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Are the tables turning in Michael Gove’s war on teacher unions?

Where next for Britain’s angry teachers? Stefan Rousseau/PA

The Easter holidays have arrived, heralding the start of teacher union conference season. These are always important events, not least because according to research commissioned by the government, 97% of the teaching workforce in England and Wales is unionised.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) kicks off its conference first, followed by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the National Association of Schoolmaster Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT).

This year the unions meet as many British teachers are engaged in an industrial dispute seeking to challenge key elements of the government’s education policies. These are highly contentious reforms that have been driven through by a government determined to accomplish a single-term revolution whereby change is introduced so fast, and on such a scale, that by the time any future government is elected, reversing the changes appears impossible.

Central to the strategy of single term revolution has been a “war on teachers” in which government has made an attack on the teacher unions part of its wider goal of defeating the so-called “educational establishment”.

For teachers, these changes have meant the further erosion of their professional autonomy, longer working hours and real-terms cuts in pay and pensions. There is also now the potential for a pay and conditions “race to the bottom” as teacher contracts are de-regulated and free schools – government-funded independent schools – are encouraged to appoint unqualified staff into teaching positions. Recent figures show that 13% of full time teachers at free schools are now unqualified.

Given such changes, it can hardly come as a surprise that teachers are pushing back. What is perhaps more surprising is that it has taken so long for such widespread action to emerge.

One of the best explanations of why high levels of individual dissatisfaction have been slow to develop into collective acts of resistance is provided by “mobilisation theory”. This seeks to explain the conditions in which individual employee grievances coalesce into collective defiance.

Proponents of mobilisation theory assert that workers are most likely to act collectively when employees experience a deep sense of injustice, when they believe that this injustice can be reversed and, crucially, when they believe that by acting collectively, sufficient pressure can be applied to the powers-that-be to bring about the change they seek.

As far as teachers are concerned there can be little doubt that wide sections of the profession harbour many of these grievances. However, until now the power imbalance between the state and organised teachers has appeared too skewed in favour of the government for a coherent teacher opposition to emerge.

There can be no doubt that Michael Gove, the secretary of state for education, has proven to be a particularly effective politician, whilst teachers’ unions have struggled to cope with having to fight his reforms on multiple fronts. This is a problem compounded by divisions between unions that can undermine confidence and dissipate resistance.

Tipping point

But now teachers’ sense of grievance appears to be growing. The range of issues that frustrate teachers continues to increase and the accumulation of these may well have reached a tipping point.

Gove is also looking increasingly vulnerable. By post-war standards for education secretaries he has been in post a long time – long enough for some of his more radical ideas to already start unravelling.

The governance of free schools and academies, a growing crisis over school placesand looming problems in teacher training and supply, all flow from the instabilities inherent in aggressive marketisation. And not unrelated to Gove’s problems, is the sense that teachers’ collective confidence is growing.

This emerged towards the end of 2013, when the two largest unions, NUT and NASUWT, undertook a campaign of regional strike action. ATL, the more moderate union, did not participate in these strikes, although it had participated in public sector-wide pensions strike action in 2011.

Not long after these strikes, the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) published its 2014 report and rejected Gove’s proposals to make sweeping changes to key elements of teachers’ national contract. This development was sufficient to split the NUT and NASUWT’s united front, with the NASUWT announcing it would suspend its participation in strike action, whilst the NUT called a one-day strike for 26 March.

As with many industrial disputes, the headline issues of pay and pensions act as a focus for a much wider set of grievances, many of which relate to professional concerns such as curriculum and assessment reforms and the break-up of local school systems.

Where next?

The Easter conference season marks a key moment for both unions to assess their decisions and decide their next steps. It is high risk for both of them. There is no doubt that the NUT’s decision to continue with action risks isolation, and the decision of NASUWT to withdraw from the strikes was a setback for the strategy of united action.

However, the NUT has so far waged a highly effective campaign. Through a well-run organising strategy it has worked hard to connect with its members and there is no doubt that its “Stand Up for Education” campaign, that links grievances over pay and workload to much wider issues of policy, has resonated not only with teachers but with many parents. It may be that in the government’s war on teachers, the tables are beginning to turn.

The risk for the NASUWT is that its approach looks too cautious at a time when teachers’ grievances run deep and the government appears weak.

Only time will tell which of the two unions made the better judgement and more accurately captured the mood of teachers.

In the meantime, the further fragmentation of the school system and the emergence of more overtly anti-union employers continues to point to the need for unions to work together more, not less. In the new educational landscape, teachers’ unions will maintain their influence if they engage with employers from a position of strength. It is hard to see how that strength is enhanced by being divided.

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