Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Unions make waves

Drop of water

The Easter period took on quite a different pace for me this year, for in the world of the teacher unions it is conference time.

This year I shuttled between the ATL conference in Torquay, the NUT conference in Gateshead and the NASUWT in Brighton. As a fellow union president I was made very welcome at all of them.

It was interesting to compare the mood at each and to reflect on the contrast with our own conference at the beginning of March.

The other union conferences are very different from ours. SHA conference is mainly a professional development opportunity; the others are full of motions, debates, card votes, points of order and the like.

They feel much more like traditional trade union conventions or political party conferences, in the NUT case complete with a gauntlet of Socialist Worker and Morning Star salespeople on the way in.

I much prefer the SHA model. It is made possible by SHA's constitution, which makes Council our policy-making body. Our Council is relatively large compared to our membership and meets several times a year, rather than just once.

The NUT conference began with a point of order from the floor. Once it had been dealt with, at the opening ceremony there was a parade of guests bringing fraternal greetings from various organisations, including Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary.

The workload agreement is accepted TUC policy, so in coded language, part of Brendan's 'greetings' told the NUT they should be signed up to it.

If SHA's response to the secretary of state in Brighton could be described as 'jeering' - which it wasn't - I dread to think of the language the press would have used to describe Brendan Barber's reception from NUT delegates.

NUT delegates seem to see themselves as the only upholders of true professional principles over the workload agreement, notwithstanding how vigorously their representatives pursue it at a local level. Delegates were much encouraged by the recent NAHT vote to withdraw as a signatory of the agreement.

The build up to the NAHT conference at the beginning of May has been fraught with interest, of course.

The vote to withdraw has put their membership in the position where they remain legally obliged to implement the agreement but they are no longer party to any negotiation on how that implementation should take place. It is not a position I would want to be in.

ATL and NASUWT, along with SHA, are still very much part of the social partnership. None of us gets everything we want from the Workforce Agreement Monitoring Group (WAMG) or the Rewards and Incentives Group (RIG), but we all believe the interests of our members are best served by being part of the negotiations.

SHA members would rightly object if there were no representation of their views.

The aspect of the ATL and NASUWT conferences I was least comfortable with was a perceived willingness to blame 'management', or more specifically heads, for the pressure on classroom teachers.

This is notwithstanding the fact that NASUWT claims to have headteacher members and that ATL voted to admit them for the first time.

The anti-head feeling was bolstered by criticism from an ATL survey that claimed significant numbers of their members felt they were bullied by heads. At NASUWT there was comment about lesson observation being used to intimidate.

As so often happens, I found myself reflecting that school and college leadership is a funny old business. It is not always a matter of discerning which way the troops are marching and stepping smartly in front.

At times it means saying: "I'm sorry, I know you don't like it, but this is the way you are going to have to go." Is that bullying?

In these days it disheartens me that some teachers still regard teaching as the second most private thing they do - as I've heard it described - and limit the access of colleagues to their classroom.

What matters is the spirit in which observation is done. We all have pretty clear responsibilities these days, not least school leaders.

As a final reflection, there are now two teacher unions claiming to be the largest. SHA, as we know, is by a considerable margin the smallest. On the other hand, if there were a measure of national impact per member, we know who would be the leaders in every sense.

By Tim Andrew, SHA President

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