Christine Blower’s speech to NUT conference 2012


1300 HOURS





President, Delegates


Let me begin by congratulating the President on her address which was engaging, entertaining and hard hitting.  Her conduct in the Chair has been calm and good humoured.  To Chair NUT Conference is an honour and a privilege, as those of us who have done it know very well.  But it is also a challenge and one to which you have risen very well, President.  I look forward to working with you as we move into our new year following this Conference.


We have a new President and a newly elected Executive, including the first holders of the seats elected by our LGBT members and our disabled members to whom I offer congratulations.  This Executive must now rise to the challenge set by you, the delegates, at our supreme policymaking forum.  And that, I’m sure they will do effectively and with dedication.


The year in which Charles Dickens died was the same year in which the National Union of Teachers was founded.  Mr Dickens wrote many quotable lines: one of his more famous springs readily to mind when we reflect on where we are in teacher trade union policy and politics – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  Some of the very best times have been in the pensions campaign.  June 30/November 30 and much in between.  As well as our Londonstrike on March 28th, alongside UCU.


Our pensions campaign, though is being conducted against a Government with a cabinet of millionaires.  People who are very far removed from the real life of ordinary people inBritain.  George Osborne’s recent Budget was Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poorest and giving to the richest.  2012 will be remembered by many for the race to the bottom in pensions, pay and public service provision.


Already we’ve seen EMA all but go and benefits under attack.  Then the Chancellor chooses to make life even more comfortable for the most comfortable.  The top rate of tax cut from 50% to 45%, with a view to bringing it down to 40%.  At a time when our younger teachers will end up paying out close to 50% in a combination of tax, National Insurance, repayments of debt incurred by going into HE and, of course, higher pension contributions.  And we all know that the pensions contribution increases are nothing more than an additional tax on the public sector.  Our demand for a proper valuation of the teacher scheme was rejected by Government, yet we also know that the scheme is sustainable and affordable so our campaign on pensions is fair and reasonable.

Colleagues our debate on the priority motion on pensions has given us a clear way forward.  No-one ever said that it would be anything less than a long campaign.  We, in the NUT, have been in the lead in this campaign and will continue to be.  We all know there will have to be more industrial action if we are to win.  The question we have been debating is how best to build the support of our members to take that action.  We still need, of course, to keep up all the lobbying and petitioning too.


I think we were all heartened to hear that our colleagues in the NASUWT seem to be moving towards escalating their campaign.  OurUnion, the NASUWT, the EIS, the SSTA, the UCU and UCAC have all rejected the Government’s pension plan.  The NUT stands willing to work with any and all of these unions to advance the campaign.  Teachers simply should not have to work till 68 or possibly even 69 or 70 to get a full pension.  Our unions working together will be able to mount action which will really challenge the Government.  This is a challenge to all these unions.  I am sure we can put aside any differences and work together to defend teachers and our pensions.  Conference, I know the National Union of Teachers stands ready to do this.


Let me now turn to education matters.  Education theory and practice are informed by a great deal of research.  Michael Gove is quite keen on it and so am I.  But we draw very different conclusions from it.  One of the things on which we agree, however, is an assertion made by Andreas Schleicher, the OECD education guru, that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teaching force.


The big question that arises from this assertion is how do we ensure that we have well-prepared teachers of ‘high quality’ in our schools and colleges?  Well, the answer lies, according to research by John MacBeath earlier this year into what he calls ‘satisfiers’ – drivers which are essential to teachers’ sense of professional fulfilment.  They include: autonomy; being valued; being trusted; being listened to; time for learning, teaching and planning; collegiality; initiative; creativity; scope for innovation and experimentation; and challenge.


I don’t know if the Secretary of State has read John MacBeath’s work but if he has, he doesn’t seem to have understood it.  How could anyone, least of all a Secretary of State for Education, call teachers and their unions ‘enemies of promise’ when we are so clearly wedded to developing our own professionalism and skills and so concerned about children and young people?  And when we know, as Hazel Danson told Conference the last time we were here in Torquay, that teachers are the guardians of standards in their own classrooms.  In the National Union of Teachers, we want nothing but the best for every child in every classroom every day and we want the best for teachers too.


As an American colleague told me: “You can’t put children first if you put teachers last.”


Yet more research, this time in 2011 and by Michael Fallon, talks about the wrong drivers by which he means deliberate policy that has little chance of achieving the desired result of an effective and successful teaching force.


