Back to school: lessons in organising from teachers in struggle

Issue: 180

Bob Carter

A review of Lessons in Organising: What Trade Unionists Can Learn from the War on Teachers, Gawain Little, Ellie Sharp, Howard Stevenson and David Wilson (Pluto, 2023), £9.99

The education system in England has changed markedly in the last 35 years and not for the better. There was a period when Marxist sociologists of education talked about the “hidden curriculum”, drawing attention not so much to the ­content of education, but rather to the formal organisation and disciplinary rituals of schooling that mirrored features of the capitalist workplace.1 There are now few features of capitalism and its organisational forms that are hidden from view in education. Among the major changes since the 1980s has been the ­fragmentation of the school system following the Education Reform Act of 1988, which introduced local management and direct financing of ­individual schools, thereby weakening the role of local authorities (LAs). Schools were henceforth to function as if they were private competitive bodies—a move further strengthened by the massive growth in academies. In common with other areas of the public sector, schools can subcontract, and thereby privatise, ancillary services and functions outside of core teaching. Academies have additional freedoms that have curtailed accountability, seeing them award large salaries to the executives that run them. Their powers are also expanded to allow them to disregard the national pay rates and terms and conditions of teachers. The academies, as well as schools still in LAs, are circumscribed by central government control exercised through the hated Ofsted ­inspection regime, but Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) have tended to go further in creating internal regimes to enhance their own control within schools by, for instance, implementing policies and procedures with little regard for teacher input and the circumstances of individual schools within their chain.2 These changes are profound and impact directly on teachers’ labour and the quality of their working experiences. Combined with standardised tests, these changes have encouraged instrumental attitudes to education, learning by rote and the curtailment of staff autonomy through obtrusive forms of ­performance management.3

For many pupils these changes have been stressful and dispiriting.4 For teachers they have meant a progressive loss of control over the labour ­process, a weakening of their trade union organisations, and worsening terms and conditions of employment. It is a great strength of the authors of Lessons in Organising: What Trade Unionists Can learn from the War on Teachers that, while concentrating on the need to rebuild teacher trade unionism, they also ­recognise the interconnectedness of education policy, the degradation of the labour process of teaching and the need for a concentration on building workplace organisation. This recognition stems from their own collective experiences: Gawain Little was, until recently, a primary school teacher and a member of the national executive of the National Education Union (NEU); Ellie Sharp is a primary school teacher and NEU activist in London; David Wilson is an NEU assistant general secretary with responsibility for campaigns and communications; and Howard Stevenson is a professor of education at the University of Nottingham, a former activist in the National Union of Teachers (a forerunner of the NEU) and now an active member of the University and College Union. Not surprisingly, the book has indications of being written by authors with access to the NEU leadership. Certainly, there is no direct discussion of the conservative potential of union bureaucracies, but there is an insistence on the need for unions to extend democracy and membership power. The NEU and its predecessor, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), have a long history of competing factions that are usually affiliated to ­differing ­political organisations and tendencies. No support is displayed for any particular grouping, but the argument is very much in favour of factions existing as a necessary part of a movement for more rank and file organisation and an ­indication of a rich and multi-layered union democracy. Nor is the need for a political ­orientation ignored. No favours are shown to previous Labour governments, and no false hope is placed on a future one reversing the neoliberal framework of the ­current education system. The overwhelming thrust of the argument is the need for workers’ self-activity, based on socialist politics, to counter the ­unrelenting attacks on education and its workforce.

The focus of the book—the possibility of building workplace-based trade unionism—is not new. From the mid-1980s, Peter Fairbrother wrote a series of accounts that documented what has been termed “new public ­management” (NPM), through which the government centralised control over the policies of public sector organisations while ostensibly giving local units more autonomy over the ways to respond to national strictures at the same time. Through these developments he envisaged a renewal of trade unionism.5 Forcing managers at local level to take responsibility for realising efficiencies and savings would, according to Fairbrother, change the locus and focus of collective bargaining. With the abolition of national ­collective ­bargaining, and as more and more workplace-level decisions impacted directly on the day to day terms and conditions of workers, the trade unionism of public sector employees would be transformed by the necessity of workplace bargaining. In place of passive and poorly ­organised workplace trade union ­organisation, conditioned by national structures and numerous ineffective levels of dispute resolution, the ­decentralisation would encourage the development of a workplace-based, egalitarian, participative and democratic trade ­unionism. Although he did not unequivocally see this as inevitable, the overall impression clearly was that trade unions in the state sector were “in the process of ­reconstitution and reorganisation”.6

Underpinned by a commitment to workers’ self-activity and workplace democracy, Fairbrother’s argument was attractive. However, the ­contention that the undoubted uptake of NPM was leading to union renewal faced ­significant criticism. Although some opposition came from those arguing that to be more effective further centralisation of union resources were needed, the most sustained criticism centred not on this perspective, but on the absence of any evidence that renewal was in fact taking place.7 Fairbrother had not factored in the reluctance of trade union bureaucracies to shift resources and develop membership power. Despite most of the objective elements needed for union renewal being in place, what was happening was, in one memorable phrase, “rigor mortis” rather than union renewal.8 In the NUT, refusal to shift resources and efforts to the ­workplace persisted for too long, but the union survived and, belatedly, its leadership promoted moves towards workplace organisation and initiatives. This book is an account of that transformation with the ­immediate and practical purpose of encouraging the NUT’s ­successor union, the NEU, towards further development in this direction. The book was completed before the union leadership urged acceptance of a below-inflation settlement to its well-supported 2022-3 industrial dispute. The implications of the manner of the settlement is dealt with briefly in the concluding comments of this article.

