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Elizabeth Holmes

NEU horizons for ATL and NUT

The amalgamation of two national education unions is a rallying cry for those looking to get their voices heard. It couldn't have come at a better time, argues Elizabeth Holmes. 

In March, members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and the National Union of Teachers (NUT), two of the UK’s largest education unions, were asked to vote on whether or not the two should form a new education union through amalgamation.

In an undoubtedly pivotal moment in the histories of both unions, members voted overwhelmingly (97.2% of NUT members, 73% of ATL members) to form a new National Education Union (NEU).

Membership of the new union has already surpassed half a million at the time of publication. The hope is that unity will bring strength when the new union tackles the myriad issues in education.

As the ATL said in a March statement, ‘[the NEU] will speak with a stronger voice on behalf of education professionals and the children, young people and adults they support. The Government will need to listen when we speak on the key issues facing education – funding cuts, excessive workloads, the recruitment and retention crisis, the chaotic exam reform, and accountability.’

Why amalgamate?

In view of the grave misgivings so many share about the current state of education, it’s easy to see the need for an organised and cohesive response.

It’s hard to see the amalgamation as anything but a positive move for the profession

Both the ATL and NUT have highlighted how dissatisfied, demoralised and exhausted teachers currently are. They point to the system of inspection, workload, pressure, stress, bureaucracy, assessment and funding challenges as evidence that, if teachers are to bring about any positive change for schools, they must speak with one voice.

Ringing in the new

The question remains: Will the members of one union be dominant, or will it be business as usual in all but name?

We have been assured it will be neither. The amalgamation will mean the creation of a new union, with former ATL and NUT members working as equal partners.

The NEU will welcome everyone who works in a school or college, including support staff, school leaders, college leaders, and those working in the independent sector, as well as those working in nurseries and higher education.

It stands to reason that a union with broad and substantial membership will be able to represent the profession more fully

By joining together, ATL and NUT will make by far the biggest education union in the UK and in Europe, and members can expect a new voice to emerge. 

This is undoubtedly a significant time for the profession, as Mary Bousted, former general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and now joint general secretary of the National Education Union, explains:

‘September 1 will be a historic day with the formation of the National Education Union to speak out for teachers and other education professionals and their students.

As a union of nearly half a million members, the National Education Union will be a game-changer, empowering members to share their expertise, improve their working lives and inspire generations of learners.’

Kevin Courtney, former general secretary of the National Union of Teachers and now joint general secretary of the National Education Union, shares these hopes for the future. He told us:

‘This is a pivotal moment in education, and members need a united voice to speak loudly and authoritatively on the issues that matter. The school funding crisis, high workload, threats to pay and conditions, and the dire problems in recruitment and retention - all are burning issues within the profession, and the National Education Union will be a formidable presence at the forefront of those debates.’

Taking action

Fears that the amalgamation of the ATL and NUT will lead to more industrial action cannot really be justified when we dig a little more deeply into how the NEU will operate.

As both ATL and NUT have been keen to point out, the NEU will operate under new industrial relations rules. For any industrial action to be taken, 50% of the electorate would need to take part in the ballot and 40% of the entire electorate would need to have voted ‘yes’.

Such figures would be hard to achieve and if such a big union achieved them, industrial action would clearly be what members wanted in response to the perceived urgent needs of the time. 

Developing influence

It stands to reason that a union with broad and substantial membership will be able to represent the profession more fully, particularly when it comes to getting voices heard in parliament.

Helping politicians to understand what our children and teachers need in our schools may not be the easiest task, but for policy to be effective, it needs to be legitimate, well researched and respected by the profession.

Unless the views of a broad spectrum of school and college leaders, teachers, and support staff are represented this will be impossible to achieve.

Members need a united voice to speak loudly and authoritatively on the issues that matter

So does this seem like a good thing? It’s hard to see the amalgamation as anything but a positive move for the profession.

Time will tell, but the view from here looks promising.

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