NEU elections: Elect a socialist leadership to fight for national action and a united campaign
Socialist Party in Education
This year's elections for the national executive of the biggest education union, the NEU, come at an important time for educators.
The last year has been dominated by the ongoing struggle to achieve Covid safety. Hundreds of new NEU reps were recruited as workplace union groups recognised that union organisation was needed to insist on measures to protect staff, students and the wider school community. Now that organisation will be needed again to face the many other serious challenges that lie ahead.
The successful mass use of 'Section 44' in January, forcing Boris Johnson to hold back on his plans for wider unsafe school opening, showed what can be achieved when workplace organisation is combined with a clear national lead calling on union members to act together across the union.
NEU members need to elect a national executive that will give that clear lead consistently in the future. We need a leadership that will have the confidence to again bring members together across schools and colleges in a united battle to oppose the attacks that are coming on our pay and conditions and on children's education.
Those attacks are coming because this government is going to try to make us pay for their Covid failures. Excessive workload, worsening pay, and budget cuts were already damaging education, and educators' lives, before the pandemic. But we face a future where those pressures are going to be even greater - unless we organise firm opposition.
Schools and colleges have been under significant budget pressures for years. The pandemic has pushed some schools and some sectors, such as Early Years, into even greater difficulties. Staff in independent schools face attacks on their pension rights.
NEU branches across the union are reporting an increase in the announcement of 'restructures' as schools look to cut costs further. Support staff posts are going to be particularly at risk. If those jobs are lost, the workload of the remaining staff will be even greater and the support available for students even less.
The biggest outlay from any school budget is staff pay. So, as a 'thank you' for all the work school staff have done over the pandemic, instead of a reversal of the years of real-term pay cuts, pay awards will be held down yet again. At school level, divisive performance pay will add a further twist to the knife where managers look to reduce budgets by denying staff pay progression.
Permanent staff only have to look at the situation facing their colleagues working for privatised supply agencies to see how pay rates could be driven down if we fail to organise united action to defend salaries for all staff, and across all sectors. But the Tories plan further deregulation and fragmentation, including further academisation of schools.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson's suggestion that schools might need to operate with longer days and shorter holidays is also a clear pointer to further attacks that are yet to come.
The Tories' determination to keep schools open during the pandemic shows that they regard schools primarily as a childcare service, not an educational one. As it is, pupils in England already spend longer in school than the global average. They also get shorter summer holidays too. Instead of even more time enduring the 'exam factory' conditions imposed on our schools, school students need a 'recovery curriculum' that prioritises their well-being.
But staff also need time to recover from the intensity of the working week, to prepare and assess within the school day, rather than in the evenings, weekends and holidays. For far too long, 50-hour plus working weeks have become the norm. Excessive workload has been the main driver forcing staff out of teaching, with a third of new starters leaving the profession within the first five years.
The pressures of school life, and the bullying management regimes that are becoming far too commonplace, have also created a torrent of individual cases that are putting an enormous strain on both lay caseworkers and paid union officials. The union has to face this issue honestly and discuss openly how best this challenge can be met, including a far greater insistence on rights for paid time-off for 'facility time' for trade union representatives.
Over the last months, that bullying regime has also seen an ever-increasing number of NEU representatives facing victimisation. The NEU has rightly supported members in taking strike action to defend their trade union rights, and their local representatives. But the campaign to defend trade union rights will need to become a national issue for all members, bringing together those individual disputes.
And it is the question of linking local disputes into national struggles that is perhaps the central difference between candidates in April's national executive election.
Every candidate can identify members' main concerns. But which candidates have a strategy for winning those changes?
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? Lobbying alone will not succeed, especially now that the Labour Party frontbench can no longer be relied on to support NEU policy, as under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. We have to rely on our own trade union strength and elect national executive members who are able to lead the action needed to meet the challenges ahead of us.
The Socialist Party members standing as candidates in the union's elections can help provide the strategy and determination that our union needs. They are all trade union activists with a record of struggle and organisation that has demonstrated that they can support members and bring them together collectively in their workplaces and local districts.
But they also recognise that workplace struggle alone will not be sufficient to address the pressures that face us in every workplace. They require union-wide opposition - and that has to mean preparing for union-wide industrial action.
The majority of the existing executive has opposed calls for national action, pointing to the difficulties that anti-union laws have deliberately placed in the way of building national action. But NEU members need a leadership which is determined to find a way round these obstacles.
Socialist Party in Education members have long argued that a campaign for a new 'national contract' that brings together a range of key grievances into one unified campaign can build the support needed for a united national campaign of action. Such a contract should include guaranteed trade union-negotiated pay scales for all, a genuine maximum limit on working hours, an end to performance-related pay and for trade union-negotiated class size and staffing policies to make sure that the needs of both staff and students are met.
NEU members need to elect a national executive that is ready to go out boldly to build such a campaign, and to explain to members how and why we need to prepare for national action.
Winning such a leadership, combined with a victory for Martin Powell-Davies as a campaigning socialist deputy general secretary this autumn, can make sure that the NEU is ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
- Support the following Socialist Party members standing in the NEU elections: Nicky Downes, Sean McCauley, Alex Moore, Sheila Caffrey, Louise Cuffaro for the executive and Martin Powell-Davies for deputy general secretary
In The Socialist 7 April 2021: