School superunion offers even more power to the far left
The merger of the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers has created the largest education union in Europe. The National Education Union (NEU) clearly believes it is a force for good but experience suggests the far-left elements of the NUT will soon try and call the shots with potentially disastrous consequences for parents and pupils around the country.
Thanks to its left-wing infiltration, the NUT has been on the wrong side of every argument about raising education standards. Over the past two decades its blinkered approach saw it oppose the national curriculum, city technology colleges, SATs, trust schools, academies, free schools and changes to teachers’ pensions. As a former activist, I watched its futile protests with mounting despair. By contrast, the smaller and savvier head teacher unions, the Association of School and College Lecturers and the National Association of Head Teachers, boxed cleverer, shouted less and secured sensible reforms.
The takeover of the NUT by the far left began in the 1980s. Resistance was steadily crushed, especially once Christine Blower, who once stood for the London Assembly as a candidate for the London Socialist Alliance, became the union’s general secretary in 2009.
Her time in office was marked by the wholesale surrender of the agenda of the union to extreme obsessions of little interest to most teachers, such as the Israel-Palestine question or support for the Cuban revolution.
Surreal and bizarre as much of this politics was, it did have a policy impact domestically, if one that was entirely negative for the classroom teachers whose membership dues were paying for it. The tone and nature of internal debates within the NUT shifted further into left-wing arcana. For example, when discussing the New Labour academies programme, the discourse became anchored on the idea that this constituted “privatisation”. This was not so — the programme moved schools from local government to central government control, with central government choosing not-for-profit charitable partners to run the schools — but once this idea became mainstream among NUT activists, there was little room for sensible debate. The NUT became cut off from meaningful negotiation with government, refusing to host ministerial speakers at its conferences and making little impact in policy discussions.
Ultimately, other avenues were found for teachers to express their voices and their aspirations for the education system, whether through blogging and other social media or through founding their own free schools, but the NUT was left behind by all of this. Its only effective step into the online world was a recent and problematic one when the national funding formula, a government policy designed to iron out historic imbalances in the cash given to schools in rural areas, was nearly derailed by a school funding campaign website promoted by the union during the 2017 election.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, who along with Blower’s successor Kevin Courtney is now joint general secretary of the NEU, is clearly aware of this history and the far-left activism underpinning it. She must believe she has achieved sufficient safeguards in the new union’s constitution to control these tendencies.
But the omens are not good. Too much of the labour movement has already fallen to the mindset of delusional union militants, while moderates mouth far-left platitudes in a bid to ride a tide they will not oppose. If the NEU becomes one more bastion of such reactionary nonsense, it will provide neither greater influence for classroom teachers, nor better education for the pupils who deserve it.