In my last post, I explored the theme of professional unity, and did my best to make a case for it as the only feasible option if we want to see future success. Here, I will explore a few criticisms I have heard and come across, and explain why I don't think they will really hold up if put to the test.
"The unions are ideologically different. Some are against striking, while others support it."
Yep, that's an undeniable fact. But, is it really a barrier to professional unity?
Democratic decision-making is at the heart of the union movement. Unions exist by the grace of their members, and decisions which affect members ought to emerge from them, and of course these same decisions must be ratified by them. Yes, some unions have taken the decision that strike action isn't for them. This baffles me as I don't generally subscribe to the idea that you ought to voluntarily throw away one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal (except of course for the cases of actual warfare, particularly nuclear warfare).
Anyway, fine, you don't currently believe that strike action is a way forward. I don't personally take that view at the minute, but I'll make you a deal: I'll give you as much time as you like to convince me that I am wrong and you are right, as long as at the end of a fair debate we both accept the way the vote goes.
If strike action is fundamentally not the way to go, then you'll find the way to convince me of that. So, are the arguments of people against unification so weak on the issue of strike that they are unwilling to test them democratically?
"A union of teachers needs to be 'of and for' teachers."
I really could just leave it there and feel quite justified, but it am feeling ranty and this is my website after all.
At the NUT Conference, one particularly poignant debate was centred around the need for qualified teachers in every classroom. This is not to suggest that others can't help a child (or an adult) to learn, but the debate drew on the very secure knowledge that trained and qualified teachers are the best at educating others. What came out of this debate, though, wasn't that teachers were just in it for themselves.
It was the love of teaching, and a love of learning, that informed the debate.
People in education are united by a core belief: that education is paramount, and nothing can better prepare someone for life than a quality education. I don't think I'll find a lot of TAs, lecturers, educational psychologists, pastoral managers, deputy heads and head teachers (and I could go on) who don't feel that this central philosophy - this "core moral purpose" (to borrow a phrase) - is central to education. This is the tie that binds, the thing we all have in common.
I know there are arguments that a union consisting of such a wide variety of professions might find common ground hard to locate, and even harder to stand on, but I simply do not agree that these so-called "divisions" should hold back a move towards real professional unity.
"A large union is only about antagonising the Department for Education, and can't possibly take individual members' concerns seriously."
My initial reaction to this argument was actually mildly sympathetic, so I will acknowledge that first. In fact, it fits with my general mantra of supporting small business, shopping locally, and avoiding too many super-corporations. It has all the emotional resonance it needs as well: we generally prefer small classes, more individualised attention for our students, and more direct support ourselves.
But no aspect of my "mantra" is written in stone. I accept that Apple makes a better computer than I could if I managed to source all the raw materials locally. I accept that I'm going to have to shop at Sainsbury's (near payday) or the Co-op (later in the month) now and then. I further accept that I prefer national sports to local sports (I like when the whole country gets behind something) and I like the Olympics even more!
So the more I thought it through, the more it was obvious that "it's too big" wouldn't quite add up. Again, it seems like an easy emotional choice. But at the start of every debate it will almost always be unions trying to converse (and occasionally negotiate) with a national government. That's a pretty powerful force on the other side of that table, with an awful lot of resources. Resources for research, publication, and public relations. Resources for dissemination of information, and collection of data. Huge, massive, comparatively unlimited resources!
So I'm spoiling for a fair fight.
Or, as fair as it can be, and not necessarily a fight, either. In fact, the fairer the discussion, the less likely the need to fight!
Beyond fighting (or "antagonising") I think that a genuine union, which has grassroots membership at its heart and professionalism at its head, need not worry about losing touch with its membership. I don't feel put out that Christine Blower probably doesn't know who I am, but I know full well that if I ever need help, my union will be there for me (though let's hope I don't see that day).
Part 3 - The Way Ahead - is coming soon!
Part 1 - One union for teachers a must if we are going to succeed
I have referenced time and time again my origins as an Ontario teacher, both as a student for the majority of my schooling, and as an educator. I trained at Nipissing University, in one of the finest faculties of education in the country, and continue to be a member of the Ontario College of Teachers. When I was training to be a teacher, I was also proud to represent my faculty on the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation (OSSTF), the only union representing Ontario's public school teachers.
