Earlier this month, on Saturday 3 October, over 700 members from the National Education Union (NEU) met for a special online conference. This was the first of its kind in the trade union movement.
Using a pioneering app that allowed all members to vote electronically, the conference voted on business that had not been ratified due to the cancellation of the national conference in April. Members also discussed three vital motions.
The conference was prefaced by a month of chaos for students, parents, and teachers, since the reopening of schools to all pupils in September. As positive cases have occurred, whole year group bubbles – each containing hundreds of pupils – have been sent home.
Schools have again been in the news this week. Some teachers have reportedly been told by management to switch off the NHS COVID app at work, in order to avoid them and multiple colleagues having to isolate. Headteachers fear partial school closures, due to a lack of staff to open them safely.
As with most other areas of life at the moment, the Tories’ policies on schools have been confused, contradictory, and chaotic, putting staff and students at risk.
Of 1500 parents surveyed by @Parentkind the vast majority opposed "exams as usual" next year. Most also worry about the impact that the continuing lack of clarity will have on pupils.— National Education Union (@NEUnion) October 11, 2020
Sign our #FairGrade2021 petition 👉 https://t.co/LeU0Zb6Lcn pic.twitter.com/Vmflbw2Ssm
Add to this the government’s calamitous record of failures – including the exam results fiasco; the U-turn on reopening schools fully in June; and the black hole of clear direction for safe reopening – and it is no wonder that 84% of NEU members say that they do not trust the Tories to keep teachers and pupils safe.
Consequently, at this recent online conference, the NEU voted for a number of bold measures. This included the demand for emergency funding to open ‘Nightingale’ schools: procuring additional buildings and teachers to create more space and ensure that social distancing can take place.
This demand is coupled with the stipulation for a far more robust track-and-trace system, as well as calling for free laptops and wi-fi for all pupils, to enable universal access to online learning.
These measures are necessary to ensure safety in schools. After all, it is business as usual to have classes of 30 pupils, with packed corridors during changeovers between lessons.
If the government was actually interested in prioritising public health over private wealth, then these basic demands would be put in place. Instead, however, cuts – not increased spending – are on the menu.
Seconding the motion on building a fair education system after Covid-19, executive member Jess Edwards said: “The Government wants us to close our eyes to the enormous impact of poverty and inequality in our schools. If it was wrong before Covid, it’s doubly wrong now.” #neu2020 pic.twitter.com/xmypIcg987— National Education Union (@NEUnion) October 3, 2020
Clearly the money does exist for a vast school building programme. But working-class communities do not see it. Instead, this money lines the pockets of the elites, rather than being utilised for the benefit of ordinary people.
It is clear that the capitalist system and its political representatives are incapable of keeping people safe, educated, and provided for in the face of real danger from the virus. Capitalism evidently does not work – we have to fight against it.
The second motion debated was on the question of fighting for better conditions.
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, the NEU has seen its membership increase significantly. This is thanks to the union actively fighting against the wider reopening of schools in June – and winning. As a result, thousands of new members joined, and hundreds signed up to become workplace reps.
This second motion aimed to build on the union’s success in recent months: looking to improve working conditions and pay for teachers – both immediately and beyond the pandemic.
As with the first motion, the second passed with an overwhelming majority. This commits the union to campaign for a review and reduction in workloads.
The final motion called for the replacement of SATS and GCSEs with teacher-led assessment, and for the abolition of Ofsted.
This motion shows the strong desire for teachers to work with students on creating a new, fairer education system. Such unity is needed if we are to transform education and remove the stress inducing, mental health eroding, high-stakes examination factory that we mulch children through.
The current exams systems are not fit for purpose. As with many other areas of society, the pandemic has revealed the need for – and possibility of – change. If exams didn’t take place this year, then they don’t need to ever again.
The NEU’s vision prioritises teacher assessment over exams, and calls for the eradication of league tables, in order to remove the ranking of pupils. The current model rations success. And until we remove the competition for pass grades, we condemn a significant percentage of children to failure every single year.
Of course, it is not just the competition for grades that condemns pupils to failure. Overhauling the exam system would be a huge step in the right direction. But it must be part of an overhaul of the entire rigged socio-economic system, in which a plethora of barriers exist, stemming from the inequality of class society.
NEU President Robin Bevan closed the conference. He spoke of the strength of organised education workers in the NEU. The union now has half-a-million members across every phase and sector, in every role, covering every demographic in the country.
Our strength lies in our unity. But if we are to make our bold motions a reality, then we will have to do more than fight against Tory policy. We need to fight for a system that is capable of providing high quality education and safe conditions.
This means joining forces with the rest of the labour movement to kick out the Tories and fight for a fundamental transformation in society.
Only by running the economy under public ownership and workers’ control, producing for society’s needs, not private profits, can we funnel funding to where we need it – in our education system and in our health system – and offer a future to the next generation.