When I started teaching I never thought I would have need of unions. In my head, I associated the unions with British Leyland, Arthur Scargill and a 1970s world of wildcat strikes. So when it came to signing up to a union, I rejected the militant NUT with horror. I believed then and still do believe that a strike should be the very last resort. Moreover, the NUT tended to reflect the views of primary teachers and while there were obvious common interests, I found it irritating to listen to primary teachers complaining about the newly introduced SATs – why should my primary colleagues escape accountability measures which secondary teachers had had for years in the form of public examinations? I therefore joined AMMA, as ATL was known then, as I felt it was moderate, sensible and less primary biased. I found union support invaluable after enduring excessive and unnecessary unannounced observations in my first teaching job.
To me, a prime function of a classroom teachers’ union is to protect its members against unjustified treatment at the hands of managers, whether that be bullying or excessive workload caused by an initiative. Being broadly traditional in outlook, I tended to disagree with statements from my union about the curriculum, particularly the once fashionable idea that knowledge didn’t matter now that everyone had Google. Yet, on workforce issues and teacher terms and conditions, I was fired up by the horror stories I heard about the workload inducing activities that some heads in some schools were asking their staff to engage in. Hearing about a teacher obliged to submit written reports to her manager on how she spent her PPA time came close to releasing my inner “Arthur Scargill” – what utter nonsense!
Yet I came to recognise a narrative which went something like this: “Address your anger to the government. Be sympathetic to the poor head teacher – they are simply responding to government pressure”. This led to a bizarre situation where, year after year, union motions would accuse the government or Ofsted of wanting something, which would then be flatly denied by those organisations. In the meantime, the workload continued to pile up.
A friendly NASUWT rep pointed me in the direction of the “Action short of strike action” document which his union had just produced. Brilliant, I thought – this is just what is needed – a list of tasks and activities which NASUWT members have stated they will not do, given that these activities were essentially about creating unnecessary workload. Yet I was surprised to find it seemed to have little support among members of my own union. Time and again, I heard comments on the lines of “But Fish, this just upsets the head teachers. It’s the government we should be attacking.”
To my mind, this involves the union going too far from its remit, namely to protect and enhance the working conditions of its members. Far better, in my opinion, would have been for unions to agree a list of unnecessary tasks and state that from now on no member would carry them out. Head teachers might then have said that the tasks were simply what the government required. In that case, the head teacher unions, NAHT and ASCL should be the ones putting the pressure on the government. The ordinary teacher unions should concentrate solely on the workload issues faced by their members and leave the head teachers and government ministers to argue who bears responsibility.
I very much fear that a merged NUT/ATL union will simply become more and more remote from the workload issues which are the main concern of teachers on the ground. Instead, there will be attacks on government policy which will simply be ignored by the government of the day. In the meantime, the ordinary teacher asked by their manager to attend yet another unnecessary meeting or waste time on even more “quality assurance” activities will be forgotten.
NASUWT’s action short of strike action seems to have gone very quiet. Perhaps a new updated version is needed. Perhaps it will happen if they receive an influx of ex ATL members who are unhappy about being swallowed up by the NUT. The next few months will prove very interesting.