The Education Reform Act, employment fragmentation and the NUT’s response

The authors’ backgrounds make certain they are aware of the long-term changes that have undermined teachers’ professional interests and union organisation, as well as the history of the unions’ failure to respond to the challenges presented. One of the most important attacks was presented by the Conservative Party government’s introduction of the Education Reform Act in 1988, which radically restructured the school system. The book notes that the restructuring should have provoked a strategic response from the union. This wide-ranging law introduced the national curriculum alongside standardised tests to measure student achievement, with the results publicised through league tables. These moves would (theoretically) enable parents (as consumers) to access information and make choices about which schools provided their children’s education. Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were required to devolve much of their education budget directly to schools, based upon their pupil numbers. “Successful” schools would thus be rewarded by attracting more pupils and greater funds. Through “local management of schools”, headteachers and governing bodies were given greater powers to decide how to spend their income. Moreover, the legislation facilitated schools that wanted more autonomy to opt out of local control altogether (subject to a parental ballot) and become grant maintained, receiving all their funding directly from the government. Such schools could set aside national ­agreements and independently determine staff pay and conditions. State schools were more and more reconfigured as independent business units required to compete for market share.

These changes certainly weakened the position of teacher unions and ­disrupted their activity through the introduction of private sector management techniques, increased use of support staff (particularly teaching assistants), the downgrading of teacher skills and a reduction in teacher autonomy. Years of inadequate government financing pushed school ­managements towards a reduction in staff costs through “work intensification, deskilling and selective reward management”, all issues that “needed ­effective union organisation around school-based issues”.9 However, though we should not underestimate the significance of the Education Reform Act, its ­immediate effects were uneven. As late as 1995, industrial relations ­researchers Mike Ironside and Roger Seifert, despite diagnosing the need for effective school-based organisation, could find little evidence of either widespread discontent or an inclination to abandon traditional organisational forms of trade unionism and industrial relations still centred on the LEA and lay union officials. Friendly LEAs retained some influence, with many headteachers reluctant to take full responsibility for issues such as disciplinary matters and dismissals. Local union branch officers, used to representing members in all schools within the LEA, similarly did their best to maintain facilities agreements allowing them time off and the ability to represent members outside their own schools. There continued to be little union organisation at the workplace, with union representatives having neither the skills nor the will to become negotiators. Similarly, many headteachers were reluctant to become managers, preferring to maintain their identities as educational professionals. Later research likewise found no appreciable changes in industrial relations and workplace organisation.10 It would take two further developments before the NUT was ready to realise the impossibility of maintaining traditional relations and modes of operation. The first of these developments took place under a Labour Party government.

Teaching under New Labour: restructuring teachers’ work

In 1997, the incoming Labour government identified the improvement of ­educational performance as a key to the revival of British capitalism. The New Labour government increased expenditure on education.11 At the same time, however, as Lessons in Organising makes clear, “Almost all the key elements of the 1988 ­architecture (centralised curricula, standardised testing, open ­enrolment, devolved management and budgeting, and a version of “independent state schools”, that is, academies) were either reinforced or remained completely unscathed.12

Labour, however, achieved something that would have been impossible under a Conservative government. By redefining teachers’ responsibilities Labour was able, with cooperation from most of the education unions, to restructure the workforce and, in the process, to create a greater division between teaching and management posts. This outcome developed in stages. New initiatives aimed at driving up standards, both through changes in teacher pedagogy and practice, as well as growing bureaucratic monitoring, further increased workload pressure on teachers. The numerous changes introduced by Labour impacted on workloads, added to growing problems with teacher recruitment and retention, and threatened to jeopardise any improvements. By early 2001, in reaction to the growing workloads, unprecedented coordination by the NUT, the NASUWT union and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers resulted in identical motions at their annual conferences for industrial action to secure a 35-hour week. The government quickly commissioned a review to produce recommendations for the reduction of excessive workload and “for the promotion of the most effective use of all resources in schools in order to raise standards of pupil achievement”.13

The subsequent report found that teachers were working an average of 52 hours per week in term time, of which teaching time comprised 35 per cent. The report aimed at both reducing the former figure and increasing the latter. These aims signalled an intensification of teachers’ labour through ­reallocation of what was considered peripheral and less skilled work. The report proposed reforms that would transfer non-teaching (routine administrative and pastoral) tasks to support staff and give teachers guaranteed time to plan and prepare. Subsequent discussions between the government, employers and the unions resulted the setting up of “Social Partnership arrangements”, one outcome of which was a national agreement, “Raising Standards and Tackling Workload”, more commonly known as “the workload agreement”.14 This agreement introduced contractual changes to teachers’ duties. Teachers were no longer required to carry out a series of administrative tasks. Some 24 tasks, such as bulk photocopying, data entry and mounting displays, were to be performed by teaching assistants. Teachers were guaranteed ten percent of their normal timetabled teaching time for planning, preparation and assessment. The amount of time that teachers could be asked to cover for absent colleagues was capped at 38 hours per year.

