Two events formed the political backdrop to this year’s conference. The first was the success of the ‘Schools Cuts’ campaign around the General Election last year and its campaign since then. This made the issue of education funding and school cuts a major issue in the election campaign. It has been reported that almost three quarters of a million voters were influenced in their decision by this campaign. The ‘Schools Cuts’ campaign was initiated by the NUT but was soon supported by most of the unions in the education sector.
The School Cuts website, using data produced by the Government, has shown the effects of funding cuts for every primary and secondary school in England and Wales. This has proved invaluable in mobilising parents and local communities in campaigns against these cuts.
As a result, the government has been forced to put extra money into the education budget since the election. This £1.3bn is not enough to end the funding cuts in our schools but is a clear measure of the success of the campaign. It was the determination of NEU members and of parents, as well as the 750,000 people who changed their votes during the campaign, that forced this concession by Justine Greening, the then Secretary of State for Education.
The NEU plans to continue this campaign into the local elections this year and is calling for the weekend of April 21st and 22nd to be a campaigning weekend around education funding cuts, with stalls and events throughout England.
The second event that framed NUT conference was the decision of the Labour Party (LP), at its 2017 Conference, to create a National Education Service (NES). Clearly this is a major opportunity for the NEU to have a significant impact on the Educational Policy developing within the LP. There was overwhelming support for the NES by conference delegates.
The motion that was carried called upon the Joint Executive Committee of the NEU to “support and, where possible, help fund national, regional, local and school based campaigning to facilitate debate on the NES”. This should allow Local Associations and Divisions of the NUT Section of the NEU to work with local LPs in developing the framework and the detail of the NES.
There are some areas of policy that the union has agreed, e.g. the need to develop democratic control of public education, to ensure that a comprehensive education system is fully funded by central government. But there are areas that still need debate. For example, should we call for the abolishing of all private schools and the transfer of their assets to the state sector or should we call for the abolishing of all forms of selective education including setting and streaming in state schools?
The production of the report “It’s Just Everywhere” by the NEU and UK Feminista coupled with the Conference on ‘Challenging Sexism in Schools and Colleges’ organised by local association of the NUT made sure that a motion on ‘Sexism and Harassment in Schools’ was debated and passed overwhelmingly at conference. The motion urged Local Associations and Divisions to organise local events and training to publicise and debate the report and to discuss strategies to address the issues of sexism and sexual harassment in schools.
The combative mood of conference was clearly shown in the standing ovation given to the President of the University and Colleges Union (UCU), Joanna de Groot, reporting on their strike action to defend their pension arrangements and to Wilson Sossion of the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) who spoke about the campaign they are organising to prevent the privatisation of education in Kenyan Schools. The Kenyan Government is allowing large education corporations, like Pearsons, to provide the materials for teaching including computerised lessons plans and actual lessons so that non teachers can take change of the classes and the Government can reduce the expenditure on education. The KNUT has worked to explaining why each class needs a qualified teacher and has gathered significant parental support for this demand.
The ending of the 140+ years of an independent NUT was not seen as sad event but gave confidence that we could bring the great strengths of the NUT into the new National Education Union.