The NEU, Labour and its schools policy

By an NEU and Labour activist

Recently it was revealed that Sir Dan Moynihan, Chief Executive of the Harris Academy chain, is now receiving a remuneration package in excess of £500,000. Under the story on the Facebook page of the Times Educational Supplement, over a hundred comments appeared within hours as scandalised teachers expressed their disgust and pointed out how many chalk-face salaries or how many resources for students could be bought with such an obscene amount.

It is unfortunate that at the moment none of those angry teachers can vote for a major party committed to abolish the academy system which allows – among other practices too numerous and malodorous to mention – the parasitical creaming-off of huge sums of public money into the pockets of a few individuals. Labour’s shadow education secretary Angela Rayner- often seen as on the left of the party – believes that Labour should “move on” from the academy debate and not be “bogged down” in worrying about types of schools.

Essentially she argues for more regulation (oversight of spending) rather than re-nationalisation, which she worries would be seen as “going backwards.” But other than throwing around phrases like “democratic accountability”, she clearly has no idea how to cohere the school system without going back to Local Authority control- probably for the very good reason that, while the LA system no doubt has its flaws, there is no obvious alternative accountability system.

Tinkering with regulations might halt some of the worst excesses in the Academy system, but the only way to fix the fragmentation of the system is to bring schools back under local authority control. Presumably the point of calling for a National Education Service is to indicate a comparison with the founding of the National Health Service, but if Labour are retreating from any kind of radical change in schools, it is clear that far from a moment of equivalent significance to 1948 the NES will instead be a damp squib of diluvial proportions.

One might hope that the largest and most left wing of the education unions, the National Education Union, or at least the part of it that used to be the National Union of Teachers, would be pressuring the Labour Party to move towards ending the Academy programme. But the NEU-NUT is a strange and complicated animal. Its leadership prides itself on its left credentials and the keynote speakers at its 2017 and 2016 annual conferences were John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn respectively – both received a rapturous reception from delegates.

But there is a deeply held shibboleth of so-called political “independence” stamped deep into the marrow of the union which stubbornly insists that we not only remain unaffiliated, but abstain entirely from any party political matter. Shamefully the union made no public intervention at all into the 2016 leadership contest, despite the fact that Owen Smith was an enthusiastic supporter of academies.

The union has remained publicly silent about Rayner’s comments on academies, presumably preferring to try and influence her and others behind closed doors. A prominent left NEU-NUT activist withdrew a draft motion for 2018 conference which would have laid out specific plans for a National Education Service including an explicit demand to bring all schools back under LA control. Instead the official left faction in the union is circulating a Rayner-friendly motion with the nebulous formulation “many of us will have a long list of demands for specific improvements but acknowledge that now is not the time to define these demands and priorities in detail.”

There has been heavy support from branches for this motion to be debated at Conference and amendments may yet improve it. Unfortunately a motion asking for a review of the NEU’s near-useless political fund, which could result in greater political engagement or even affiliation, is unlikely to be heard (a similar motion last year fell on a 51%-49% vote.)

I would argue that there is something of a vicious circle at play here. The Labour leadership is struggling to thrash out a radical programme for its proposed National Education Service partly because it has no affiliated union embedded in its policy making processes which could help it do so (its existing education affiliate, the Socialist Educational Association, while worthy is tiny and unrepresentative, although interestingly is springing into life somewhat, with several new branches formed in the last year.)

Symmetrically, the NEU left leadership is only timidly pressuring the LP because their activist base are not politicised enough to demand more from the party of the labour movement. The way to break the circle is for rank and file activists in both organisations to build links; invite speakers to each other’s meetings; campaign jointly against school funding cuts; fight for labour councils to oppose academisation; join and build SEA branches where they exist; campaign for clear, bold socialist policies to underpin the National Education Service.

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