The NUT refused to be a party to the agreement, objecting to the provisions allowing teaching assistants to cover the classes of absent teachers, which were in conflict with the union’s long-standing commitment to an all-graduate and ­appropriately qualified profession. The NUT’s lack of cooperation was also ­conditioned by its general unease with other aspects of Labour’s education policy such as performance related pay and the reinvention of grant maintained schools through the establishment of academies. The NUT was, consequently, unrepresented within the Social Partnership, one key body of which was the Workload Agreement Monitoring Group (WAMG), which was set up to oversee the implementation of the national agreement, but was also used to extend the adoption of a range of complementary policies. The unions, as part of the WAMG, were compelled to advocate and help implement the decisions regardless of any objections from their members. Of central importance in this regard was the establishment of the Rewards and Incentives Group. This body determined that all generic “management allowances” (MAs) paid to teachers should cease from 2006 and, following a logic stemming from the narrowing of teachers’ work, that additional rewards to the teachers’ pay scale could only result from teaching and learning responsibilities. New and enhanced “teaching and learning responsibilities” allowances (TLRs) were introduced. In 2007, new performance management regulations strengthened the link between appraisal and pay, again increasing the power of line-management.

The combined changes had a significance that the unions, including the NUT, appeared not to appreciate. The shedding of administrative tasks ­effectively redrew the boundaries of teachers’ work by subdividing it in a classic Taylorist way. Teachers’ hours in front of the class were driven up, variety was lowered, mobility was restricted and intensity was increased. Having accepted the ­narrowing of the role of teachers, its logical extension to other areas was difficult to challenge. The abolition of MAs and the addition of TLRs represented more than a change in language. Whereas previously MAs were awarded at the ­discretion of headteachers and might be attached to pastoral roles and promotion of extracurricular activities, TLRs were designed to create an extended managerial function throughout schools. By accepting the TLR, the recipient accepted responsibility for the performance of other staff and the results of students in their areas. Previously, heads of department might well have been the most ­experienced or knowledgeable teacher in their field, and their relations with staff could remain collegial. Henceforth, they would be a manager, implementing government policy, as determined by headteachers and expanded senior management teams, and accountable for its success in their area.15

From the point of view of the government, the workload agreement was a short-term success. Immediate and unified industrial action had been averted, the NUT was isolated, and the other unions’ desire for change were subverted by their incorporation into the Social Partnership and their endorsement of the government agenda. With union complicity, the workforce had been restructured, with elements of teachers’ work divided and reallocated to the expanded role of a rising number of teaching assistants.16 The increasingly complex management of schools could not be left to chance, and the government had established the National College of School Leadership (NCSL) in 2000. By 2004, all prospective headteachers were required to have (or be enrolled on) the National Professional Qualification for Headship. In the words of education policy researcher Martin Thrupp, the thrust of the NCSL was “to frame up school leadership so as to uncritically relay ­managerialist education policy into schools”.17 The restructuring of the workforce had created a managerial layer within schools, helping implement that policy by extending ­surveillance and control of teachers’ practice.

Involvement in the Social Partnership, with its regular high-level meetings in London, may have appealed to, and flattered, some unions.18 Nonetheless, the Social Partnership was always destined to be a short-term distraction. Much as the unions convinced themselves of the worth of participation, any agreement formally covered a decreasing proportion of schools. Even as Labour supported the partnership option, academies were expanding. It was no surprise when the Conservative-dominated coalition government abolished the Social Partnership in 2010 and the expansion of academies became a deluge, increasing from 810 between 2010-1 to just under 10,000 in 2022-3.19

Out in the cold: teacher unions under the Conservatives

The growth of academies compounded all the previous difficulties that schools had earlier experienced—more contracting out, more marketing, more ­competition. The entire curriculum became centred on the acquisition of core knowledge, which was a change that claimed to give all children access to “the best that has been thought and said”, but in fact reflects “what has been decided by an elite within society who are interested in reproducing, not transforming, the social system”.20 The aim of eliminating critical approaches also explains the continual attempts to marginalise universities as providers of teacher training. The government instead promoted routes into teaching through schools themselves, concentrating on meeting the expectations of a system driven by the Ofsted inspectorate. The future direction is clear: “to expunge independent critical perspectives from the system and to ensure future teachers are trained in the system, by the system (or ‘by schools, for schools’, according to the Department for Education)”.21

The environment, engineered to become increasingly hostile to trade unionism, was part of “a deliberate class strategy, operationalised through the state”, that sought “to fundamentally weaken the power of organised teachers”.22 The expansion of the academies programme was a central feature of this strategy. The Academies Act 2010 provided a statutory mechanism for maintained schools, both primary and secondary, to be allowed or forced to “convert” to ­academy status. By 2023, 80 percent of secondary schools and 40 percent of primary schools, had become academies. Although some academies are ­stand-alone trusts, most are now run by multi-academy trusts (MATs). Once inside a MAT, there is no option to leave the entity. Current government policy is that all schools in England should become part of a MAT, and there is a clear plan to underwrite a system based on “strong” MATs ­achieving “economies of scale” as well as “sharing resources, ­centralising functions, and ensuring robust financial governance”.23 According to this plan, MATs’ ­responsibilities will include ­training, recruiting, developing and deploying their workforce effectively.24 With the growth of MATs, teacher unions increasingly faced a structure that was based on corporate capitalism, with inadequate union organisation to raise strategic issues at the level where decisions were made.