These include:


  • using test results and teacher appraisal to reward or punish teachers and schools rather than building professional capacity;


  • promoting individual rather than group solutions;


  • fragmented strategies rather than integrated systemic strategies.


Conference, we didn’t need research to tell us these things because years in the classroom and in the NUT have given us a clear perspective on what works.


I thought I’d borrow an idea to share with you from the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association about how teachers are viewed.  Some of these ideas were reinforced in a recent NUT survey.


This is what teachers love doing.



This is what some people believe we do!  All those long holidays, although it does look as though she’s doing a bit of lesson planning.



Perhaps this is what Mr Gove would like us to do.


Alas, this is what the job of a teacher looks like to many of us much of the time.


Colleagues, I think this cartoon says it all about our place in society and the real value of a teacher versus a banker or a hedge fund manager.


So, the Government must learn to value and respect teachers for the great job we do.  Where would they be without us.


A Performance Management system which is designed to harass and undermine teachers cannot achieve a profession that works well and students who achieve.


Some of you may remember this from last year.  This was President Obama on how to improve education.  It says “We must fire bad teachers”.  Through the dedicated efforts of our sister unions in theUS, the AFT and the NEA, do you know what Arne Duncan – Secretary for Education in theUSadministration, told an International Conference this year:


You can’t fire your way to high quality teaching


He’s right of course.


But colleagues, neither can you cut the pay of teachers and attack their pensions, demean their professionalism and expect the job to be an attractive option for new graduates.


As you have heard, Michael Gove has written to the STRB to say he wants teachers’ pay to be market facing, as we heard in our debate.  Local pay almost certainly means lower pay.  As we know, cutting public sector pay, in this case teachers’ pay, in areas of generally lower pay will have the effect of depressing further local economies.


We all know that in a National Service, locally delivered, national pay scales are central.  National Pay Scales are, as Helen Andrews said, “not an accident of history”.  We won them and we must defend them.


A significant headline from the TUC is that the private sector doesn’t use local pay so why should the public sector?  The debate on the priority motion has set a course for campaigning on this.  Strengthened of course by the Amendment.  We’re pleased you made it Gawain.


It’s worth pointing out too that, when deregulation was brought in to the Health Service after 12 months of detailed negotiations, all pay settlements came in within 0.1% of each other. Opposing cuts to pay and pensions and opposing privatisation in all its forms are all priority campaigns for theUnion.


We have to win back the profession.  We know what professional standards are.  Our debate on Ofsted set the scene for a reinvigorated campaign for professional autonomy and an accountability framework in the interests of teachers and children.  No-one, least of all the National Union of Teachers, ever said that teachers should not be accountable.  We all know that, although it isn’t enough, a good deal of public money is spent on education so we do have to be accountable.  But not to the kind of Ofsted trained ‘consultant’ who is brought in to schools ostensibly to support teachers.


Here’s an example: a consultant comes in to school and plans to see a Year 6 class.  The teacher tells the consultant that she’s welcome to come in.  The class will be in the library for 30 minutes.  The class goes to the library, is well behaved and on task.  What might you reasonably expect as feedback from such a session?  “Well done, that’s great, it’s nice to see a library being used by the children.”  “How nice to see children so engaged.”  “A library is such a great resource in a school, glad to see that children know how to use it.”


Well colleagues, think again.  This is a person subject to Ofsted training with whom we are dealing.  The feedback actually was:


I’m not going to grade that lesson (who ever said she should have been going to anyway, by the way) as it would have been unsatisfactory. The children were just reading!  Just reading, colleagues, how wide off the mark can these people be?


Support can come in a variety of forms but I think we all know what helpful professional support looks and feels like, and what is something rather different.  When I try to think about Ofsted and support, that expression about how a rope supports a hanged man springs to mind.


I simply can’t improve on the brilliant speech from Greg Fox.  I would like us to put it up on the NUT website.  And by the way, I hope the wedding goes well.


The boycott of SATs was mentioned in passing on Sunday, with a comment that it achieved nothing and therefore we shouldn’t contemplate boycotting other things we oppose.  I contest that it achieved nothing at all but leaving that aside, theUnionis right to oppose the use of the phonics check and to make all the professional arguments against it at our disposal.  Michael Rosen is on record as saying that he can decode Italian.  Many of you in the hall would equally be able to decode Italian or Spanish but, like Michael, you would be unable to understand either of these languages.  I imagine that anyone who has given this a moment’s thought would know that reading involves comprehension.


