NEU strike in Newham. Photo: James Ivens
NEU strike in Newham. Photo: James Ivens

Sean McCauley, Worcestershire NEU district secretary, personal capacity

Members of the National Education Union (NEU) meet from 3 April for our national conference.

In 2023 our members fought magnificently, and forced more money from the Tories than they wanted to give us. Our union grew, and thousands stepped forward as reps. Striking works! In the summer, following our national strike action, the NEU leadership recommended acceptance of 6.5%. But in the Socialist Party, we agree with the many members who believe more could have been won. We warned that the 6.5% was not fully funded.

In recent weeks, reps and members have worked hard on an indicative ballot. Conference will learn the results of that consultation and decide whether to go to a statutory strike ballot.

If we are to build the confidence of members, we need to continue to campaign for a serious, fighting, democratic lead from the top in our union, that can help to build the confidence and organisation of members from below. We need a leadership that is up to the challenges we will face as a general election looms.

Reality of working in education

For support staff, the reality of working in education for support staff is low pay, term-time-only contracts, being expected to work beyond contracted hours, having extra responsibilities piled higher and higher beyond pay grades, and facing redundancies and cuts to hours as austerity continues.

For teachers, it’s an average 54-56 hour week, with 10% of us working over 60 hours; iniquitous Ofsted inspections, driving management’s obsession with intrusive observations and ‘learning walks’, which only serve to increase stress and anxiety levels among a staff swamped with accountability measures. We are faced with real-terms pay cuts for 14 years, with the real risk that everything we gained from the eight days of strike action last year is lost this year with the Tories’ 1.2% offer – a slap in the face. Student teacher recruitment targets are once again unmet, and young and old are leaving the profession early.

For those supply staff who remain in the profession, after their experience of unscrupulous agencies and umbrella organisations in the pandemic, the exploitation continues. Only when individual battles are waged to secure the pay to which staff have a right, do agencies cough up the rate that’s due. The fight for supply staff rights must be part of the fight for improvements for all education staff.

That’s why the NEU needs to be a fighting union with a fighting leadership that builds the base of the union: recruiting reps and members, fighting to maintain officers’ precious facilities time to support members in struggle and lead local and national campaigns. We need a leadership that also gives a strong, bold lead from the top, mobilising the full forces of the union nationally to win on workload, funding, pay, recognition for support staff, and rights for supply staff.

General election

We face a general election. We need a union leadership that puts forward clear demands and prepares members for the serious action necessary to win them – no matter who is in government.

Our fight should not end with just improvements in the pay and conditions of education staff. Forcing governments of whichever shade to reverse 14 years of funding cuts must be integral to that fight.

We should also fight to end PFI and its associated debt, with its corner-cutting construction methods, now crumbling at the core, which are crippling a whole swathe of schools and colleges. Fighting to end the PFI repayment crisis, with costs soaring by over 10% in the coming year, is essential.

The fight for the heart of education will need to continue, whether it be under the Tories or Labour. The crisis-ridden Tories are on their way out. Good riddance! But Labour offers no hope to our decimated public services. New Labour Mark 1 massively accelerated PFI, mortgaging the future of schools and hospitals to multinational finance companies, and introduced the fragmentation of education and often union rights in the form of academisation. New Labour Mark II, under Starmer, has made no bones about it: it will be a government in the same mould, big business-friendly with a firm rein on public sector finances.

New left needed in NEU

Sheila Caffrey’s vote, as a socialist candidate in the recent vice-president elections, shows what can be achieved: 5,500 votes – first runner-up. Without the union establishment machine behind her, her campaign for a fighting union resonated with the new layer of active members, reps and lay officers who are asking important questions of the leadership about how serious they are about a national fight in this and the next period.

With the prospect of a Starmer-led government, the leadership of our union will come under tremendous pressure to water down demands and not ‘rock the boat’. It is vital that they feel the organised counter-pressure of the members. We think bringing together those who want a serious and fighting union in a new democratic broad left body is needed.

These issues also show why being a socialist in the NEU is more important than ever. Socialist Party members at all levels of the union, including elected NEC members, have campaigned all along for a serious national fight that unites all our members.

Our union must demand that Starmer commits to inflation-busting pay rises that begin to restore lost pay, and to full funding of education.

If PFI companies trigger penalty clauses, the companies should be taken into public ownership with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need, and the vast accumulated profit reinvested back into schools and colleges. Academy trusts should be brought into democratic control in the public sector. Pearson made £498 million in profits alone in 2023, up from £271 million in 2022. Just think how we could use that money to rebuild schools and invest in education, if only we had control over that wealth. Socialists argue for democratic public ownership.

We can fight for that through action, but also at the ballot box. A workers’ list of candidates – trade unionists, anti-war campaigners, socialists, including former Labour MPs now barred from standing for Labour – would bring the pressure of the strike wave into parliament. That would be an important step towards a new working-class-based party that would fight for the fully funded, public, democratically controlled education system we really need.

Socialist Party NEU conference fringe meeting

Speakers include Sheila Caffrey, exec member and candidate for vice president, and Rob Williams, Socialist Party trade union organiser

12.30pm Thursday 4 April
Clifton Suite, Hermitage Hotel, Bournemouth BH2 5AH
Food provided – donations welcome

NEU Exec discusses 2024 campaign

Sheila Caffrey, NEU NEC, personal capacity

We’re all working hard in the National Education Union (NEU) indicative ballot for sixth form members, and teachers and support staff in schools.

At February’s Exec meeting there was a discussion about leaving the support staff ballot until other unions had decided whether to take action, possibly after Easter. But members want to run united campaigns for teachers and support staff, and so, alongside other more serious lefts on the NEC, I argued to ballot support staff as soon as other support staff unions put in their pay claim. That amendment was successful and we are now balloting teachers and support staff at the same time.

March’s Exec meeting was more focused around how to build the turnout in the indicative ballot. Myself and my fellow South West NEC member successfully argued that, in order to assist reps who are working hard to encourage members to vote, national motivation including slogans around funding would help.

The Executive will propose at annual conference whether to move forward to a formal ballot or to try a different approach to win. Our second amendment argued that the Exec should look at areas where turnout grew as well as the final turnout figures to aid the decision. This was also agreed.

In the view of the Socialist Party, a strong lead that prepares the members for a serious campaign of national action is essential to help build the confidence of members.

NSSN conference 2024

Saturday 22 June 11am-4.30pm
Tories Out – fight for a workers’ manifesto!
Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn,
London WC1R 4RL