Building power in the workplace

At critical junctures—the introduction of local management of schools, the growth of academies and workforce remodelling—the NUT had not reshaped itself to confront the changes. Nor was there spontaneous, generalised trade union ­self-organisation in schools, leaving a situation where “many, even most, schools did not have a rep, and where they did, the reps were not necessarily expected to do very much”.25 Issues were usually passed up to the local association secretary, and local initiative and responsibility was sometimes actively discouraged. The NUT’s initial response to “local management of school”, which was to both strengthen regional organisation and build workplace organisation, met opposition from many ­activists who distrusted the national union and saw the move as a threat to their own roles. After a period of consultation, the proposal was withdrawn. The scale of the failure to respond to the threat was masked for a period by both residual relations within sympathetic LAs that slowed the move to academies and the ­willingness of governors in LA–maintained schools to continue to opt into agreements between the LAs and teacher unions. With membership levels remaining high, the NUT ­experienced no obvious crisis. The union’s relative position, however, ­worsened during the years of New Labour, as the ­prominence of the NASUWT rose with its seemingly influential role inside the Social Partnership. After 2010, with the ending of the Social Partnership, a ­reorientation could no longer be avoided. The combination of government-imposed austerity and the drive to see all schools become ­academies led to a weakening of LA resistance, dramatically impacting on the capacity and effectiveness of the union at local level. Where facility time was removed, it left branch officers in an impossible position, with one stating, “I have gone from being a union officer with full-time facilities and dealing with one employer (the local authority) to having no facilities time at all and having to deal with 200 employers (the newly academised schools)”.26

This time the NUT responded through a concerted effort to build the union by focusing on the workplace. In 2009, only 27 percent of schools had an identifiable school rep. Aided by a change in organising strategy, this had risen to 42 percent by 2014. Reps became key in the 2013-4 industrial action against ­excessive workload, which included action short of strike. Necessarily, action had to be workplace-based and was consequently uneven, both highlighting weaknesses as well as successful initiatives that could be generalised. The authors relate how, for example, Coventry branch officers not only worked with its school workforces to produce a “workload charter”, but also insisted that ­collaborating schools form a workplace “workload committee” with other unions’ representatives, “described by one local union officer as a school-based joint negotiating committee ‘by any other name’”.27 Recognising the significance of the shift to workplace organising, the NUT revised its rep training programme in 2014 to emphasise the role of reps as leaders in their schools as well as stressing the political nature of the decisions driving the educational agenda.

This way of working inevitably entailed different relationships between local officers and school reps, with the aim of giving the reps confidence to organise school groups. The emphasis now was building collective power in the workplace, and there was no possibility of this without ­developing the reps. Lessons in Organising gives accounts from reps and describes the attempts to ­generalise ­experiences, such as a fringe event at the 2016 NUT annual conference called “Winning in Schools”, sponsored by more than 50 local associations.28 In 2017, the importance of continuing in this direction was highlighted by an unpublished research project assessing the NUT organising strategy. As part of the project, 355 union members and 458 reps across seven local associations were surveyed to gauge levels of commitment and participation: “Only one factor showed a statistically significant relationship with levels of membership commitment and participation—and that was the presence of a workplace representative”.29 The growing success of the strategy was also indicated by the rising proportion of women (61 percent) among the sampled reps, who were also more likely than the membership as a whole to be younger, black or LGBT+.30 Organising and ­industrial action should be mutually reinforcing, not separate perspectives. Industrial action shows workers the union is serious and gives a reason to join; industrial action is more likely where members are organised. Two indicative ­ballots (in 2018 and 2019) both failed to reach levels that suggested the union could pass the thresholds required to execute legal industrial action.31 The report suggested that workplace reps are both an indicator and a source of union power at the workplace: “They not only make a difference, but in a hyper-fragmented school system, they may make the difference in terms of delivering collective action”.32

Organising difficulties

Making the decision to organise was one thing, but implementing it in difficult circumstances was another. Lessons in Organising examines, for instance, how the move to MATs posed problems for the union. While not diminishing the union’s commitment to workplace organisation, the growth of MATs forced a recognition that reps needed to be networked with their counterparts in the same MAT chain despite these often being lodged in a different NUT division. Four specific problems of an exclusive focus on school-based organising are identified.

First, the move to MATs has strengthened both managerial authority and a business ethos, reinforcing expectations of compliance alongside a rise in bullying and discrimination. On its own, school-based organising cannot overcome the consequences of system-wide fragmentation.

Second, although the frontier of control has been devolved increasingly to school level, decision-making remains fundamentally constrained by the central state. School funding, the national curriculum and pupil testing clearly pose ­significant ­challenges if strategy focuses exclusively on building at the workplace.

Third, the strategy adopted by the union was not universally accepted. Some experienced local officers doubted the membership would develop to take on more responsibilities. Scepticism arose when the growth of full-time organisers appeared to strengthen the bureaucracy while reps were experiencing cuts in facility time. There were tensions within MATs between the goal of building MAT-based ­democratic bargaining structures and continued commitment to preserving established local facility-time arrangements. The authors see these tensions as underlining “the limitations of transformative change being delivered from the centre…a danger that can only be countered by developing real grassroots leadership of the organising project”.33

Fourth, finally, and most fundamentally for the authors, was that ­over-concentration on the workplace would promote responses to the consequences of neoliberalisation without addressing the causes. Conflicts at workplace level were in danger of representing “no more than a skirmish within a wider set of parameters that remain largely uncontested”.34

The obvious conclusion from this analysis is that workplace organisation is necessary but not sufficient. This is no slide back into emphasising the need for strong central union authority: rather, it simply poses the need for an engagement with the difficulties. Throughout Lessons in Organising the authors stress their views are just a contribution to a wider discussion, not a template to be ­unthinkingly implemented regardless of uneven and changing circumstances.

