NAHT conference 2023: Full text from Paul Whiteman’s speech

The union's general secretary was speaking after announcing a strike re-ballot of members

The union's general secretary was speaking after announcing a strike re-ballot of members

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT union, has delivered his speech at the union’s annual conference in Telford.

It comes after the school leaders’ union announced it would re-ballot its members for strikes over pay, school funding, workload and wellbeing.

Paul Whiteman

Colleagues, thank you for that warm welcome.

You need to be careful, though… it won’t take much encouragement for me to go all south London on you at the moment!

I could easily spend the next 20 minutes getting stuck into the governments of Northern Ireland, Wales and England for their abject failure to support the profession and the children you care for.

Three administrations playing fast and loose with children’s futures and the future prosperity of these nations!

In fact, I think I’ll do just that… But before the fun starts!

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to our annual conference.

It’s a mark of the times that this year, we have almost double the number of delegates compared with last year, and I’m thrilled that our conference is growing in line with our ambition.

I’d particularly like to welcome any first-time delegates here today.

I hope you have a great couple of days, and I think I can remember our president saying something about how he’d like to buy you all a drink, so do make sure he does that tonight.

Can you tell I’m in the mood for demanding a fair reward?  

I know that many of you in this room work hard on behalf of NAHT in your capacity as officials or campaigners, and I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for everything you’ve done to grow this union into what it’s become.

You have my thanks, but Paul can buy you a beer!

But seriously, the growth and progress NAHT has enjoyed in recent years is down to your hard work, and I’m proud as punch to serve you as your general secretary.

I’m a lucky man, too. Lucky to have a fantastic staff team that never flinches when the next challenge arises. Thank you, thank you all.

You have been extraordinary this year, and I would like to invite conference to join me in a round of applause to demonstrate that appreciation.

I am also lucky to have a dedicated and straightforward national executive committee.

You hold me to account, but you never fail to take tough policy decisions, never fail to listen to advice, and are generous with your own advice, guidance and support for the team. You are ambitious for our members and ambitious for the children in your schools too.

Never change; the progress we make is because we are an outward-looking union.

My last mark of appreciation is for our president, Dr Gos, as we call him. Now, there has to be some way to distinguish the two of us, right?

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman
Whiteman at NAHT conference

Both Pauls, both bald, but have kept our looks, both sometimes bespectacled, both with London accents, and a little more than a passing resemblance between us. 

It turns out our brain size is the difference… hence the Dr! But intellect is no guarantee of staying out of trouble, is it, Paul?

I have served as general secretary under six presidents now. Every single one of them is a blessing. All impressive and thoughtful.

But I have to reflect, Paul, it is only under your presidency that we have had a president call a secretary of state “fella”.

It has been under your presidency that we have called for industrial action in not just one country but three.

We are taking action short of a strike in Wales, a day of strike action in Northern Ireland, and I have no doubt we will secure a mandate in England in due course.

Under your presidency, we have also begun action against the inspectorate and campaigned on funding, too.

Simon, just a note to you, I’m hoping for a quieter year next year.

Let’s go over that now to make sure we have something worth talking about.

  • The three industrial action ballots undertaken by NAHT.
  • Standing up to Ofsted’s brutal and destructive inspection regime.  
  • Campaigning for and securing an extra £4bn in school funding – nowhere near enough but wouldn’t have happened without NAHT’s campaign and our sister unions
  • Undertaking industrial action in both Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • And now another ballot in England.

But outside of all of that, I really don’t have much to tell you. In fact, I’d imagine we’ll have run out of things to say by tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll be back home in time to see Crystal Palace beating West Ham by half-time.

I’m joking, of course. Crystal Palace never scores in the first half.  

But the truth is, we have an agenda packed with brilliant motions and speakers, and I hope you’re as excited about the next couple of days as I am.

Conference, our theme this year is ‘Strength in mutual support. Power in collective endeavour’, and my word, haven’t we seen those values displayed in their droves over the course of the last year?

Now last year, in a demonstration of contempt for you, the previous secretary of state snubbed this conference.

Choosing to visit a party fundraising event a couple of miles up the road instead.

You were rightly indignant about that, and I think we saw the writing on the wall then, if truth told.

Now, for the second year running, the secretary of state is not with us at conference.

To be fair to Gillian, she has not snubbed us, and we have not snubbed her. We are formally in dispute with the government, and talks have broken down.

It simply would not have been appropriate. But we do look forward to a resolution to the dispute and inviting Gillian to next year’s conference.

But conference, it means you need to be loud; you need to be heard. So, I want you at this conference to shout and stamp your feet as much as you like.  

Relentlessly reasonable, yes, but we will not cower, and we will not beg. Send that message from this conference loud and clear.

Will the delegation from Wales please stand for a moment?

Colleagues, our sisters and brothers in Wales secured a ballot result and have been engaged in industrial action that has procured a pay deal that is sufficient.

But the dispute continues because, despite government funding, local authorities in Wales refuse to promise to pass on the money to schools.

That’s a disgrace, and we will not stop until it is solved.

