I suppose you would have to have lived under a rock for the past few years to be unaware of Michael Gove and his mission to shake up the education system. Indeed, few Secretaries of State for education have managed to be just as controversial as this one which, if we look back at those figures who have previously held the office, is a statement in itself. As I’ve stated before, the education system here seems to be perpetually floating on a sea of change. However, this statement seems to have renewed vigour since Gove took office and began to impliment his vision.
Yet, despite the fact that the vast majority of those working within education are united in their opposition to Gove and his policies, the unions’ apathy towards each other is seriously impeding their ability to resist policy change in any meaningful way. Instead of embracing the anger and frustration of the workforce in order to channel this energy into a significant strategy to oppose the Secretary of State and show him that we will not accept such demeaning and damaging alterations to our education system, the unions are playing a political power game against each other to promote their own interests and make personal professional progressions. Gove can’t believe his luck. We can read a great deal into how seriously he takes the unions through the fact that neither he, nor David Laws, sees fit to sit down with them personally.
When the National Union of Teachers went on strike in March, they did so on their own. Their allies from the previous strike had chosen to withdraw their threat of walking out as they felt Michael Gove had made reasonable concessions towards them (that is to say he agreed to meet with them to discuss the implementation of his changes and not to discuss whether the changes should actually be implemented). Many of their members supported not only the right of NUT members to strike, but also their decision to do so. Many (although admittedly not all) of those who I spoke to had iterated their desire to take strike action which was obviously impeded by Christine Keates’ (NASUWT General Secretary) decision not to allow them. I have been informed, for example, that the North West division of NASUWT unanimously voted to take strike action only to be overruled by Keates.
Now, Christine Keates is within her rights to act in such a way and withdraw from this round of industrial action if she feels that that is what she needs to do. However, her statements which were leaked to the media the evening before the strike were not only damaging, but also very revealing. It was no surprise that ministers such as David Laws were speaking out against the action, but to hear what Keates had sent her members greatly shocked me. She spoke of an NUT campaign of aggressive accusations, intimidation and suggested that the NASUWT need not feel obliged in any way to ensure that the strike action is a success. Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT, strongly denied any wrongdoing and accused NASUWT of game playing by announcing a free membership campaign as the NUT announced strike action. This pathetic, point-scoring immaturity goes on and on.
The unions that were once united, representing 85% of teachers in the country, now seem bitterly divided (although they would be at pains to deny this). As a result, it undermines everything they seek to achieve. People stood on the side of the road and applauded those on strike action marching through cities. On the television, the general public supported teacher’s right to take strike action. There was a general feeling that the public may just be on the teacher’s side in this dispute. Yet, as the NUT were on strike, all other unions were in the classroom delivering lessons. This completely breaks the back of any action that was taken, and the responsibility for this should be laid squarely on those in charge of ALL unions. Until they are united, their members will be divided.
Initially, there was a bitterness within me towards those who opposed the strike action, those who were members of others unions or those who were generally unable to actively support it. I spoke with colleagues and couldn’t understand their rationale. Luckily I took a moment to reflect and remembered that we actually agree on the fundamentals of what we oppose, and more importantly, what we want for education. However so long as the unions are at each other’s throats or floating along anonymously outside the main dispute, teachers will never be taken seriously and any action taken will be redundant.
In a dream world we would have only one teaching union but realistically that will never happen; so how do we win? The two Christines need to put personal rivalries and delusions of grandeur behind them. They need to find a way to sit down with all of the unions and find a way to present a united front to oppose Michael Gove and his policies. They need to find a way to show the public that their children’s education system is under serious threat. Until they do this, the unions are defeating themselves.