The NUT: facing the future

Central to Lessons in Organising is an account of how the union is transforming itself. Examples are given of, for instance, how school rep training has become more focused on the role of reps as leaders in their schools, and this is aligned to explicit political analysis of the issues driving the policy agenda in education. Reps are now encouraged to collectivise grievances and directly challenge managerial control. In another response to the political determination of education policy, the union countered education minister Michael Gove’s provocative claim to be inspired by Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci by putting on a course for local officers, entitled “What can we really learn from Antonio Gramsci?”. During this course, Gramsci’s conception of hegemony was used to examine the ideas that dominate thinking about the education system, contrasting them to an alternative vision that arose through debate and discussion. Lessons in Organising stresses not the actions of the national bodies and leaders, but the paramount importance of rank and file initiatives underwritten by local examples of activities and victories that must be generalised. The example of the work on controlling workload by the Coventry branch has already been mentioned, and the Tower Hamlets teachers’ campaign to halt local redundancies is another.

The moves towards organising, the promotion of wider political understanding of the education system and the concrete manifestations of the successful local action are not simply celebrated. The authors reiterate that the disjuncture and tensions between central policies and local initiatives remain a problem. So, for instance, the union’s 2014 Stand up for Education campaign is praised as “a genuine attempt” to slow down, disrupt and ultimately replace the dominant ­neoliberal model of education—one in which thousands of NUT members took an active role. Nevertheless, the campaign, although “inspired and often initiated by grassroots members”, was “largely directed from the union’s central office” and “increasingly taking place away from the workplace and the realities of everyday work”.35 The NUT was able to mobilise activists, but it had yet to carry most ­members on crucial issues. In 2016, this issue was further illustrated when the NUT balloted members to strike against threats to their terms and conditions posed by a white paper, “Education Excellence Everywhere”, which proposed further acceleration of academy conversions together with a new school funding formula that threatened reductions in school incomes, especially in inner city schools. Though over 91 percent of returns were in favour of action, the turnout was under 25 percent.

The possibility of linking funding cuts to individual schools subsequently became possible through the initiative of the NUT divisional secretary in Camden, who developed a website enabling a search by postcode to reveal the effect of the projected cuts on teacher numbers in every school in England. This development galvanised both teachers and parents, laying the basis for the union’s “School Cuts” campaign. When it came to the general election in 2017, the union was able to raise the profile of education as an electoral issue; according to a survey, education became the third most popular issue and caused an estimated 750,000 people to change their vote. The pressure of the campaign on the political debate resulted in the Green Party, Liberal Democrats and Labour all producing manifestos with ­policies that abandoned standardised testing, league tables, outdated GCSE exams and punitive Ofsted regulation. Again, however, the authors note that, despite the success of the campaign, and the fact that it was the result of democratic ­decisions and gave regular reports, it remained very centralised. There was no rank and file revival as there had been, for instance, in the Chicago Teachers Union.36 Moreover, basic problems remained; there had been no improvement in members’ conditions, and the union was struggling to integrate issues of sexist and racist oppression.

The formation of NEU

The description in Lessons in Organising of the formation of NEU by the merger of the NUT and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) is understandably brief given the book’s focus. The feature most pertinent here is how the merger brought in support staff previously represented by the ATL, making possible the idea of a wider, more encompassing union. Not only does this potentially strengthen the union industrially, but it also introduces members whose economic and ethnic composition is closer to those of many working-class parents, making it easier to form links into local communities. The NEU’s mission read “our aim is to reshape the future of education”, and the union saw campaigns as the way to work to this end. The union was insistent, however, that campaigns should be both realistic—that is, capable of winning improvements for members—as well as being radical and wide enough to build coalitions of external supporters and stakeholders. Areas of strategic focus were to be school funding, assessment and accountability, and child poverty, and all these issues would be addressed at industrial, political and ideological levels.

Some successes could be identified, but “an undeniable problem remained”; too few members were consistently involved in union campaigns, which ­continued to be largely dependent on central initiatives.37 The ­challenge for the NEU remained “getting the balance right between campaigning to change the system and ­dealing with its day to day consequences”.38 The problem was posed in the starkest of ways by the Covid-19 pandemic. When the pandemic arrived in January 2020, the union was facing some difficulties. There was some (expected) falling away of members after the merger, but, in addition, workload continued to be an issue causing ­members to leave teaching. Recruiting to the union had also become more difficult. In contrast to the university routes into teaching, new routes provided no regular union access to large groups of potential members. More worryingly, the union was failing to maintain the density of union reps in schools despite its focus on organising. The failure to win indicative ballots on pay and boycotting primary school standardised testing further reflected that momentum was stalling. Despite this background, within a year of the onset of the pandemic, the union had gained 50,000 members and 4,500 new reps. Seven out of ten of these were women, and a large number were either black or LGBT+. Many of the new members were ­support staff, who were also overwhelmingly women and ­disproportionately black. Success in building the union at this point was an ­outcome of the work already undertaken and the determination to use workplace organisation to assert the rights of teachers to a safe working environment regardless of the government’s hapless policies.