Our survey of members on this very issue is clear.  92 per cent said that the phonics check told them nothing that they did not already know but that large numbers of children failed.  Some of the children failed because they were already more accomplished readers who were trying to make sense of the nonsense words.  As the Croydon delegate said on Sunday, “we really are now testing nonsense”.  So, if the flawed outcomes of this check are used to establish league tables, we would certainly be right to take action against that.


I just put this cartoon in because I think it’s great.


In the 55 school days from the beginning of the spring term to March 22nd, there have been around 20 unreasonable, carping, insulting and just plain wrong announcements or statements from the DfE or Ofsted to berate, belittle or undermine teachers.


And Michael Gove has the nerve to say that he wants to support teachers and encourage in the so-called brightest and best.  And Schools’ Minister, Nick Gibb, says some of his best friends are teachers.  I wonder what they talk about.


Anyway, I won’t go through all 20 but here is a sample:


January 4th – Mr Gove says that those who oppose the drive to academies are happy with failure and “the enemies of promise”.


January 19th – Nick Gibb trying to bolster his ideological bid for universal synthetic phonics, which I might add, has been rejected in many places:


“Every week that goes by is another week that children are missing out on the best possible teaching of reading.”


February 9th – Michael Wilshaw: My view is that we have tolerated mediocrity for far too long – it has settled into the system.


Ofsted – March 2nd – I love this one:  Not enough music in music lessons!  (Perhaps they should have thought of that before music provision became the target of cuts year on year).  By the way, this might be a good point at which to praise ourUnion for the involvement we have with Music for Youth.  The performers we have had with us over Conference are just a small fraction of the enthusiastic and talented young people with whom Music for Youth works.


Our involvement with MfY culminates each year in the Schools’ Prom, in November at the Royal Albert Hall.  It’s always a fantastic festival of music of every sort.  If you haven’t been, I do encourage you to try to get there.


Let me give you just 2 further examples of the kinds of things we hear from Government.


On March 15th, at a ‘’Spectator’ Conference, it was tweeted that Michael Gove said “Our schools widen inequality.”


And finally, I’m sure you know now schools have been deemed responsible for the riots of last year – and will be fined if there’s any recurrence.


So, the fight is on to promote our policies and positions and to consider where the blame for civil unrest and differential academic outcomes should fall.  This Government, with its cabinet of millionaires and desire to privatise state education out of existence is not on the side of working class families and vulnerable children.  It does not see the trade union values of solidarity and standing together, of the need for social justice and equity in society as central to a decent society.  The End Child Poverty Campaign reports research from theInstituteofFiscal Studiesestimating that, under this Government, 100,000 more children a year will be plunged into poverty.  And of course, we are all too well aware of the scandal of unemployment, in particular amongst young people aged 16 to 24.  How hollow it rings from a pompous Prime Minister who pretends to be partial to pasties when he insists that we’re all in this together.


On May 3rd, there will be elections in many parts of the country.  There will be the much heralded Mayoral Election inLondon and council seats up in many places. There is a real need for NUT members to be involved in this democratic process.


The BNP was soundly defeated in the last local elections.  The work done in Barking and Dagenham and Havering and in Stoke onTrent, as well as elsewhere, played a big part in that defeat.  But these parties, so-called parties, have not given up or gone away.  Both the BNP and the British Freedom Party, are looking for seats again in these elections.  And the EDL and WDL seek to demonstrate whenever they can.


The current economic situation will be ruthlessly exploited by the BNP and their ilk.  Some people who do not themselves subscribe to the racist and fascist ideology of the BNP may find themselves superficially attracted to some of their messages.  That’s why we have to be involved in campaigning during this election period.  In the NUT, we oppose racism and fascism wherever and whenever it appears but during election times we have to up our game and be on the streets in large numbers.



TheUnionhas made funds available to ‘Hope not Hate’ and ‘Unite Against Fascism’ to ensure that there is material to distribute everywhere that the racists and fascists seek to stand.  I commend these publications and the videos made by both organisations to you.


There will be days of action called by both ‘Hope not Hate’ and ‘Unite Against Fascism’.  I urge you all to give as much time and energy to this campaigning as you can.


