NASUWT: Trade unions were Thatcher’s “unfinished business”

NASUWT National treasurer Brian Cookson's speech to conference

President, Conference, during the last 2 years we have witnessed an unprecedented, vicious, prejudiced and totally unjustified attack on the public sector across the UK. Hiding behind the double shield of the deficit and the Liberal Democrats, the Tories, under the guise of the Coalition Government, have begun to systematically dismantle and destabilise the structures and systems upon which the public sector is built. The ripples from Wesminster are being felt across the whole of the UK and through financial starvation, the removal of the rights of workers, pay freezes and pay reductions and increased pension costs those ripples are turning into the waves of a destructive of tsunami.

Colleagues, education is on the front line facing this attack. NASUWT is at the front line, not just defending but attacking the outrageous policies of this coalition government. We face concerted and ideologically driven attacks against teachers and headteachers perpetrated by governments and administrations throughout the UK.

Despite the tremendous efforts of the NASUWT, in England, the Education and Inspection Bill became an act on November 22nd. Colleagues, state education in any form we know potentially could have ended on November 22nd and I will have that date in my Diary every year, not to celebrate but to mark as the date on which everyone will all look back and say “why was this ever allowed to happen?” This was quickly followed by the Health and Social Care Bill that shared so many parallels with the Education Bill but this received far more opposition, far more public debate – the Cameron “let me make it clear, this is not privatisation” was greeted with the derision it deserved. The reason, of course, is that the NHS is a brand we all know – a brand of which we all should be proud, a brand that must be protected. Education, Education, Education an easy mantra but it lacks the brand pedigree of the NHS and sadly, if you are not directly involved in education, the vast array of provision may confuse – State Education may not be a brand, it is a right, a right we must protect for future generations and the future of this country.

Teacher trade unions were Thatcher’s “unfinished business”. The Tories have waited 13 years to fulfil Thatcher’s dream but colleagues, the NASUWT is not only still here, we are bigger , we are stronger and we are more organised than ever. NASUWT is the largest, by far the strongest and the only teachers’ union with policies and strategies to win the fight to protect state education for generations to come. We have a World Class education system in the UK and we will protect it.

Conference members of NASUWT must be congratulated for their leadership of the profession and their continuing resolve in being prepared to make a stand in the face of scurrilous attacks, abuse, intimidation and lies. In the face of hugely increasing workload, pay reduction, bullying by continual observation and attacks on working conditions NASUWT members throughout the UK are standing up for standards.

As teachers we are supreme professionals and we must be treated as such. As our General Secretary has said, “teaching is not rocket science, it more difficult than that!” We want to achieve the best for the children we teach. We care about the future. We believe in education as a right. Education is not an industry for profit and yet we hear of Michael Gove’s view that there is nothing wrong with making a profit out of education. Nothing wrong with making a profit?
Nothing wrong with asset stripping to the detriment of generations to come?
Nothing wrong with cheapening provision for private companies to make a fast buck?
Nothing wrong with allowing selection through the ability to pay?

So keen is he to ensure that companies from this country and abroad can make a profit – 25% profit, I understand is the aim, that education and public services are being cheapened to make them more attractive to privatisation. Make no mistake, the predators are out there prowling, sharpening their claws and ready to take advantage of all that is on offer. Those predators know the cost of everything but have no appreciation of the value. The Pensions debate as just one piece of the jigsaw is not about affordability it is about increasing employee contributions – OUR contributions so that there is huge scope to reduce the contributions of the employer.

The false cries of school autonomy disguised the true aim of academy chains taking over vast numbers of schools, replacing the democratically accountable local authority system that has produced our world class education system. The strategies taken by NASUWT, actions taken by you have prevented the wholesale conversion to academies. Conversion has now slowed to a trickle and such is the frustration of the Secretary of State that he has resorted to the tactics of the bully attempting to force conversions through false claims of failing schools aided and abetted by a far from independent Ofsted whose sole aim now appears to lie in leading a vicious assault on teachers and schools. The impact of inspections goes far beyond a snapshot of a school it extends directly to its future ownership within a privatised system this Government sees as ripe for the picking.

We have many reasons to celebrate what we achieved so far. Michael Gove indicated just 2 years ago that he would tear up the teachers’ contract. 2 years on he has not succeeded and together we will stop him ever succeeding. We are in the midst of our industrial action, STANDING UP FOR STANDARDS which is preventing the roll back of all that we achieved since the start of the new millennium. The combined tactics of action short of strike action and strike action have secured major gains for NASUWT members. Our continuing industrial action campaign is the best means of protecting and safeguarding the interests of teachers and state education until the next general election. But our continuing industrial action as it stands may not be enough.

Between 2001 and 2010 we not only endorsed the Raising Standards Agenda. NASUWT was the frontrunner, the driver, through Social Partnership in focusing our contractual entitlements on teaching and learning and ensuring we were treated as the professionals we truly are. That list of achievements we all saw at Conference 2010 is still our entitlement. STANDING UP FOR STANDARDS is not the end it is the beginning of the campaign. We, the professionals must regain our classrooms and attack the very policies and practices that deprofessionalise teachers – pupils used as spies, punitive inspection and accountability regimes. We must now really start to consider how to intensify the industrial action campaign.

We have had a clear strategy since May 2010 but we were prepared. The materials produced by NASUWT prior to the May 2010 election foretold an appalling future with uncanny accuracy. How we wish we had been wrong! Regular briefings, bulletins and communications with every member have kept us all fully aware of what is happening. Our Big Question surveys have gained unprecedented response – 17,500 responses just last month. But colleagues, in moving forward we must continue to be smart, we must be creative, we must be clever. We have seen the dangers from the experience of others of ill-conceived strike action. Off the cuff, ill prepared sporadic action without a strategy does more to discredit the cause than move it forward. NASUWT has never and never will do that. However, we must commit to continuing to work with the wider trade union movement across the UK to secure the best interests of teachers. But colleagues we know that if circumstances prevail we can and we will work alone. We are the only union in continuous action on all the issues facing teachers and daily we are seeing successes from that action.

Colleagues, we must avoid at all costs a shopping list approach to industrial action. Industrial action must have a carefully planned focus, a strategic approach. During the next term our members will really see the effects of a protracted pay freeze, a rise in pension contributions, see their pay fall, look at the prospect of a pay freeze and draconian curbs on pay for 3 further years, the scrapping of national pay rates on top of the mounting assaults on our professionalism you witness every day. We not only have the capacity to respond, we can build on it daily throughout next term we know we may be in it for the long haul but colleagues we will respond and we will win.

Conference endorses the work of the National Executive in setting out the next phase in the Union’s industrial action campaign, which will include the escalation of action short of strike action and strike action.