Ontario is not a one-union outfit, but there are no unions competing directly with one another. Catholic teachers have a Catholic teachers' union, and elementary teachers have their own unions as well.
Each union representing teachers in publicly funded schools is then further represented by the Ontario Teachers' Federation, a federated model encompassing diverse views from a variety of unions, each with their own backgrounds and histories.
However, the model stands in radical contrast to the current, hyper-competitive market that I entered into when looking for a union in England.
To be honest, I was shocked to think that different unions were needing to compete for my membership, as though they wouldn't all be able to sympathise with my needs as a teacher. I couldn't get over the fact that I was being offered a first year for free, or for £1, or any number of other perks! All this in direct contrast to Ontario, where I was actually legally obliged to be in a union, and that there would be no selection required.
All this, though, is simply a long, contextual prologue to what now follows:
It is time - beyond time! - to unite the teachers in this country under one union (while I support a union for all education workers, please let me focus just on teachers for now, and come back to the issue of TAs and other educators in a future post).
The NUT Conference reaffirmed this position just yesterday, in fact, when their membership voted overwhelmingly to find a way to stand together with our parallel unions (you can see their press release here).
On the heels of that debate, I attended a fringe meeting on the topic of professional unity.
The discussion was launched eloquently by Prof. Howard Stevenson, of the University of Nottingham. He described the historical and political context that used to allow room for a diversity of unions, conditions which he quite rightly points out no longer exist. Unions, he says, are now dealing with hundreds of employers, in a range of academies and free schools, rather than one in a Local Authority.
Gawain Little, an NUT Executive member, carried forward Prof. Stevenson's points brilliantly, elaborating that the role of unions are being systematically eroded. In his own words, he writes "Professional unity has moved from being an aspirational aim to being a necessity." Gawain also reminded us of his sympathy with the arguments that there could be one union to represent all union workers.
Hank Roberts, who is a member of three teachers' unions, reminded members that professional unity is a grassroots effort, and that all members have the opportunity to make this change. Of course, these are the briefest possible summaries, so my apologies to Hank, Gawain, or Howard if they should ever come to read this.
Naturally, being an NUT event, audience participation was as diverse as it was intelligent. I wish I could list every person and every contribution, but it just is not feasible, so I will go with a couple of highlights, which I believe signal excellent ways to move forward:
Emma Hardy read my mind when she noted that the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), whose conference ran parallel to the NUT's, debated key motions relating to Ofsted and qualified teachers in every classroom at the exact same time as the NUT. She quite rightly pointed out that, owing to the ubiquity of social networking, members of both unions were tweeting one-another from different conference floors, effectively making the conversation and debate multi-union. She used this as an effective jumping point to suggest that the unions should run joint activities for members. The gentleman next to me hit on a point that we had mentioned earlier in the conference: why couldn't we video link the two debates, and join each other as we demanded the best for our students and the best for our teachers? (I don't mind saying, I think that would be pretty awesome.)
And, I like the idea of joint events! (Just as much as I like flouting conventions of grammar and starting new paragraphs with "and.") I think joint events would serve to generally demystify the so-called divisions between the unions (which I believe are as arbitrary as they are artificial), and lead to a much more fulsome and productive debate overall.
I was gutted when I was not able to attend the NUT-organised Professional Unity Conference on 1 March, due to the need to move house (I figured that was a pretty decent excuse) but the feedback that has followed has been excellent. This major event was attended by representatives from ATL and UCAC, as representatives from the (single, unified) Finnish teachers' union. It also received messages of support from the NAHT and the ASCL.
Come back for Part 2, where I intend to outline some more of the criticisms that came about at the Professional Unity meeting, and explore some ideas about a way forward.
Once annually, a cohort of passionate, engaged, and remarkably engaging young teachers descends on idyllic Stoke Rochford Hall, the National Union of Teachers' training headquarters.
I am back from a remarkable and surprising weekend away.
A few months ago, a colleague of mine (who I admire greatly for her own passionate engagement with the issues that affect my workplace) made sure I got an application sent in for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) Young Teachers' Conference (YTC). For this I am grateful.
