual targets for teachers - written and argued for by Socialist Party Teachers.

The day before conference, NUT general secretary, Doug McAvoy, had persuaded his supporters on the National Executive to vote (23 to 19) to call-off the 'cover-to-contract' action which had spread to over 50 areas in the last few weeks. This decision dominated proceedings.

McAvoy argued that the action - where members of the NUT and NASUWT unions had refused to cover for long-term absences and vacant posts - had brought the employers and the government to the negotiating table. The left tried to explain, however, that nothing of any substance had yet been gained. A 35-hour week had been ruled out and teachers will now be left having to cover vacant posts, which is worse than their existing contractual conditions. The union leaders have saved the government's blushes as children will not now be sent home due to teacher shortages during a general election campaign.

If the union organised properly, an over-burdened teaching profession could rally behind the 35-hour week demand. The right-wing, however, cleverly played on the understandable wishes of delegates to take united action with the other two main teacher unions, NASUWT and ATL, to oppose any suggestion that the NUT take independent action - even arguing that Scottish teachers have won such a deal because they were united in one union, the EIS. In reality, Scottish teachers are likely to have their hours increased under the 'McCrone' deal. Without action, talks on altering teachers' contracts in England and Wales could actually make matters worse.


Midway through conference, McAvoy was crowing to journalists about how the left had been defeated. But classroom teachers, exhausted by 53-hour-plus working weeks, find it increasingly difficult to get involved in the union, let alone give up Easter holidays to attend conference. This is particularly so when the executive ignores its decisions, as happened last year over performance-related pay (PRP). The real bitterness and anger of classroom teachers rarely surfaced, although the boast by education minister, David Blunkett, about how wonderful New Labour had been to education, provoked cries of derision. When Tory Teresa May said she would be the next minister, there were howls of laughter.

The prospect of talks and professional unity seemed to offer an easier route than collective action. Unity is a powerful argument but teachers will have to learn that it means nothing if it is merely the unity of union general secretaries agreeing policies over the telephone.

The right-wing's claims to have conquered the left made the victory over performance management even more important. The motion argued that it would add to teacher workload without providing resources and time to help teachers teach. Performance management would become the machinery of PRP to decide how pay increments would be awarded and promotions decided. It would be used to further bully staff.

Unfortunately, the Socialist Party had to battle within the Socialist Teachers' Alliance (STA) to mobilise support. The STA bulletin handed out before the debate was silent on the issue. Fortunately, our arguments, supported by contributions by others on the left, persuaded conference to vote for a ballot on a boycott.


By this stage, the right-wing's constant appeals for 'unity' against action were wearing thin. Headteachers were wheeled on to argue that performance management wasn't such a bad idea! The vote showed that delegates were still fundamentally opposed to PRP which, thanks to the leadership, has been imposed without a fight.

Sooner or later - probably after the election - teachers will realise that the talks on workload have not delivered. Union associations have to continue demanding action against shortages and to win real gains on pay and workload. With the help of the School Teachers Opposed to Performance Pay (STOPP) campaign, pressure must be maintained for the boycott of performance management. Above all, the struggle to change the union leadership must be stepped up.

Martin Powell-Davies

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