12 Days Remaining

Saturday 22nd
posted by Morning Star in Features

ATL leader MARY BOUSTED talks to Conrad Landin about her political priorities, the challenges ahead for trade unionism and the fight against the reintroduction of grammar schools

IT WAS going to be a busy enough year for Dr Mary Bousted already.

The long-serving teachers’ leader was already overseeing the creation of a new education super-union, with her own Association of Teachers and Lecturers likely to merge with the National Union of Teachers next spring.

Then just months after new Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to shift to the centre, her government announced it would allow the opening of new grammar schools.

And to top it all, Bousted was elected president of the TUC at the organisation’s annual congress last month.

Though it is largely a ceremonial office, Bousted has never been one to take her responsibilities lightly.

She says she was “used to making my case” from an early age, as one of eight children born to her headmaster and teacher parents in Bradford.

It was surely ideal training for the TUC’s general council — of which Bousted is a long-serving member and will now, as president, chair.

And unsurprisingly for someone who has worked in education all her life, she sees organising Britain’s youth as a key priority for the TUC.

Youth unemployment will continue to be a blight on society, she says, until “an industrial strategy worth the name” is produced by government.

“How can we say to young people they should work hard and get a share in society when there are no prospects of getting a home or a decent job?”

She says TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady deserves “full credit” for “setting up a really serious project about promoting the TUC to young workers.”

And she insists the labour movement must face up to a changing society.

“Organising may be done completely differently in the future. We need to think about changes to the way we organise.”

But that’s not to dismiss current projects — not least the TUC’s learning and skills arm Unionlearn, which Bousted has chaired since 2009.

“It’s the most effective way for workers of getting back into education,” she says.

The other “centrepiece” for her year as TUC president will be promoting women in the workplace — and Bousted says tackling sexual harassment, whether in schools or offices, will be a “touchstone” issue.

She warns that the labour movement has “gone asleep at the wheel on sexual harassment,” saying: “It’s not about banter — this is something that has lifelong consequences for women.”

And in teaching, Bousted sees women “disproportionately not being promoted” in spite of being qualified for senior roles.

It’s clear when talking to Bousted that classroom practices and staff room politics are never far away from her mind — in spite of her having been ATL general secretary for 13 years, and a senior academic for over a decade before that.

Born in Bradford, she now lives in south London with her partner and two koi carp.

Her route to the top job was far from a traditional rise through a union. Rather than building a profile in the lay structures, she applied for the post after it seeing it advertised in a newspaper.

She still had to be elected by the wider membership, narrowly beating legendary north London teacher activist Hank Roberts — who was seen as the more radical candidate for the top job.

But she has subsequently worked closely with Roberts, who served as the union president from 2012, on the long-term project of professional unity, which finally moved from dream to reality when both ATL and the National Union of Teachers voted in favour of merging.

And it was Bousted who led ATL, long considered a more moderate professional association, to its first national strike in 2011.

But Bousted was herself an NUT rep when she started out as a teacher in north-west London comprehensive schools.

Among her pupils was Liberty director turned shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti, who spoke fondly of her “inspirational English teacher” when she addressed TUC Congress as a guest speaker last year.

Chakrabarti told delegates that the ATL leader had “taught a stroppy but not always strategic 15-year-old daughter of migrants how to understand To Kill a Mockingbird and how to present a better argument.”

Bousted’s first experience of militancy came some time beforehand, however, when she was a student at the University of Durham.

Trainee teachers were housed alongside other students but whisked away early each morning to another location.

As such, rather than being offered the full breakfast that they had paid for with their rent, teaching students were instead treated to “appalling buttered bread.”

Bousted, who led a demonstration of her cohort outside the bursar’s office, successfully argued that this amounted to breach of contract on the university’s part.

There are very different issues in the education sector in the year ahead — not least the Tories’ proposals to allow the opening of new grammar schools. But no doubt the same strategy and negotiation skills will come in handy.

She is known to have had productive working relationships in unlikely places — with Lib Dem ex-schools minister David Laws as well as senior Labour figures, for instance.

On grammar schools, she has found herself on the same side as her old adversary Nicky Morgan.

The policy is a “big mistake” even on the Tories’ own terms, Bousted says. “Even if she gets it through the house, it will be highly contentious. There’s no evidence grammar schools increase social mobility — they never did. That wasn’t the case in the ’50s, and it’s never been the case.

“We can win this by convincing the public and parents. Let’s call it the reintroduction of secondary modern schools.”

The grammar schools issue and the continued threat of forced academisation of schools will be the immediate tests for the new education union, which is expected to be approved by special conferences of the two unions on November 5 before membership ballots.

Bousted has already been hosting meetings of parents alongside NUT general secretary Kevin Courtney, who will serve alongside her as joint leader of the new union.

Co-leadership will be another new experience for the ATL supremo. But it’s hard to see her approaching the task ahead with anything but optimism and determination.