NEU conference: Up for the fight!

Sean McCauley, NEU NEC, personal capacity

A fighting spirit prevailed throughout the whole of the recent four-day National Education Union (NEU) national conference.

Conference opened with the announcement of the huge vote by members to reject outright the government’s insulting offer. On a 66% turnout, 98% of members said that Tory Education Secretary Gillian Keegan must do better.

The mood of members to fight has hardened as a result of the government’s offer: a deal worse than that accepted by members in Wales, which, in turn, was worse than the deal struck by the EiS (teachers’ union in Scotland).

Members’ sense of their own strength and unity will have been further buoyed by the result of the consultative vote on the offer, a result more conclusive than the tremendous initial indicative ballot on strike action in October last year. It is Socialist Party members who have been at the forefront on the National Executive (NEC) pushing that members should be consulted, sometimes in the face of strong opposition from others on the left. Members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), AWL and Socialist Alternative all opposed this consultation. But the consultation has helped build a strong sense of determination to win fully funded, inflation-proof pay awards for 2022-23 and from Sept 2023.

Calls to escalate

An emergency motion was proposed by the NEC majority on the pay dispute. Other emergency motions had around three amendments, but this one had 11, showing how much dissatisfaction there was with the NEC majority’s position. In the NEC meeting on the Sunday evening before conference, Socialist Party members were the only voices expressing concerns about the seven-week gap in the NEC majority’s strike proposal. This gap risks the strong fighting mood amongst members dissipating. Despite there being so many amendments, the same amount of time was given for discussion on this motion as for other emergency motions – 40 minutes!

There was only time to hear two amendments, which didn’t pass. The third, proposed by members of the Socialist Party, was not taken. Our amendment called for an escalation of strike action, including during the exam period. The original motion called for two days of action on 27 April and 2 May, and then nothing until the end of June, after the exam period. Our amendment also called for NEU members, not school management, to decide on how and whether revision sessions should be organised for students, “to show that it is us, not the government, that supports our students. This should be decided by school union groups if deemed necessary.” It also called for a relaunch of the hardship funds as ’strike funds’, using stalls and community events to raise funds for striking members.

Conference was addressed by Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT). Its members have also resoundingly rejected the government’s pay offer. All four major education unions have now rejected the offer. A majority of those NAHT members who voted in their consultative ballot agreed they would be prepared to strike. NEU’s campaign has added to the pressure and must keep doing so, to ensure that NAHT does indeed ballot its members for strike action. The pressure of the NEU’s campaign will have helped the NASUWT teachers’ union get over the Tory anti-union turnout threshold in its consultation, which didn’t happen in its ballot last year. Now that must also be turned into action.

Support staff

Support staff, some of the lowest-paid workers in education, often on iniquitous term-time-only contracts, and part-time too, earn less than the living wage. The call was made to reballot them for strike action and seek unity with Unison, which has also moved to ballot its members on the 2023-24 pay offer, and with GMB and Unite if they too choose to ballot. The Socialist Party amendment called for the union to launch a reballot of support staff in April, “so that support staff could join our teacher members on the picket lines in the summer term.” But this amendment wasn’t heard. The 18 May NEC meeting will take the issue forward.

A new national contract

Workload is a major concern for teachers. A leaked government report of a 2022 survey of 11,000 teachers showed that 22% of teachers work 60 hours a week or more. Previous reports have shown the vast majority of teachers work over 54 hours a week. This is unsustainable.

The national contract of employment for teachers contains the line: “A teacher must work such reasonable additional hours as may be necessary”. It does not quantify what “reasonable” is. Most schools ride roughshod over the idea of “reasonable”. A motion proposed by Socialist Party member and NEU NEC member Steve Scott called for a new National Contract for Education, which clearly sets a limit on how many hours a teacher can be expected to work.

Socialist Party members have long fought for such a contract to include support staff and the fully funded return of whole-year contracts for support staff. We also want to include supply teachers, eliminating the pernicious exploitative agencies and umbrella companies, by re-establishing local authority supply pools and thereby full pension rights to supply teachers. The motion was passed.

However, the clear strategy on how to achieve our demands, including national strike action, was removed from the motion by an amendment from the same quarter of the executive, part of the ‘NEU Left’ grouping, who, prior to our successful ballots over pay, had opposed national action for a new contract on the grounds that we would not win a ballot on national action on any issue. Clearly, that is not true, and those individuals have had to shift their position. So why oppose action on the one issue that, for teachers, trumps all other issues, in union survey after union survey?

Instead of national action, it is now proposed we simply continue our workplace-by-workplace campaign. Socialist Party members in the NEU will not abandon the fight to have unsustainable levels of workload addressed through national action as well as local.

The conference ended with the farewell speeches of Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted, the joint general secretaries of the NEU since its inception in 2017. Kevin Courtney was general secretary of the NUT from 2016 up to the merger. At the end of August they will hand over to newly elected Daniel Kebede, about whom the Daily Telegraph published an article entitled “Education Secretary ‘gathering intelligence’ on hard-Left union leader”.

The article said: “The Education Secretary is concerned about the prospect of Daniel Kebede taking over as the general secretary.” They quoted Socialist Party member and NEC member Sheila Caffrey, who chaired our fringe meeting: “What we want to continue … is an activist, fighting union, and that is what Daniel has said he is going to be.”

Socialist Party members will maintain the pressure on both the current and future leaderships to maintain a bold fighting lead. We need a union that leads from the front and builds from below.

  • Israel-Palestine urgent motion

Socialist Party members Nicky Downes and I moved and seconded an amendment to the urgent motion brought on the situation in Israel-Palestine. The motion condemned the Israeli government for its murderous attacks on Palestinians in the occupied territories. There have already been 94 deaths amongst Palestinians this year and if the attacks continue in this way, deaths are set to exceed the 231 last year, which itself was the highest since the early 2000s. Our amendment, which was passed by conference, welcomed the mass movement of Israelis against the Netanyahu government, indicating support for the 600,000-strong protests and the general strike called by the Histadrut trade union federation.

The following Socialist Party members are standing in the NEU national executive elections.

Re-elect sitting NEC members:

  • Sheila Caffrey, district 12
  • Sean McCauley, district 8
  • Steve Scott, district 3
  • Also vote for Anna Scott, district 3
  • If successful, they will join Louise Cuffaro, already elected unopposed, in district 16.