Congratulations, colleagues; you and your members can be proud of your achievements and a sold campaign. Colleagues, show some appreciation, please.

Can the delegation for Northern Ireland stand up?

Colleagues in Northern Ireland have been engaged in action short of a strike for some time, but on Wednesday this week, they joined all public sector workers and the other teaching unions in a day’s strike action to protect education.

A very difficult decision. But our action was solid; we were central to the Belfast rally.

The government in Northern Ireland boasted that it had nothing to worry about; school leaders would never stand up for themselves.

Well, colleagues, they know better now, don’t they. Colleagues, please show some support.

And now, in England, it’s time to ballot again. NAHT members voted on industrial action earlier in the year. We got close but did not exceed the arbitrary 50 per cent threshold.

Despite that, NAHT tried to maintain solidarity with striking NEU members in as many ways as possible as this is a fight for the profession.

I was pleased NAHT was a central part of the negotiations with the government as a consequence of our ongoing campaign.

Together, the unions brought the government to the table, but its offer fell short of what was needed; in fact, the offer was so poor it has seen NAHT members’ attitude harden.

It was rank and file NAHT members rejected that offer with a crushing vote against it.

In just a week that went into the Easter holidays, 64 per cent of members cast a vote, with 90 per cent rejecting the offer and 78 per cent demanding to be balloted for industrial action.

Colleagues, the NEC has heard that plea; they resolved to call that ballot yesterday, and I am confident the conference will endorse that decision today.

The government must now come back to the table. Simply taking its bat and ball home because our members have said no is not the action of a responsible government.

It is a demonstration of contempt for the profession and a lack of concern for children.

I said at the time of our result that if the government fails to reopen negotiations, it will be turning its back on children.

That seems to have upset an unnamed source in the DfE, saying that NAHT seems determined to turn up the temperature.

Last week, threatening to sue Ofsted, and this week, accusing the government of turning its back on children.

But what was really revealing about what that source said is what they didn’t respond to. Because I also said that by failing to come back to the negotiating table, the government would be sticking two fingers up to the profession.

Well, no attempt from the government to correct that one! So, how the government feels about you is absolutely clear. Colleagues, you should not be subjected to this.

Let’s face it, what we’re missing from politicians is leadership and commitment to education.

In Northern Ireland, the politicians simply do not turn up for work. In Wales, they lack either the power or the commitment to command compliance with the deals they strike.

And in England, I’m on my eight secretary of state since becoming general secretary. It’s a shambles.

We’ve had warm words about the value of schools and educators, but it’s hard to attribute any credibility to those sentiments when most people in this room have lost any sort of confidence of the secretary of state lasting longer than blossom in spring.

Clean and fresh with plenty of promise, but gone in the blink of an eye.  

The point is the words of this administration now amount to very little. Its actions, or rather its lack of them, have shown us all how far down its list of priorities we are.

Only a few weeks ago, the government’s own data illustrated the crushing workload that has been burning out teachers and school leaders. 

Full-time leaders now work an average – an average – of 57.5 hours a week, and their reward? real-term pay cut of nearly 20 per cent since 2010.

This isn’t fair, it isn’t right, and most importantly, it’s unsustainable. How many school leaders would recommend their career path to others?

A third. Just one third.

That statistic alone should be enough to shame the whole country. How can that not be anything other than a massive red flag to government that says something isn’t right?

And if that wasn’t enough, we know that one in three school leaders are leaving their roles within five years of appointment, with half of those leaving state-funding education entirely.

But why?

You’re overworking and underpaying the people who run our schools and asking them to do so with scant resources or investment.  

Conference, it is perhaps apt that we have convened here, in the heart of the country, because I genuinely believe what we’re engaged in is a fight for the heart and soul of education.

I can’t put it more clearly: if the government cares about the future of young people, then it must massively invest in the whole system; teachers, schools and children. And that needs to happen now.

No more empty promises and no more smoke and mirrors with numbers – a genuine financial investment.

We’ve been on this cliff edge for far too long, and enough is enough.

The spectacle of underfunded schools – along with overworked and underpaid staff working within the context of a punitive inspection regime – is, unsurprisingly, not the solution to our recruitment and retention crisis.

It’s damaging to our profession, it’s damaging to the children you teach, and it’s entirely unsustainable.

As educators, you are the experts at identifying when someone fails to grasp a concept, and it’s clear to all of us that this government just does not get it. They were shocked that we rejected its pay offer, which illustrates just how little they understand about the situation inside our schools.

Let me say to the government now: you can avoid the problems all you like; cut corners, ignore appeals from the experts, pretend that you’re taking action and hope no one notices when you don’t follow through on your promises.

But what prize do you get for that?

A slightly more palatable bottom line in exchange for selling young people down the river and sending a message to the rest of the world that in this country, we just don’t think education is that important.

When it comes to school funding, the government has attempted to fob off the general public with massaged figures and deceptive statistics, but it doesn’t matter if you’ve been made to study maths until the age of 18 or the age of 180, their sums just don’t add up.

The truth is that school funding is still below the level it was 13 years ago in real terms.

