The first major trade union conference in the pre-election period will be of the largest teachers’ organisation, the National Union of Teachers, meeting in Liverpool over the Easter weekend.
Gordon Brown is set to announce the election on 6 April, the last day of the conference. But the education policies supported by NUT delegates will be a long way from those on offer from any of the major political parties.
What are NUT polices?
• Reduce class size dramatically with the aim that by 2020 no child is in a class of more than 20.
• End SATs and league tables.
• Stop the privatisation of schools and the break-up of local authority-run education by ending the Academy and trust programmes and bringing the existing Academies back into local authority control.
• And the NUT policy of a good local school for every child is the alternative to the main parties’ mantra of “choice and diversity”.
The conference will endorse a priority motion which champions these demands during the election and tests the policies of the main parties against them. The fact that the NUT relies on this kind of all-party lobbying for policy support, however, leaves us fighting with one hand tied behind our back.
As a politically unaffiliated union we have never been part of the debate in the labour movement about education policy, not to mention all the other questions of government that affect our members and the communities they serve. Neither is there space within the union’s rules or constitution to consider the need for working-class or trade-union representation in politics.
It will be a lot better if the NUT used the election period to provoke debates about what education is for and how a different vision for schools is possible. But right now it will have to be done in a way which inevitably mutes and blunts the effect as we cannot actually shape a radical working-class alternative to what is on offer from the mainstream parties.
The main threat carried by the election is the possibility of a Tory government and an immediate future of much more defensive battles. This is reflected in the motions submitted and prioritised by branches.
In contrast to two years ago, when we were preparing for the first national teachers’ pay strike for 20 years, no motion on salaries has been prioritised by members. The big industrial concerns are defence of pensions and jobs, opposing cuts in the service and continuing and stepping up the fight to tackle workload.
Dismayed as teachers are by the record of Labour since 1997, it is very clear that a Tory victory in June will mean the destruction of local authority-run education, savage and early cuts and a full-scale attack on public sector pay, pensions and working conditions.
Michael Gove’s plans to establish so-called “free schools” will unleash unbridled market forces and that means the closure of hundreds of existing schools and job losses in as many others.
In a related debate, a motion from Central Notts and Kirklees calls on the union to “campaign in the forthcoming general election showing the link between issues over jobs, housing and public services and how fascist and racist organisations use these issues to scapegoat and divide people”. An amendment from Leeds and Islington adds in references to the EDL and calls for work in schools to counter the stereotyping of immigrants and asylum-seekers and support anti-deportation campaigns.
The big political issue here will be around a second amendment from Stoke-on Trent which calls for “legislation to ban members of the BNP and other fascist organisations from working in education, serving on governing bodies and local authority Children and Young Persons Services committees”. The fact that NUT activists in Stoke are sympathetic to any possible way of keeping the BNP out of schools is wholly understandable. It isn’t at all clear how such legislation would not (or should not) be used against other far-right groups such as the Islamist Hizb ut Tahrir or even the far left.
The entire experience of our movement shows that when we support or accept an extension in the policing powers of the state in the interests of anti-fascism or anti-racism we also end up being its victims, sometimes its main victims.
The state which weighed into the anti-EDL protesters in Bolton with truncheons and arrested central UAF leaders will not be our ally in fighting fascism.
There is no place in our schools for fascists, whether as teachers, support staff or governors. But we should be the people to drive them out. We can expel them from union membership and mobilise parents and staff to evict them. That way we decide who to target and fascists will find it harder to claim that they are the victims of state persecution. We should ensure they are pariahs, not martyrs.