Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Teaching and the Union Stranglehold

For anyone who has read the recent headlines on reopening schools and wondered why 450,000  supposedly intelligent men and women seem to be unquestioningly endorsing the NEU's machinations, a little background might be helpful.

For many teachers, union membership has nothing to do with collective bargaining, solidarity or marching under the glorious banner of a united brotherhood (or sisterhood). It's much more like having breakdown insurance for the car; you pay up regularly and then forget about it - expensive, but necessary in case anything goes wrong.

In a tight spot, the backing of a union can make a huge difference to the outcome; this, remember, is a profession in which head teachers rule an effective fiefdom where their word, however unreasonable, is law (the press can furnish abundant examples of those promoted beyond their moral and intellectual capabilities) and an unsubstantiated allegation by a malicious or disturbed teenager can lead to crippling legal costs or end a career.

The gross over-simplification that says children never lie about abuse has put a powerful weapon into the hands of dishonest pupils who want to settle a grudge or avoid disciplinary sanctions (it is almost always the strictest teachers who are on the receiving end of false allegations). While every school must have an effective safeguarding and reporting structure in place to protect pupils, there is a very real danger of cynical exploitation for nefarious purposes.

There is also the possibility of an unscrupulous - and possibly delusional - adult in search of a compensation payday or revenge for a perceived slight in the past. To that threat can be added the third-party element, such as a school administrative worker reporting a teacher for giving a stranded 17-year-old pupil a lift home or over-zealous police officers primed to give full credence to the 'victim', however far-fetched or antiquated the claims.

Until recently, union membership was effectively the only form of insurance available to cover specialist legal expenses and expert advice for a teacher facing an allegation of abuse. There's no such thing as the presumption of innocence here (suspension is a frequent first step in dealing with cases) and an accusation could come out of the blue at any time and relate to any period of career history; how do you prove your alibi for a date 30 years in the past?

The last is really the key to union membership; support over historic allegations is only available as long as teachers remain with the same union. Changing allegiance at any point in your career seriously reduces your options if a past pupil suddenly makes an accusation. The unions scramble for newly qualified teachers with massive introductory discounts and incentives, knowing that, once signed up, members are generally cash cows for life (as well as adding weight to the demands of the leaders).

Like many others, I made a conscious choice at the start to join a non-striking union; I disagree profoundly with the idea of putting politics before pupils. Unfortunately, the most suitable option, the  ATL (formerly the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association), was already under threat thanks to the infiltration of activists who did not share the majority ethos; in 1999 it affiliated to the TUC and, with the arrival at the helm of Mary Bousted, the leadership abandoned the moral high ground and began the downward slide - via its first ever strike - towards the eventual merger with the far more militant NUT.

The turnout of ATL members for the merger ballot was 25% (with 73% of those voting 'yes'). A minority of activists carried the day, while the 98,000-odd teachers who did not vote in favour were dragged willy-nilly into the placard-waving world of 'one out, all out!' and the sort of industrial action some of us wouldn't touch with a barge pole, all so that the joint general secretaries could proudly proclaim that they head the 'largest education union in Europe'.

Now my mailbox is bursting with e-mails - chummily designated 'from Kevin and Mary' - instructing me to sign petitions or e-mail my MP endorsing the NEU's stance or, this week, inviting me to join the 'biggest ever online union meeting'. There's more than a touch of self aggrandisement in their endless hyperbole as they set about furthering their political ends; the satisfaction they appear to derive from the resulting power kick is almost indecent to watch.

As one of the 'nearly half a million' the union leaders are so fond of using as their justification, I'd like to point out that I, for one, am not at all happy about it. 


  1. Interesting. Presumably some kind of professional insurance policy would do just as well - although premiums might vary between schools or areas and that would be a giveaway.

    1. The question of varying premiums is a interesting one; loooking at what may be the nearest parallel, I wonder whether distinctions are made between different branches of medicine.

      The nearest thing at present is a non-political organisation providing specialist cover for members, although they are a relatively recent arrival on the scene; I'm not sure what would happen in the case of historic claims (their website makes no mention of this, which, as it would be a major incentive to join, is a worrying omission).

      One problem is that the unions are embedded in the education structure n the UK, so going it alone - or using an outside agancy - means doing without their established channels of communication and negotiation and the assistance of local and school reps.

  2. "...over-zealous police officers primed to give full credence to the 'victim'..."

    One would hope that the Carl Beech fiasco had cooled their ardour somewhat. But that's probably just wishful thinking.

    Great to see you back blogging again, by the way :)

  3. Thanks, Julia!

    I doubt we'll see the effects any time soon - the programming (or indoctrination) of the current incumbents means any shift in policy is likely to be on a geological timescale.


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