NEU strikers march past Parliament in 2023. Photo: Paula Mitchell
NEU strikers march past Parliament in 2023. Photo: Paula Mitchell

Sheila Caffrey, NEU NEC member and recent vice president candidate, personal capacity

In the run-up to its 2024 conference, members of the National Education Union (NEU) were voting in indicative ballots on pay and funding.

The NEU took its first significant national strike action last year. It gave members a taste of the understanding that if you fight, you can win; and the leadership a taste of the experience that if you give members a lead, they will follow. 

Unfortunately, these feelings don’t last if they are not built on and workers are isolated. The daily grind of workload, lack of funding, and the difficulties of providing children and young people what they need in a capitalist education system, start to weigh heavily.

Eight months ago, the current leadership recommended accepting a below-inflation 6.5% rise and ‘paused’ the campaign. Our strike action forced the Tories to increase their offer, but Socialist Party members believed more could have been won – not least on funding.


The ‘pause’ put on our action meant that in reality this indicative ballot was starting from scratch. 

The NEU ran indicative ballots of teachers and support staff in schools and sixth forms in England and Wales. Unfortunately, an unconfident leadership meant that those voices who have always voted against action were boosted, and that led others to lose the confidence that the union could win. It led the National Executive to impose a 60% turnout threshold – 10% higher than even the Tory government’s!  So, when reps and activists were fighting to cross the magical 50%, they then discovered once the ballot for teachers had closed with over 50% turnout, that the Executive majority didn’t think this was enough to proceed to a formal ballot.

However, this was by no means a unified position on the Executive.  An emergency motion to the conference, which proposed turning to individual workplace disputes and putting a Labour government ‘on notice’, just scraped through the Exec by four votes. 

Yes to a ballot

And as these concerns started to trickle down the activist layer of the NEU, over 60 branches backed a ‘Yes to a ballot’ fringe meeting on the eve of the conference debate.

Various facts were shared from the indicative ballot, but one that was skimmed over by the leadership was that the biggest leaps in voting came each time after a national communication. Where many activists hoped that going out and asking people to vote would be enough, this data again showed the need for real leadership. If there had been a vocal, confident leadership calling out the government and MAT (multi-academy trust) CEOs, and laying down a call to arms, then members would have turned out to vote in much higher numbers. This was evident in places where there was a local leadership doing this, as those branches were well past the 50% turnout.

Role of leadership

This is one of the points Socialist Party members have continually raised in our articles, conversations and on the Executive. We wrote an amendment to the main conference motion, putting forward a strategy and timeline to build the bold fightback needed to win on pay and funding, including being ready for action in the summer term. However, in the interests of unity and maximising the push for action, we withdrew this amendment in favour of one with a longer timescale, that allowed more time to build in areas that have previously struggled to get the turnout in ballots.

The leadership were clearly worried that the conference was going to back the amendment and push forward to strike action. They called a fringe meeting arguing against that approach at the same time as the one called to build for a formal ballot. Daniel Kebede, general secretary, took time away from scheduled debates to address conference with his opinions on why he felt the union couldn’t win a formal ballot. All of this obviously influenced the debate. 

Our programme was received extremely positively at the ‘yes to a ballot’ fringe meeting, where we spoke from the top table and the floor. It was disappointing that no Socialist Party members got called into the conference debate to speak, where we may have pulled in more support.

The original motion didn’t just shoot through though. It was amended to include workload as a key demand; to ensure that support staff members were included in the fight; and that a ‘snap poll’ would be called as soon as teachers’ pay for September is formally announced, if the offer isn’t in line with inflation or isn’t fully funded. 


This is certainly not the timeline for action we would have chosen, as it spreads out the campaign again, meaning that again momentum will be lost, with members being consulted when they’re most exhausted, just at the end of the summer term. 

We are in a general election year. A serious campaign of action would not only have put pressure on the Tory government, it would also have given the likely incoming Starmer-led Labour government a clear message. We have consistently warned of the pressure that would come on union leaders to hold back action around a general election. In pulling back from action, the current leadership has weakened our pressure on Starmer.

But Socialist Party members will remain among the most committed, active fighters! We need to continue to build in our NEU branches so members understand that, although we’ve lost the battle this term, we haven’t lost the war! 

If a potential ‘snap poll’ in July is to be successful in building action in the autumn term, we will need rank-and-file activists to keep pushing for it over the next four months. We need to reach the members who joined the action last year, including the 12,000 new reps and 60,000 new members, who have subsequently felt the lack of a confident leadership.

There is also the ongoing indicative ballot of support staff, which, with two weeks to go, passed 50% turnout with 30,000 already voting. Sixth-form teachers also balloted higher, which hopefully can also be a group that motivates the wider membership.

We need a new left in NEU

The biggest thing to learn from this current debate though, is the need to build a new, fighting left force in the NEU. The ‘NEU Left’ group currently leads the union. It was created from across the political spectrum of the old National Union of Teachers’ leadership when it merged with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers to form the NEU three years ago. It has split for the second time in a year on whether to continue to fight.

The more activist wing (including the Socialist Workers Party – SWP) campaigned against calling off the action last year, when the majority of the NEU Left recommended the ‘pause’. And Socialist Party members worked with them on the amendment calling for strike action at this conference, against the position of the NEU Left majority. But in between, the SWP backed the two establishment NEU Left candidates for vice-president, covering over the fact that these candidates were not serious about action, rather than backing myself as a socialist candidate who has continually argued for action.

