Mark Lehain is the founder & former Principal of Bedford Free School.
In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes – and teaching unions being awkward about their members actually teaching kids. Given how the Coronavirus crisis has turned so many things upside down, stroppy behaviour by some unions has been almost reassuring in its familiarity.
It’s also brought into focus the ongoing tensions and challenges facing the education unions. Most union reps in schools will put the welfare of colleagues and kids at the centre of things as they engage with Headteachers. At the national level though, there are a number of competing drivers. These normally remain behind the scenes, but understanding them is vital if one is to properly appreciate the past few weeks, and what is to come. In this article, I want to concentrate on three of the most pertinent ones.
First of all, there is how the bigger unions themselves see their role within the broader political environment. It’s not as straight-forward as simply representing and protecting their members’ interests.
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and Association of School & College Leaders (ASCL) is made up of school Heads and senior leaders. The former is dominated by primary staff, and the latter by secondary. They are pragmatic players who take great pains to listen to their members and pride themselves on getting things done. It is their members who will prepare schools for more children from June 1st. Getting them behind this has been a big priority for the Government, and I think we can ultimately rely on them to deliver for pupils.
It’s more interesting and less certain with the two big classroom teacher unions, NASUWT and the National Education Union (NEU). COVID-19 has provided a chance to flex their muscles with the government, and to recruit additional members by tapping into teacher anxiety about safety.
NASUWT was traditionally the grumpy-but-sensible union, and the NUT (now NEU) the loud-and-angry one. The crisis has provided Patrick Roach, the new NASUWT General Secretary, with a chance to make his mark and move the organisation on after numerous embarrassments under his predecessor. It’s also given him an opportunity to compete with the NEU in terms of volume and ferocity.
When Coronavirus kicked off, the NEU leadership were still licking their wounds after throwing everything they had to get Jeremy Corbyn elected. Some at the top see their role more about fomenting socialist revolution than representing members. COVID-19 presents a new opportunity to whip up conflict and bring down the Conservative Government, and they are making the most of it. With their own five tests, checklists designed to be failed, and other actions, the union is doing everything it can to equip activists to slow down Heads and prevent proper preparation from being undertaken.
All of the above highlights a second important consideration: the impact of the structural reforms introduced since 2010. For while the trade unions undoubtedly still have a lot of sway, breaking councils’ monopolies on schools has led to other powerful players emerging, which they need to bear in mind when trying to divide-and-conquer.
Thanks to Michael Gove and others, politicians and union leaders can’t just hammer out deals between themselves. Over half of English pupils go to schools run by independent academy trusts, and the Chief Executives of these are increasingly making their voices heard over the heads of unions or politicians. It is telling that much of the public support for getting more kids back from June 1st has come from this quarter, as well as how assertively many have been in making the case.
That so many of the best school leaders in the country are confident that they can safely get pupils and staff back in directly challenges the messages of doom and anxiety from elsewhere. This will have given the government succour and caused headaches for the unions.
And this leads on to my final point: how representative or otherwise the positions taken by the NEU and NASUWT are of their membership.
The positions of these unions have increasingly been influenced by a tiny proportion of their members, and my interactions with schools across the country make me pretty confident that the vast majority will open to most of the kids they’ve been asked to.
Most school staff are not on Twitter or other places beloved of activists and journalists seeking people for comment. Also, the vitriol that has been directed at those who have spoken in favour of a return means that pro-openers have generally kept quiet in public.
As I chat with teachers, Heads, and others, three things come across: they are keen to make things work safely, they’re quietly getting on with it away from the public debate, and attempts at causing division amongst their teams have gone down really badly.
I’m a former union school rep myself, and I’ve worried for a while now that politicking by those at the national level would harm our schools and damage the reputation of the profession. The Coronavirus crisis could be the moment when union leaders misjudge the public mood, and undermine the trust that they’ve gained over the years.
Over the next two weeks, many more parents will go back to work, and need our schools to look after and educate their children once more. I really hope the unions can climb down and find a way to help our schools, not hinder them – for the sake of our pupils and their families, wider society, and the reputation of the wonderful profession of teaching.