The book covers the events during this period and the union’s initiatives in some detail. The union responded very early to the emerging crisis. When the government issued instructions that all but essential workers should remain at home, schools were exempted. The NEU advised members at greater risk, or living with those at greater risk, to cease attending work and advised school leaders to use their professional judgement on whether to open schools and colleges. The result was a wave of closures that began before the official start of the first lockdown.39 This resulted in the first U-turn by the government—schools were to close, and teaching was moved online. The limit of government power had been exposed: “The state could make national pronouncements about broad policy, but it was in individual schools that decisions would be made about rotas for face to face teaching, where health and safety protocols were drawn up, and where expectations about how online learning might be conducted were determined”.40 The power of teachers at the workplace became obvious, and consciousness changed. Non-members joined, and members became more engaged (both directly and through WhatsApp groups). However, the union nationally was also crucial, redeploying large numbers of NEU staff to have direct conversations with every workplace rep so that these reps felt supported and connected to the union. The union also continued to locate new reps for schools without them and created the role of “Covid rep” as a way of drawing members into union activism, hoping that they would later take on wider roles.

When the government announced its intention to reopen schools earlier than recommended by scientific advice, the union again responded, this time by drawing up “Five Tests” that should be met before reopening. This response placed the workplace as the centre of decision-making. The new Covid reps were provided with model letters stating that staff would not return to face to face teaching until these conditions were met. These were to be signed by all staff, both members and non-members, and then given to headteachers. Other local initiatives resulted in the union nationally cooperating with other education unions to produce detailed online checklists of preparations for a safe return to schools. Again, this was designed to stimulate active engagement and power at the workplace. Although this time there was no government U-turn, individual schools, MATs and LAs delayed the reopening and worked with school groups to produce safer conditions.

The importance of rank and file activists was clearly displayed again during the school holidays at Christmas 2020, when, in response to the resurgence of a mutated coronavirus, there was pressure from an online meeting of 500 activists for “no January return until it is safe”.41 An emergency national executive committee subsequently voted unanimously to advise members that it was unsafe to return and that they should exercise their rights under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 to refuse to enter an unsafe workplace. Model letters were issued to make this easier. The extent to which the leadership was reflecting membership ­feelings was exemplified the next day when around 70,000 people logged in to a Zoom meeting while a further 400,000 watched online, resulting in tens of thousands of letters to headteachers. Most schools decided against opening at the start of the January term. Despite having previously announced that schools were safe, prime minister Boris Johnson appeared on television to declare that schools and colleges were “vectors of ­transmission” and would remain closed to prevent the spread of the virus.

While dealing with the effects of the government’s pandemic policies, the authors maintain that the NEU was still very much alive to its wider strategic goals. They illustrate this continuity with examples ranging from its ten-point Covid-19 recovery plan, aimed at supporting students, to a Zoom meeting with civil rights activist Jesse Jackson in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Department officers in May 2022, again attended by thousands and ­resulting in 200 new workplace reps. In another initiative, following the example of the NEU branch in Croydon, the union launched a campaign with the Daily Mirror, giving £1 million to get learning resources to “Help a Child to Learn”. It also worked alongside footballer Marcus Rashford to campaign for free school meals.

The question of leadership

The advances of the union and the leadership’s role in these achievements are both documented and appraised by Lessons in Organising. One question posed is whether the level of organisation and activity can be sustained in changed circumstances, leading to a reflection on leadership. Leadership, however, is not a term that the authors use to simply identify individuals or positions within the union hierarchy:

This is not a leadership that is judged by the number of committees chaired, or that confuses “busyness” with activism… It is a leadership judged solely on its contribution to building the collective power of workers…that recognises organising as an integration of practical and intellectual work that connects immediate struggles with political understanding of why change is necessary and how it can be secured.42

Leaders are needed at all levels of the organisation, and the book firmly supports the development of rank and file leadership, arguing that a “collective culture was developed in many workplaces where members did not look to union representation from outside their workplace to solve problems for them”.43 It also acknowledges the critically important role played by the membership-based left-wing current in the union, NEU Left. This grouping “hosted regular open meetings of grassroots members throughout the pandemic and fed back their views via the significant proportion of national and local leaders who were allied to the NEU Left”.44

The book spends little time discussing the formal structures of the union. It ­highlights the problem of the nature and role of the union’s geographical branches and their further marginalisation as emphasis on the importance of workplace organisation rises and direct communication to members from the centre increases. Branches are still the formal democratic unit of the union and are traditionally where most activists’ concerns have been focused. Nonetheless, with academisation fragmenting and geographically dispersing employment, many union branches have been hollowed out. Branches may still pass resolutions, but they are less and less reflective of the real ­preoccupations of the union’s membership. The authors suggest that the next step should be to encourage the branches to develop the function of an ­intermediate leadership—a reservoir of experience utilised to support workplace organisation. They stress that this cannot be a one-way flow: “Branch business must be driven by members in schools who meet, debate the issues important to them and feed these into the branch”.45 So far, the leading bodies of the union have supported and strengthened tendencies towards ­“educative” leadership: “the conscious development of leadership capacity in others and the development of cultures of solidarity”.46 Although the book recognises the challenges to internal discussion and democracy posed by routinisation and heavy workloads, arguably it fails to signal strongly enough the possible ­tension between the interests of members and the senior leadership of the union. The experience of most trade unionists indicates that the interests of trade union bureaucracies have a tendency to assert themselves at crucial points, with the resolution of the recent industrial dispute in schools being a case in point.47

Lessons in organising, lessons for the movement

The final chapter of the book returns to three terms that capture the possible strategies that trade unions can adopt in the face of the assault of neoliberalism: rapprochement, resistance and renewal.48 Rapprochement is essentially an adaption to and acceptance of the capitalist market and its logic, a position akin to what emerged in the United States as business unionism. Resistance is the acknowledgement of the need to fight, but one that fails to adopt a sufficiently strategic perspective; victories are temporary and workers find themselves having to fight continually to stand still—a situation that Rosa Luxemburg described as the “labour of Sisyphus”.49 Renewal is the perspective embedded in the book’s analysis, which connects to recent debates on “organising” and “recognises the need to work with members to actively build both workplace organisation and the types of campaigns (both industrial and political) that can force employers and governments to retreat”.50

