The decision taken by members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) to amalgamate into a single union, the National Education Union (NEU), is significant and historic. It is a recognition that times are changing, and that teacher unions are changing too.
The trend towards union mergers and amalgamations is long established in other occupational sectors. For unions in manufacturing the imperative to consolidate has been driven by deindustrialisation, while public service unions have had to face up to the pressures of privatisation and contracting out. Teachers have not faced similar pressures and remain one of the most unionised groups of workers in the economy; their unions have not had to face up to decisions many others confronted several years ago.
The English school system has become hugely fragmented
That situation seems no longer tenable. The English school system has become hugely fragmented, with a plethora of different types of schools and a multiplicity of employers. Schools are encouraged to act like businesses, driven by the twin pressures of Ofsted and the need to compete against each other. A report by the global teacher union confederation, Education International, describes England (and Chile) as the “emblematic cases” of an ideological commitment to the neoliberal reform of state education and a push towards marketisation and so-called business solutions.
Teachers in schools in England live with the consequences of these reforms. The most obvious manifestation is an out-of-control workload, whereby teachers work 19 per cent longer hours than the OECD average. However a discredited system of performance-related pay, a series of top-down and botched curriculum reforms and the downgrading of qualified teacher status also attest to a profession under pressure. The resulting teacher supply crisis forms part of a wider systemic crisis, currently exacerbated by swingeing funding cuts.
Teacher unions have continually sought to challenge these developments. However, this has been difficult because the neoliberal policies that now underpin English state education have always sought to use system fragmentation to undermine the collective voice of organised teachers. (Kenneth Baker, the education secretary who introduced these reforms, was, for example, quite explicit about the anti-union intentions of the 1988 Education Reform Act).
The introduction of league tables and competition were intended to undermine traditional solidarities and to make teachers compete against each other. In the race to the top of global league tables teachers have found themselves in a race to the bottom in terms of working conditions and job satisfaction.
However, system fragmentation has been compounded by the division of teachers into multiple, and competing, unions. This has made it easy for governments to exploit differences and to drive through unpopular change.
The introduction of league tables and competition were intended to undermine traditional solidarities
The amalgamation of the NUT and ATL opens up the possibility of turning the tide on these experiences, and may signal a wider, global move towards teachers uniting and organising against the pressures they face. For example, last year in New Zealand the teacher unions that represent primary and secondary teachers campaigned together in unprecedented joint action to resist government plans to marketise the school system. The unions retained (and still do) their separate identities, but to all intents and purposes, campaigned as a single organisation. The result was a total climbdown by the NZ government – it is the sort of victory against government policy that teachers in England have only dreamed about.
The winds of change are blowing. What Finnish academic Pasi Sahlberg has called the “global education reform movement” has driven up workloads and undermined teachers’ professional judgment. System fragmentation has deliberately sought to weaken teachers’ collective voice. Teachers increasingly understand that if they are to reassert their professional agency, and reclaim their professionalism, they must overcome, not compound, the drive to fragmentation.
Teachers need a collective, and genuinely independent, voice more than ever. That voice is just about to become louder.
Howard Stevenson is Director of research, School of Education University of Nottingham