England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

NEU conference debates next steps for educators’ fight

By Socialist Alternative members in the NEU

The National Education Union (NEU) conference of 2024, held in Bournemouth from 2-5 April kicked off in true NEU style by debating motions valuing early years and a commitment to abolish Ofsted. Standing orders were then suspended to allow the General Secretary, Daniel Kebede, to speak on the results of the indicative ballot over pay. 

It was a presentation that, to quote Kebede, he “didn’t want to deliver”. The General Secretary sought to present himself as a neutral participant, simply relaying factual information to the conference ahead of the first Urgent Motion of 2024 on the issue of the pay campaign, which was debated the day after. Most would argue this was far from a neutral speech and a way to influence conference on which way to vote the next day against strike action. The presentation itself was a damp squib. The message was clear, despite the Union achieving over 50% turnout in the indicative ballot with a majority in favour of strike action. Kebede argued that now was not the time for a formal ballot ignoring the overwhelming vote of over 90% of those who voted in favour of strike action!

And so the case was presented by Phil Clarke, the incoming president of the union, someone Daniel Kebede appears to lean on. Rather than turning every sinew of the union towards a formal ballot and devising a strategy to once again smash the government’s draconian ballot thresholds, as the union did last year, Clarke claimed the best use of the ballot was to “serve notice on Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer that members are prepared to act industrially”. Absent from the speech was an industrial strategy, but instead a weak commitment to more campaigning on education funding in the election, and seeking pledges of support from parliamentary candidates.

Plan for action needed

Important steps forward were made in organising the ‘Educators Say’ network in the union. Beginning in the form of ‘Educators Say No’ last year, this campaign has rebranded itself as ‘Educators Say Yes’ to make the case for bold industrial action. An amendment from the left of the union, advocated at a packed Educators Say meeting the night before the vote, calling for a formal ballot to launch in June, was defeated by a digital card vote. 

Though unsuccessful, the meeting suggests a possibility of factional realignment within the union, particularly on the issue of pay. Sixty districts supported the meeting, demonstrating a clear appetite for a strategy on pay amongst the activist layer of the union. This rapidly expanded daily through communication being delivered in the ‘Educators Say’ WhatsApp group. ‘Educators Say’ held another meeting on 16 April to begin the fight for a formal ballot after the rejection of the pay offer (predicted to be less than 2%) in September, which is to be voted on in a snap poll of members.

The failure of the indicative ballot to achieve over 60%, as insisted upon by the more conservative wings of the union, holds a key lesson.  As Socialist Alternative members argued at the time of the vote on last year’s 6.5% offer, ballots and disputes cannot be dropped and picked up again at a moment’s notice. The leadership of the union expected the fires of 2023 to be rekindled, and the members remobilised and re-energised, by a barrage of emails and texts asking them to vote. But this came without any serious attempt to engage with the scepticism of some members who were betrayed by last year’s climbdown by the leadership, who accepted a below inflation pay rise. 

Strategic lessons need to be learned. A co-ordinated plan for developing and motivating reps needs to take place so that they may engage enthusiastically with fatigued and sceptical members next time round.

Sixth forms and support staff

However, not all the NEU’s actions are at an end. Sixth form colleges, who are part of a different bargaining unit to schools, achieved a turnout of 67% in their indicative ballot, with a whopping majority in favour of strike action. The urgent motion was amended to take this into account, with a commitment to consider next steps, up to and including a formal ballot. The details of this are to be ironed out in a reps meeting later this month. The action in sixth forms needs to be supported whole-heartedly by the union, as many in the sector believed their specific message was lost in last year’s strike wave. A successful campaign here will also demonstrate what is possible to members in schools, and could provide motivation and energy to activists within the union.

Support staff remained on the agenda once again at the conference, with a motion being passed to launch a national campaign for support staff pay and conditions. This included a mention of the need to commit to ensuring recognition and negotiating rights of support staff are on the agenda of the Executive. A second motion was also agreed, which reaffirmed the union policy agreed last year to actively recruit support staff, including consideration of a £1 membership offer similar to that of early career teachers. The ongoing issues with the TUC were highlighted during Paul Nowak’s (TUC General Secretary) address to conference on the second day, where support staff members lined up with placards calling on the TUC to back support staff within the NEU.

Fighting transphobia and racism 

Conference also passed a motion to protect trans and non-binary students in the face of the government’s horrendous proposed guidance for schools, by developing specific and practical guidance and training for union districts and reps to use via an LGBT+ Inclusion Toolkit.  

Conference also noted the alarming rise of online misogyny, reaffirming a commitment to confront sexual harassment head on and condemn, in name, the vile language and beliefs of Andrew Tate.

The second urgent motion of the conference, coming in light of the racist and misogynistic comments of Frank Hester, was also passed. The motion called for solidarity with Diane Abbott and instructed the union leadership to publicise mobilisations against the far-right. In addition, the motion also recognised the institutional racism of the Prevent programme, and committed the union to campaigning to abolish it.

However Black members of the union also held their own protest during the conference session of ‘Show Racism the Red Card’. Protestors demanded a promised apology from the elected national officers for failing to address the fight against discrimination within the workplace, and the dismissive attitude of national officers during an incident at the 2022 Black members’ conference. It was embarrassing to see the union continue to take a series of photos for a photo opportunity to the public while completely ignoring the majority of Black members, who are asking for the union to genuinely show racism the red card

Workload and Palestinian liberation

Another important motion passed at conference was that of the National Contract. The motion passed, defeating a wrecking amendment in the process, and commits the union to put workload front and centre of the union’s future campaigns, by campaigning for a new National Contract which would include the removal of the ‘reasonable additional hours’ clause of the School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document.

The NEU also once more reaffirmed its solidarity with the Palestinian people in an international motion supporting the campaign for peace and Palestinian liberation. Socialist Alternative members Cormac Kelly and Louise Lewis strengthened the motion by successfully moving an amendment which specifically called on the union to support the actions of trade unionists refusing to manufacture or transport arms destined for use in the Israeli war machine.

Other motions passed at this year’s conference also include steps to widen participation and better democracy among Black educators, seconded by Louise Lewis, National Executive Member and Kirklees Membership Secretary. There was also, crucially, a motion to recognise the New Professionals and Young Workers network to increase participation among the 41% of membership who are under the age of 35, seconded by Socialist Alternative member Sean Marsh. This motion was a crucial rule change, and will be introduced into the NEU rule book in 2026 once the wording is ratified at the Executive and passed at next year’s annual conference.

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