Teaching unions - who needs them?

Michael Gove has welcomed a new staff organisation for teachers who don't want to strike. But just how many will actually join it?

On first encounter, the thing that strikes you about John Roberts is his youthful looks. A keen climber, he has already climbed mountains, scaled previously never-scaled cliff faces and become possibly the youngest assistant headteacher in the country at the age of 24.

Now, though, he has set himself another mountain to climb – setting up a rival service to teachers' unions for teachers to use in times of troubles.

The timing of his new operation has thrust him into the middle of an impending war between Education Secretary Michael Gove and – in particular – the National Union of Teachers and National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, who are engaged in industrial action over a range of Government policies. Strike action will "inevitably" follow, according to the NUT's general secretary, Christine Blower, if Mr Gove does not back down on curbing teachers' pay, increasing their pension contributions and more education spending cuts.

John Roberts, now 28, agrees the number of subscribers to his service could well increase if the dispute – currently involving a work-to-rule by the two unions – escalates. Indeed, he says that the volume of subscribers increased by 10 per cent last week at a time when teachers' unions were engaged in two bouts of localised industrial action.

His organisation, Edapt, is reluctant to say how many subscribers it has on the grounds that it is commercially sensitive information. It will only say it is 10 per cent up on their expectations for this stage.

However, he is anxious to dispel the idea that his is a "union-busting" operation. "I have nothing against the unions," he says. "I just want to provide an alternative to those teachers who do not want to join a union or take part in industrial action."

Edapt offers teachers legal advice and help if they are facing abuse allegations from children or disciplinary proceedings initiated by their headteachers.

The idea came to him, he says, while he was working at a struggling comprehensive school in Bolton – now turned into an academy. He was on the Teach First scheme, which recruits the brightest graduates with a first or a 2:1 degree to work in deprived inner-city schools for a minimum two-year period if they have not studied for a teaching certificate or education degree.

He joined the scheme after a back injury meant he forfeited the opportunity to join the Royal Marines – his first love – a decision he considers ironic since he has achieved some of his most noteworthy climbing feats after sustaining the injury.

"When I was teaching, teachers would ask me if I had joined a trade union," he says. "I said, 'no, do I need to?' I was told, 'you need it for support and protection in case of a child making an allegation against you.'

"During the time I was teaching there was a (national) strike. I didn't want to get involved in it and quite clearly during consultations with other staff members, they didn't want to either. I asked them what they wanted from their union and it became clear to me that in many cases it was the support and protection they provided that they wanted."

Since starting Edapt, the first organisation of its kind in the country, with some of his own money and contributions and donations from former teachers sympathetic to the idea, he has conducted his own survey of more than 400 teachers about the position of unions in education. It showed that 94 per cent of teachers who were members of unions said they had joined because of the protection the unions offered in cases of abuse or disciplinary allegations and 44 per cent were not interested in taking any form of industrial action. In addition, 24 per cent would prefer some kind of alternative to the teachers' unions were it to be offered.

Emboldened, Mr Roberts went full-steam ahead with the idea, launching Edapt last September.

One clue to the Government's reaction to its launch comes in a blog published on the Spectator magazine's website by Michael Gove. (The website seems one of the favoured formats by Mr Gove and his supporters for communicating their ideas, as it was also there that the derogatory email about former Children's Minister Tim Loughton – calling him "lazy" and "incompetent" – appeared just 24 hours after he had accused ministers of downgrading children and family issues on the altar of school reforms.)

In the blog, Mr Gove says: "Look at the way (the teacher unions) justify their existence to members. On the one hand, they justify their existence because they provide protection if you face unfair dismissal or an unfair allegation. Hopefully, employment law protects you from unfair dismissal and there are other ways – including a marvellous new organisation called Edapt – which can provide you with the insurance you need."

The teachers' unions seem to have interpreted this an indication that Mr Gove would like to see more organisations like Edapt set up. There is one potential problem here, though. As Mr Roberts points out, legally, public servants can only be represented by a colleague, a union representative or a legal representative appointed by the union in cases of disciplinary hearings. He says he has not been inconvenienced by that in the dozen or so cases he has so far taken up – but obviously the path would be clearer for Mr Gove to make a decisive dent on union membership, or provide more alternative options, if that legislation were to be repealed.

From the unions' point of view, they do not see Edapt as too serious a threat. Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, says: "This is always the Tories' response to teacher industrial action. We had the Professional Association of Teachers in the 1980s [a union encouraged by the Conservatives, which had as its cardinal rule that no member should ever take industrial action]. Whenever, they're in government, they always talk up an alternative. They failed and they will fail again. No teacher would want to join an organisation endorsed by Michael Gove."

Christine Blower echoes those sentiments: "If people feel they can solely rely on the law for any kind of protection, they will discover that they are sadly mistaken. In the face of the onslaught of this Government's attack on teachers' pay and pensions and almost daily criticism, the profession more than ever needs a strong voice to stand up for teachers. Edapt will not provide this and for these reasons the membership of the NUT continues to rise."

Indeed, the argument that Mr Gove's public endorsement of Edapt could be counter-productive is widely recognised in the education world – not just in teacher trade union circles. Edapt, while appreciating being called "marvellous", acknowledged that Mr Gove's intervention was "surprising".

The success or otherwise of Edapt will probably only become clear if there is more widespread industrial action. On this, Chris Keates offers a word of caution against rushing to the barricades too soon. She accuses Mr Gove of trying to "goad" teachers into industrial action. "He is saying, 'bring it on, I'm ready.' You have to be wary when a Secretary of State is calling on you like this because they obviously think it will be advantageous to them.

"We shouldn't be in the business of taking action when Michael Gove thinks it is going to further his career. It is a very serious step to take – we can't rule it out, but we should do it at a time of our own choosing."

Strike action: trouble ahead

September 2011: NUT and NASUWT embark on nationwide work-to-rule in protest at curbs on pay, cuts to pensions and spending cuts. This includes refusing to cover for absent colleagues, banning exam invigilation and a strict limit on classroom observation of teachers for performance pay. Ballot result gives them the right to call strike action in future if deemed necessary.

September 2012: Edapt launched as an alternative to joining a teacher union – offering teachers legal protection against abuse allegations and disciplinary procedures.

October 2012: Strikes threatened in a handful of schools where headteachers have decided to "fine" teachers a part of their salary for working to rule.

November 2012: Education Secretary Michael Gove encourages heads to take action and levy financial penalties on teachers not fulfilling their contracts. However, union successfully negotiates an end to fining teachers in those schools who had previously gone down that road.

December 2012: Gove praises Edapt as a "marvellous organisation" on Spectator magazine website. Hints he would like to see more organisations along these lines offering an alternative to teachers joining a union.

January 2013: Christine Blower, general secretary of NUT, warns strike action is "inevitable" unless Gove softens his approach to teachers' pay, pensions and working conditions.

Easter 2013: Both unions hold their Easter conferences where motions on future industrial action are likely to be debated – which are expected to give a timetable for industrial action.

  • The Professional Association of Teachers became Voice: the union for education professionals in 2008.
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