However, this does not prevent us from entering discussions on how best we can build a new left that can involve all those who are serious about fighting, and campaign at all levels in the union, from the workplaces to the Executive, for the NEU to build on its militancy of the last year to become the education union that fights to win what is needed for education and education workers. By continuing to build locally in nurseries, schools and colleges, we can build the strength and confidence of activists to join together and put the pressure on the leadership so they are fully aware that they need to lead a fighting union – or step aside for those who will!

Workload: Conference votes to campaign for a new national contract

David, NEU member working in sixth forms

Workload remains the biggest issue facing NEU members. Nearly 60% of teachers feel that their workload is unmanageable. The government survey ‘Working lives of teachers and leaders’ reported a year ago that a quarter of teachers and leaders were considering leaving the state sector in the following 12 months. The most commonly cited reason was high workload.

Socialist Party members and supporters have campaigned for some time for the union to adopt a serious campaign on workload, and for a new national contract with a limit on hours worked.

For the first time, on the back of the national strike action last year, delegates at NEU conference overwhelmingly agreed an amended motion, proposed by East Riding and Norfolk NEU districts, calling for a campaign of action for a new national contract for education, including removing the clause in the School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document that “a teacher must work such reasonable additional hours as may be necessary to enable effective discharge of a teacher’s professional duties.”

This clause leaves teachers working 54-56 hours a week, and many over 60 hours. The motion calls for a maximum, quantified limit on the hours teachers can be expected to work.

It was agreed that the union should launch a campaign to highlight the intolerable conditions that school staff are working under, the damage that is causing education, and the consequent need for a national contract binding on all employers. The union is now committed to seek negotiations with the government and employers, and to draw up plans to build for national ballots for industrial action for a new National Contract for Education by September 2025.

The motion includes the need for binding pay and conditions across the whole workforce, including supply staff and support staff, so that no education worker is under a separate set of inferior pay and conditions arrangements.

A limit on working hours would strengthen reps and members taking on management over excessive workload.

Campaigning for support staff

Dan Warrington, Surrey NEU district secretary, personal capacity

This year’s NEU conference was a good one for support staff, with motions passed calling for a national campaign for support staff pay and rights, for the return to 52-week contracts, and for an extension of the introductory rates for new teacher members to new support staff members as well.

These successes did not come overnight, but after years of campaigning by support staff NEU activists. After reaching a turning point last year following a Trades Union Congress (TUC) fine for balloting support staff, as one support staff worker told conference, “It was nice to be able to speak on support staff issues outside of private session this year”.

Conference got to see some campaigning during the guest speech of Paul Nowak, TUC general secretary, when support staff activists and allies, including Socialist Party members, staged a demonstration with T-shirts and placards carrying the slogan “Don’t turn your backs on support staff”.

It is this type of sustained activism within the union that forced Daniel Kebede, NEU general secretary, to commit to pursuing collective bargaining for support staff with or without the cooperation of other TUC-affiliated unions – a position that was agreed at last year’s conference but now needs to be progressed.

The push for an expansion of NEU representation of support staff should not be viewed as a turf war between unions. Indeed, the current NEU leadership put significant effort into suppressing the growing support staff campaign prior to the TUC fine in 2022.

Instead, this is a campaign by some of the lowest-paid workers in the sector to get organised within the union they joined because they saw it as fighting for better pay and conditions. This campaign is an opportunity to bring together different layers of workers within the education sector that have far too often remained isolated from one another into a unified voice for education workers. That also means continuing to campaign for a fighting union leadership in the NEU, and for a united fightback between all education unions.

Conference agrees to encourage members to stand in elections

Alex Moore, Plymouth NEU member, standing as a TUSC candidate in the local elections

Given the instructions issued to frontbenchers by the Labour Party leadership not to support pickets, and their backing of the Israeli government’s onslaught on Gaza, in February Plymouth NEU members agreed that they would welcome anti-war candidates standing in elections. 

We were pleased to support the Worcestershire amendment moved by Socialist Party member Sean McCauley on Palestine, which argued that a wider mobilisation of NEU and other unions’ members on Gaza would further increase the pressure on political leaders. The amendment encouraged NEU members to consider election candidates’ views on Gaza, alongside other union-related policies, and to consider whether they should stand as candidates themselves.

This was overwhelmingly agreed, and demonstrates the views of delegates in contrast to those of the NEC majority, which, in abandoning building support for national strike action at this stage, has adopted an unspoken ‘strategy’ of waiting for a Labour government.

Socialist Party fringe meeting lifted sights

James Ellis, NEU member in Hastings

The Socialist Party hosted a fringe meeting at NEU conference under the banner of building for action on pay, funding and workload no matter who is in government.

The meeting came at just the right point in the weekend: the amendment calling for an immediate strike ballot had been lost that morning, but discussing the Socialist Party’s programme for building a fighting socialist union lifted attendees’ spirits.

Sheila Caffrey, a member of the NEU executive and Socialist Party member, spoke first about how the NEU can continue to build its membership and reps and win a strike ballot in the future. She explained how, with a bold left leadership, the NEU could empower and embolden its members to win on pay, funding and workload.

Rob Williams, Socialist Party workplace and industrial organiser, put our work in the NEU in a wider context. In order to win lasting gains, having a fighting union wouldn’t be enough on its own – we also need a new political party that represents the interests of trade unionists and campaigns for socialist policies.

The debate from the floor was lively and wide-ranging. The discussion included the need for strike action to win our demands and build the union, campaigning for support staff, protecting trans students, and the need for a new left formation in the NEU.

Our fringe meeting, and our participation in the conference more generally, showed that there is a real appetite for a serious socialist leadership of our union, and socialist solutions to the crisis facing education.

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