The authors summarise their own interlinked contributions to the debate. First, they reiterate the importance of the workplace and the need to struggle against exploitation and oppression through action to control the capitalist labour process. Workplace reps play a crucial role here in building cultures of solidarity, a goal impossible without both conflict with employers and the promotion of union-based workplace democracy. Second, the authors insist that organising must be political. This approach entails having a different vision of education, its pedagogy and its functions: an education that is imaginative, expansive and relevant to its pupils. The “political” here is neither restricted to parliamentary politics nor, unsurprisingly, given teachers’ experiences with Labour governments, does it mean contracting out representation to the Labour Party. Moreover, political activity is not counterposed to industrial power. This point leads to the third contribution: a stress on the need to consciously and strategically build leadership within our own ranks.

One feature of the book is the richness of its material, which raises a series of issues and further questions. Despite acknowledging the importance of the labour process of teaching, the significance of this terminology—as opposed to simply using the word “work”—is not dealt with clearly. The concept, if developed, would have focused more attention on the way in which managerialism has been part of restructuring class relations at work, particularly through the remodelling of the workforce, which created a layer of additional middle managers to monitor and control teachers. The vast majority of teachers are workers but, according to Marx’s categories, they do not produce surplus value and are thus not exploited. They do not work to expand capital but rather to produce use-values. Making this point would strengthen the argument for the necessity for a generalised defence of publicly funded and publicly controlled schools. If there is no qualitative difference between private and public sector work, a claim made in the book, then a key reason for opposing privatisation is undermined and the rationale for community and student alliances is weakened.

The experiences of teachers and their successful union building in the last ten years could be generalised in two ways. The leadership of the union is drawn from teachers who identify with the profession and understand the issues thrown up by changes in the labour process, not only for teachers but also in terms of educational practice and the interests of pupils, students and their communities. Too much trade union practice assumes that the generic knowledge of officials is sufficient—that it does not matter that, for instance, Unison officials covering social workers know little of social work issues. Formal representation is certainly possible, but lack of understanding of, for instance, the use of unqualified staff and issues of skill mix make both empathy and organising difficult. Relatedly, some acknowledgement of the way that new public management has been a ­general attack on public sector labour would have useful.51 It would have alerted other public sector trade unionists (nurses, doctors, civil servants and social ­workers), many of whom have suffered ­similar attacks, to the value of the ­strategies ­documented and advanced here. The results of the strategies are impressive: not just the 50,000 members gained in the union’s struggle for safe conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic, nor just the 70,000 added during the 2023 pay and conditions dispute, but the strengthening of organisation in primary schools as well as the thousands of new reps and activists reflecting more closely the make-up of the membership.

Despite being historically slow to respond to the changing educational landscape, the leadership of the NEU’s joint general secretaries, Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted, supported a concerted effort to root the union more firmly in the workplace.52 Faced with crises, leaders can recognise the need for serious changes. There is no guarantee that they will continue to play an unambiguously progressive role and, although disappointing, it is not shocking that the leadership recommended acceptance of a below-inflation pay settlement, and vague promises of full funding to avoid further depletion of already stressed school budgets, in July 2023. Ironically, a mark of their effectiveness over the last decade was the extent of anger and opposition to their capitulation. WhatsApp groups were alive with opposition to the proposals, and 1,000 activists and members attended an online meeting at short notice, with a further 1,500 trying to enter the oversubscribed event. Nevertheless, the offer was accepted by 86 percent of teacher members on a turnout of 60 percent. The fact that voting in a separate ballot to authorise continued action produced a “yes” vote from 95 percent on a 53 percent turnout demonstrated continued confidence in the union’s ability to take the dispute further. That potential has been squandered. It is a lesson that has to be learned; simply stated, there has to be conditional support for left-wing leaders and the building of a countervailing power within the union.

In the book’s final paragraph, written before the 2023 dispute, the authors state:

The process of renewal we have outlined is always a work in progress. It can never be complete and is always being formed and re-formed through struggle. The NEU has achieved some significant victories, but we do not present this as an unqualified success story. There is still too much that needs to be done to claim success.53

That which needs to be done is now more concrete, and the power to build a confident rank and file is more evident. The NEU’s future must be in the hands of the membership, such as the groups of young primary school workers who came collectively from their pickets, enthusiastic and singing, to their first ever demonstration. The left is integral to that development, and Lessons in Organising is a serious contribution to bringing it about.

Bob Carter was Professor of Work and Employment Relations at the University of Leicester. He is author of Capitalism, Class Conflict and the New Middle Class (Routledge, 2015) as well as a number of articles on trade unions and the restructuring of public sector labour.


1 This perspective sees, for instance, the school bell substituting for the factory hooter, compulsory religious education reflecting the role of the established church, the headteacher acting as the manager of an undemocratic institution that prefigures the world of work, head girls and boys and prefects as co-opted agents of supervision and control, and so on. See Bowles and Gintis, 1976.

2 Mathou, Sarazin and Dumay, 2023.

3 Intent is not achievement—teachers struggle daily to retain creative and imaginative approaches that engage their pupils.

