Low marks for teachers' Easter farce

If the unions are to be credible they must heal their divisions and curb the militants
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The Independent Online
As teachers' unions embark this week on a series of uncoordinated plans for action over class sizes next term, their failure to serve ordinary union members and children in schools has never been more apparent.

In Eastbourne, Nigel de Gruchy, leader of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, is announcing proposals to send pupils home on a rota basis when classes are too large. In Blackpool, the National Union of Teachers' leadership is talking about local half- and one-day strikes, while the union's militants want a rolling programme of national strikes. Another union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), has already voted to ballot members on strikes. Head teachers are predicting confusion in the classroom with children popping in and out of schools like a Feydeau farce according to the union to which their teacher happens to belong.

The historic fragmentation of the teachers' union movement is as intractable as ever. A ritual motion urging unity appears on the NUT agenda, as it does each year, but it will not happen. The other five unions do not even entertain such a proposal. They go their separate ways, battling for membership and sniping at each other.

The reasons for their divisions are scarcely glorious. The National Association of School Masters was created in 1920 when male teachers broke away from the NUT because they refused to accept that women should receive equal pay. The Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association, which became ATL, was mainly for grammar and independent school teachers who thought they were a cut above their colleagues.

The differences refused to go away, despite compelling evidence that unity is the only way to defeat a Government they all oppose. When the teachers' unions joined together to carry out a two-year boycott of national tests for 7-, 11- and 14-year-olds, which ended in January this year, it proved to be one of the most successful actions waged by trade unionists. By refusing to supervise or mark the tests, teachers forced ministers to carry out a fundamental review of the National Curriculum, reducing its content and cutting teachers' workload by simplifying both tests and assessment.

To outsiders, their disunity in 1995 is more puzzling than ever. Education is a key political issue. The biggest grassroots campaign since the poll tax is under way. Protesters against the Government's refusal to fund the teachers' pay award have already wrung from both the Prime Minister and Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, hints that there will be more money for education next year.

But where did the protests start? Not in the comfortable offices of the teacher unions' headquarters. Nor in the cabals of extremists who pack NUT branch meetings and whose current priority is not how to defeat Mrs Shephard but how to get the better of David Blunkett. The campaign against the cuts began with individual governing bodies examining their balance sheets and deciding they were not prepared to sack teachers. Parents joined in, writing so many letters to Conservative MPs that education, never much of a talking point at Westminster, became the subject of anxious discussion in the Commons bars. Belatedly, some local union branches joined parental demonstrations, and nationally the NUT backed a lobby of Parliament.

To the NUT leadership's credit, it seems to have grasped that future campaigns in education will need to be founded on a broad-based alliance of parents, governors and teachers. Doug McAvoy, the union's leader, clearly believes that the days of prolonged old-fashioned strikes, which so angered parents in the mid-Eighties, are over.

He has, however, failed to convince his activists. Conference delegates continue to debate the suspension of standing orders in the name of revolution as passionately as they have done for the past 30 years. What is more, at a time when most teachers are prepared to settle for campaigns that do not involve strikes, union activists are becoming more militant. About a third of NUT conference delegates, the union's leadership believes, now come from the extreme left, compared with about a fifth 10 years ago.

Debates take place in a bizarre fantasy world, culminating this year in a vote on a boycott of testing which was called off by a ballot of members just four months ago. There has, of course, always been a gulf between union activists and the rest. But the difference is becoming more marked. The power of the Socialist Workers Party in the NUT is growing.

The other main unions, the ATL and NASUWT, may have fewer extremists but they, too, are in danger of setting off down paths where most of their members are unwilling to follow. Are teachers really going to send three children from a class of 33 to sit outside the head's study, as the NASUWT is suggesting? Which three, and what will their parents say? Are the ATL's extremely cautious members, many of whom joined the union as a refuge from the militancy of the other two, going to vote for strikes?

Teachers outside the conferences may in some areas be willing to support a half- or whole-day local strike, but that is about the limit.

If the unions are to remain a credible force they must curb their militants, abandon their old divisions and look for real partnerships with people outside the profession. The present conference charade, in which delegates gather expensively to pass motions far removed from reality, is an absurd way to spend Easter.