Now, the government can try and dazzle us with talk of record funding increases, blind us with their figures in the millions and billions, and reemphasise their commitment to the sector, but they can’t pull the wool over our eyes. Schools are poorer than they were almost 15 years ago, and that’s the indisputable truth.

We could talk about the government all day, and there’s no doubt that we will for much of it, but we can’t talk about institutions not listening without talking about Ofsted.

For years, we have told Ofsted and the DfE that the current approach to inspection does more harm than good.

We warned them repeatedly about the negative impact on school leaders and their staff. We told them that the current framework was not fit for purpose.

In 2018 accountability commission and showed that there was a better alternative.

But despite that advice, we still have an arbitrary and excessively punitive inspection regime, which demonstrably damages the health of school leaders.

Conference, I’ve no doubt all of you saw the news coverage regarding the tragic death of Ruth Perry, a headteacher from Reading who took her own life shortly after her inspection.

In the immediate aftermath of Ruth’s passing, NAHT experienced a significant increase in calls to its advice line from similarly distressed members… and the saddest thing about that is that I doubt it has surprised anyone in this room whatsoever.

We are honoured and grateful that Ruth’s sister, Julia, will be joining us and addressing conference tomorrow morning.

Julia, let me, on behalf of everyone at NAHT, once again express our sympathy and condolences to you and your family at such a difficult time.

This union stands here with you. Ruth was one of us. And she could have been any one of us.  

There are no two ways about it; this has to be a watershed moment for Ofsted. Change has to come and come quickly.

School leaders have never shied away from accountability and scrutiny. But we do ask for a fair, humane, proportionate inspection system that seeks to support schools, not punish them.

Our decision to take the first steps towards legal action and issue a pre-action protocol letter was not taken lightly, but it was absolutely necessary. I can tell you that the NAHT lawyers are putting the finishing touches to a legal challenge now.  

And let me tell you why. The arrogance of Ofsted towards our members is breath taking.

The refusal of the chief inspector to sit down with us and agree to adjustments to inspection practices that would bring immediate relief to the situation is reckless.

It’s no good talking to us, going away and thinking about it for a while about what you might want to do. You have to agree with us, the people at the other end of the inspection what needs to be done to make work safe and you need to do it fast.

Because colleagues, at the end of the day, that is what it’s about. Health and safety at work.

If an unsafe practice had been identified on a building site or in a factory, it is quite simply stopped until a safer working practice is designed, identified and agreed with the workers to protect everybody.

Why do things have to be different for professionals?

Why do you think it is acceptable to be reckless with school leaders’ well-being… shame on you.

We are not just a union of leaders; we are a union that leads when it matters, and that’s why our union has grown by 40 per cent over the course of the last five years.

We are a union that suggests solutions alongside pointing out problems, and the situation with Ofsted is no exception, so let me be clear about what needs to happen next.

Firstly, we need to see the introduction of immediate actions that will begin to relieve some of the pressure inspection places on school leaders. This won’t solve every problem, but in light of recent events, tangible changes need to be implemented now.

We also need to see a fundamental reform of inspection in this country. While I don’t wish to pre-empt the policy motions coming up tomorrow, that simply must include an end to a simplistic and pernicious one-word grading system.

I call on this government and any future governments to work with us on designing something that is both fairer and more effective for everyone.

Doing so is not only entirely achievable but also absolutely necessary.

Conference, education is at a crossroads. As a nation, we can either take action now or do immeasurable damage to both the teaching profession and the prospects of our young people for many generations to come.

So, my message to the government is this:

Make education your first priority. If you genuinely value how schools shape the prospects of future generations, then put education at the top of the list.  

It is within your gift to make this country world-leading when it comes to education. So do that. And start doing it today. Make us number one.

Delegates, we are going to have a great conference.

It’s going to be great because of your passion, your ideas, your professionalism and your dedication to your pupils and your colleagues.

Despite the challenges I’ve cited in this speech, you still have the best and most important jobs in the world, with the very best people occupying them and the most incredible young people in our schools being educated by them.

The joy of seeing pupils fulfil their potential can’t be matched, and if the problems we’ve discussed could be adequately addressed, who knows how much more we could achieve together?

In just a few moments, we’re going to start voting on motions that will direct the work of this union over the course of the next year, so please throw yourself into that occasion and vote with your whole hearts.

We’ve got some difficult decisions to make, and before I go, I’d just like to impress on you the great responsibility you have taken on by way of being a part of this process.

We are leaders, and part of leadership is leading by example.

Leading by example when it comes to doing what’s right. Leading by example when it comes to trying to fix something that’s broken. Leading by example in pursuit of fairness.

And leading by example when it means taking action and standing up for what you believe in.

When you take action, remember you are doing it not just for you. You are doing it to protect education on behalf of the nation.  

When they ask, ‘But what about the children?’, stand firm and stand proud and answer you’re doing it for the children.

When they say, ‘You’re damaging the reputation of education’, stand firm and stand proud and answer that you’re standing up for education!

And when they say, ‘The country hasn’t got any money’, stand firm and stand strong and explain this is the sixth richest nation in the world and you were doing this for the nation’s future!

Now, let’s get to work.

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