4 A survey of 1,200 teachers by a national school support service before the Covid-19 pandemic reported that “cases of stress, anxiety and panic attacks” among their pupils “had increased in more than three-quarters (78 percent) of primary schools over the past two years”. Furthermore, “School leaders reported an increase in fear of academic failure (76 percent) and depression (55 percent) among pupils in the period since 2014.”—Weale, 2017. According to the Good Childhood Report, published by the Children’s Society, children in Britain have the lowest levels of life satisfaction in Europe, with “a particularly British fear of failure” partly to blame—see Topping, 2020.

5 Fairbrother, 1994, 1996, 2000a and 2000b.

6 Fairbrother, 2000a, p48.

7 Gall, 1998; Carter and Poynter, 1999.

8 Colling, 1995.

9 Ironside and Seifert, 1995, p121 and p240.

10 See Stevenson, 2003; Carter, 2004.

11 From 2001, education budgets rose markedly, with the proportion of GDP going to education increasing from 4.9 percent in 1997-8 to 5.5 percent in 2003-4 and 5.9 percent in 2006, slightly below the OECD average.

12 Little, Sharp and others, p59.

13 PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2001, p1.

14 A detailed account of the workforce restructuring, and the role of the Social Partnership, is given in Carter, Stevenson and Passy, 2010.

15 This was the logic and direction of the reforms—it is not to say that there was uniform implementation or no resistance.

16 There were 281,000 full-time equivalent teaching assistants in 2022 (the actual number of teaching assistants was higher due to many part-time workers), a growth of 60,000 (27 percent) since 2011. Teacher numbers grew more slowly; there were 486,000 full-time equivalent teachers in 2022, a growth of 27,000 (6 percent) since 2011. These figures are accessible at

17 Thrupp, 2005, p14.

18 Chris Keates, NASUWT’s general secretary, writing after 2015, stated: “For the NASUWT, it was also a time of realisation: a time when long-cherished policy ambitions became a reality; a time of improved status, pay and rewards for teachers remaining in the classroom; and a time when the workforce and unions were recognised by employers and government as key to unlocking high standards in education.”—see Christophers, 2009, p2.

19 Over half the school population are in academy schools, and this figure looks set to further increase: “Individual academies have, since the appointment of regional school commissioners in 2014, been encouraged to join formally with other academies as multi-academy trusts. By 2022, there were nearly 10,000 academies, but most were in multi-academy trusts, with the government signalling its intention, through a white paper, to base the future on them.”—Male, 2022, p313.

20 Little, Sharp and others, p61.

21 Little, Sharp and others, p63.

22 Little, Sharp and others, p62.

23 UK Government, 2022, p44.

24 It should be noted that this corporate structure would be an ideal one for privatisation.

25 Little, Sharp and others, p67.

26 Little, Sharp and others, p69.

27 Little, Sharp and others, p73.

28 Little, Sharp and others, p75.

29 Little, Sharp and others, p78. Emphasis in original.

30 This is clearly very good when contrasted to the general experience of unions. According to the Trades Union Congress, “Less than 1 in 20 union members are aged between 16 and 24, and over half of union reps are 50 and over.” See

31 The indicative ballot for the abolition of standardised testing was overwhelmingly in favour of action, but it had a turnout of only 39 percent. Industrial relations law covering public sector workers in Britain requires a turnout of 50 percent or more, alongside 40 percent of eligible voters being in favour, to make action legal. Noting these obstacles should by no means suggest arguing that action should be discouraged or undermined in favour of building supermajorities.

32 Little, Sharp and others, p79. Emphasis in original.

33 Little, Sharp and others, p85.

34 Little, Sharp and others, p85.

35 Little, Sharp and others, p97.

36 See Uetricht, 2014.

37 Little, Sharp and others, p109.

38 Little, Sharp and others, p110.

39 “Lockdown” is thus a poor term to describe the dynamics. The momentum for not going to work arose independently; the government responded (slowly and reluctantly) to this pressure.

40 Little, Sharp and others, p113.

41 Little, Sharp and others, p117.

42 Little, Sharp and others, p126.

43 Little, Sharp and others, p129.

44 Little, Sharp and others, p129.

45 Little, Sharp and others, p137.

46 Little, Sharp and others, p133.

47 At one point, Martin Upchurch, Richard Croucher and Matt Flynn contended that there was a congruence between the values, expectations and intended outcomes of members, activists and the leadership of the PCS civil service union. They argued that this was evidenced by the success of the left, opposition to partnership working with management, more radical union policy positions in the political sphere and a willingness to support industrial action over a range of national issues—see Upchurch, Croucher and Flynn, 2012. This was, however, arguably not the experience within the union’s section in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—see Carter, Danford and others 2012. It remains to be seen how far the existing trust in the NEU leadership is temporary and conjunctural, simply awaiting the reassertion of those underlying internal structural tensions between union leaders and the rank and file that have been long identified by Marxist writers. Indeed, perhaps these tensions have already been signalled by the leaders’ recommendation of acceptance of the July 2023 government offer of a below-inflation pay settlement with no clarity as to how it will be funded.

48 These terms are introduced in chapter 1 and developed in chapter 2.

49 In Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned for eternity to push an immense boulder up a steep hill, only for it to roll down again. See Luxemburg, 1986, chapter 2.

50 Little, Sharp and others, p142.

51 See Carter, 2020.

52 Courtney and Bousted were the general secretaries of, respectively, the NUT and ATL when the two unions fused to form the NEU. They were replaced by Daniel Kebede, who became the sole NEU general secretary of the NEU in the summer of 2023.

53 Little, Sharp and others, p158.


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