The mission of the conference is professional development and networking opportunities for young teachers nationwide (England and Wales). As I meet the necessary criteria (young: check; teacher: check!) I felt I could not miss the opportunity.
Admittedly, arriving Friday evening after a full work day and 2 hour drive wasn't perfectly ideal, but my exhaustion from the week was soon forgotten. I was greeted by a fantastic meal, in an exquisite country setting, and there just happened to be sun at the time! Networking began during the first meal, where I defaulted to my usual approach when meeting new people: dry humour bordering on the obnoxious. (Okay, maybe it isn't my best trait, but I find people quickly realise they'll either want to keep talking with me, or they have been fairly warned that I am just that kind of guy.) Fortunately, these particular ladies took kindly to my nonsense, and soon I was the proprietor of an extra dessert.
Next up was the intellectual challenge of a pub-quiz style quiz in the stunning library at Stoke Rochford Hall. Regrettably, I wasn't able to see through the end of the quiz as transport arrangements did not permit, but from what I understand my team came 3rd.
Without going into an obsessive amount of detail, I will outline some of the highlights of the next day:
NUT General Secretary Christine Blower gave a rousing address to the conference, outlining her enthusiasm for the policy direction that the NUT membership has set out, and coherently articulating why so many teachers do not support the changes to education being introduced by the Education Secretary.
Blower's most compelling comment was that the government has created a system of "toxic accountability," in which schools are committed, not to learning or students, but to statistics, and that this in turn poisons the school for all of the people for whom that building is a community.
She highlighted examples of the education systems in Alberta and Indiana, where teachers set personal improvement targets which are completely developmental, not used as a form of performance management, and supported by their schools' leadership and management.
Blower also highlighted the success of the educational system in Finland, which promotes "responsibility, not 'accountability.'" I interpreted this as meaning that responsibility is being accountable to something more than just paperwork and statistics and it is a statement that will stay with me through my professional life.
"The idea that we have children who come to school hungry and leave school hungry is a terrible indictment of our education system." - Christine Blower
Blower also referenced the recent and horrible news story of Daniel Pelka, a young boy allegedly starved to death by his parents, as she reinforced the NUT's commitment to universal free school meals. Her comments were a sad reminder that teachers need to fulfil a role that is much greater than simply ticking boxes and indicating progress.
The Young Teachers assembled were also treated a lively and informative discussion on protecting the future of education by Sue Cowley, a behaviour expert, teacher, parent, and school leader. Her talk was not on behaviour specifically, as most delegates probably expected, but rather on the role of Union members as safeguards against unwarranted, sustained attacks on not just teachers, but the entire education system.
"As a parent, I beg you: Please save education. For my children, for your children." - Sue Cowley
I walked away from Cowley's presentation with one particularly good new resource, that is a website run by a woman named Janet Downs, who has been hammering away at the Department for Education with Freedom of Information requests. In this one, Mrs Downs shows us that surveys quoted by the Education Secretary saying British teenagers are woefully ignorant about history were undertaken Lord Ashcroft (the only seemingly-legitimate survey in the group), and Premier Inns.
Sue Cowley also encouraged all teachers to create a real online presence in order to voice their discomfort with the current direction being taken in the Department for Education under its current leadership.
As she is new to Twitter, I will also include this link to her Twitter account as she builds up her own follower base.
"I have two gerbils named Watson and Crick, which is fitting as I'm a biology teacher."
This quotation summarises one of the best part of this experience: meeting new people. I love it. I find people to be fascinating and incredibly inspiring, especially when you get insights into their lives, like this clearly-committed biology teacher.
I will not go into detail about the rest of the conference, although I could write many, many more words about its positive impact on me as a teacher and an activist.
If you are a teacher under 35 in England or Wales, I strongly encourage you to consider attending this conference in the future. You will come away smarter, more passionate, and more informed that you left, and you'll have a great time in the process.
Addendum: I had such a good experience at this year's conference I put myself forward to help organise next year's. The delegates were kind enough to give me their votes (and for that I am thankful). If you were a conference participant are struck with an idea, you're welcome to leave a comment here, or tweet me.