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Putting the union at the heart of our communities

CHRISTINE BLOWER outlines the NUT’s strategic direction

MY TWO previous articles have outlined how the Global Education Reform Movement (Germ) has affected the structure and content of the education system in England and internationally.

And the development of Germ has not happened in a political vacuum — quite the reverse.

The changes in education we have witnessed are part of a more general movement away from social-democratic models of public-sector provision and service delivery towards a neoliberal, marketised society.

Nottingham University professor of education Howard Stevenson has noted that there are three major strategic orientations currently open to teaching unions — rapprochement with the system, resistance along traditional lines or to seek through engaging union members and strategic allies to both resist the effects of neoliberalism but also renew both teacher unions and the debate around alternative visions of education.

The NUT’s strategic organising response follows the third option.

To pursue this strategy we need to understand that the process of putting a positive alternative to Michael Gove’s neoliberal vision of education must be conducted ideologically and politically as well as economically.

We need to fight to defend and advance the day-to-day interests of our members in the classroom, but we also need to address the underlying policies that both shape and affect the working conditions of teachers and their profession.

At the same time we must engage in the ideological debate about the social role of education and the need for a system that is based on more than the development of “human capital” for a neoliberal market economy.

This is not a strategy that can exclusively be carried forward by a small layer of full-time officials lobbying government and policy-makers.

Rather the NUT sees the active participation of members, through democratically controlled lay structures, as essential in fighting for a better vision of education and professional freedom.

Consequently, local divisions have put time and resources into building effective, well-trained and confident lay structures from the school level upwards.

Divisions are also experimenting — with some modest success — with new ways of facilitating collective action and identity around issues, and with new structures suited to the changed and fragmented educational landscape we find ourselves in.

Despite witnessing considerable gains measured by key indices such as rep and membership density and engagement levels, no “organising model” is a guaranteed panacea for success.

Even if the NUT has made the correct strategic choice, making genuine headway against such an intransigent government is not a given.

But we are confident that the model at least offers a genuine strategic response to the multiple, rapid and deep-rooted challenges teachers are facing.

Still, we will not be as successful as we could be if we do this on our own.

Indeed, perhaps the biggest impediment in the struggle for a better vision for education and teacher professionalism is that while 97 per cent of teachers are in a union, they are spread across six competing organisations.

The NUT is rightly proud to be the single biggest union, but we are acutely aware that teachers would be massively strengthened if they spoke with one voice in one unified organisation.

As well as professional unity, a clear objective of the NUT’s organising model is to reach out and engage with parents, politicians and academics.

We aim, through dialogue and discussion, to create a counter-narrative to that currently offered by neoliberalism, one that can shape educational policy.

This has been manifested in our ongoing Stand Up For Education activities that have seen hundreds of ordinary NUT members give up their weekends to hit the streets leafleting, petitioning and talking to the public.

We’ve also seen local divisions organise a number of successful lobbies of MPs’ surgeries, local Education Question Time events and many other activities that open links with the wider community.

Community organising has increasingly been an important theme in terms of trade union renewal debates.

Sometimes this is seen as moving away from workplace organising, but the NUT sees an interrelationship between the two.

To connect with the community you need well-organised school groups — but we will only fully develop our organising strategy by connecting with the community.

Teaching unions appear ideally placed to develop this form of “social movement” trade unionism in that they are often at the heart of local communities.

In many ways the NUT has come late to the debates and practice of organising.

As a consequence we have learned a great deal from colleagues elsewhere in the movement and from the substantial body of research into organising in Britain.

We are also fortunate enough to have been able to learn international lessons from other teaching unions fighting similar battles to the NUT.

Not least among these are the lessons taught us by the Chicago Teachers Union which has successfully pushed back some of the worst aspects of Germ in a city that was in many ways the testing ground of neoliberal education policy.

Central to their success was a clear vision of an organising model based on membership participation, the renewal of democratic lay structures and the engagement of the community.

A slogan often attributed to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci that will be familiar to Morning Star readers is that of “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

In many ways this captures the spirit that informs the NUT organising model.

Our intellect tells us that the challenges confronting teachers and education have deep political and ideological roots contrary to the values of the NUT.

But we are optimistic that with the correct strategic response based on the active engagement and empowerment of our members, the renewal of lay structures in conjunction with reaching out to a wider community, then just like our sisters and brothers in Chicago and elsewhere we can begin to promote a better vision of education and greater respect for the teaching profession.

Christine Blower is general secretary of the NUT.


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