I want also to mention in the context of our anti-racist work, our relationship with Show Racism the Red Card.  Since last Conference, the NUT has been invited to join the Show Racism the Red Card Hall of Fame.  It was my great pleasure to receive the award on behalf of the Union, alongside Len McLuskey from Unite.  I am immensely proud of the work we do with Show Racism the Red Card.   And in this year when there have been ugly incidents between players in addition to unacceptable behaviour on the terraces, there is alas, still only too much need for this work.  Show Racism the Red Card has produced brilliant material to help teachers deal with both racism and, specifically, Islamophobia.  I hope you had the chance to visit the stand, but if not, please make sure you look them up.  And if you happen to be in Londonon April 17th, do go along to Unison Headquarters to the launch of the new Show Racism the Red Card material dealing with homophobia.


I don’t have to tell you that the Nazi regime persecuted trade unionists alongside so many other groups.  As part of our work with the Holocaust Educational Trust, we have produced a series of teaching materials about the experiences of different groups of people exemplified through individuals.  We launch these materials as part of our work for Holocaust Memorial Day.  The latest in the series is about the persecution of trade unionists.  I commend it to you.


Of course we know that there are many countries where being a trade unionist still, today, can endanger life and liberty.  Many colleagues will have heard me speak aboutColombiaand my experiences of going on an international trade union delegation toBogota.  Last year I spoke of Dr Paul Beltran, whom I had visited in prison and Lilany Obando, both wholly unreasonably imprisoned.  This year I’m pleased to say that both have been released.  It’s particularly good to be able to report that a delegation of trade unionists fromBritainwas at the prison gates to welcome Lilany back to freedom.  My good friend, Jonathan Ledger, who is the General Secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, was one of the 22 trade unionists in the welcome party.  He told me it was a real privilege to be there that day.


The release of Paul and Lilany has much to do with the unrelenting pressure on the Colombian Government, applied by Justice forColombiaand unions like ours with whom they work.  We must be ever vigilant as re-arrest inColombiais common but, for now, we can celebrate a success.  If your Division is not affiliated to Justice forColombiaplease do consider affiliation.


And closer to home, we also heard from Themis about life under austerity inGreece.  I hope lots of you have had the opportunity to talk with Themis.  AcrossEurope, the fight against austerity measures which devastates lives is our fight, too.


Our international work must continue to focus on solidarity and anti-imperialism and the rights of workers and young people in education.  That is why I am pleased to tell you that the National Executive has passed a strongly worded statement in defence of two teachers, Mahdi ‘Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb inBahrainand Abdolreza Ghanbari inIran, who both face the death penalty.  We have been campaigning on their behalf and will continue to do so.  The statement will be available on the NUT website.  I urge you to look it up and write to your own MPs to ask them to support these campaigns.


We have much to learn from the history of the trade union movement and the history of our ownUnion.  In 1870, when the NUT was founded, our forbears had 4 objectives:


–               to improve salaries and obtain a superannuation scheme;

–               to obtain security of tenure of teachers;

–               to establish a register of teachers and make teaching a profession; and

–               to abolish payment by results.


But our founders also held that teaching should be freed from obnoxious interference.  We heard that very phrase from our then President, the last time we were in Torquay.  This phrase, or perhaps the feeling that lies behind it, must have provoked one of my favourite sentences from the Agenda this year.  Motion 40 from our friends in the north, our President’s region, contains the sentence:


“This obsession with micromanagement, meddling in educational practices and dictating the minutiae of classroom practice must stop.”


And here are just a couple of comments from our recent survey; on how teachers feel:


“Overworked and underappreciated, we need support, not constant criticism; we are our own harshest critics, we don’t need government, etc., to add to that.”




“Allow teachers to teach, to be creative and nurture young minds.  Rather than insist on pointless targets directed at so-called improvement.  Such a culture has created soulless drones instead of the sparky characters teachers ought to be.”


As I look out at this audience, Conference, soulless drones is not what I see, neither do I see them in the classrooms I visit and meetings I attend but, nonetheless, I think you get the point.  I pay tribute to those thousands of teachers who, despite the targets, the pressure and the vilification just close the classroom doors and get on with great teaching.  How much better the system would be if we, the teaching profession, were all freed from the tyranny of targets, leagues tables and Ofsted to be the professionals we all aspire to be.


By the way, 92% of teachers in our survey said working with children was the best bit of the job!


The break-up of the state system into academies and the creation of free schools, not to mention new grammar schools by the back door, are all of great concern to us.  We are, however, having some successes.  I am pleased to report that we won compensation for teachers inCornwallwho had had their rights under TUPE denied.  I am writing to Michael Gove to point out that rights to information and consultation must be observed.  And, of course, we support the brilliant campaign of the Downhills Parents and Community.  I was delighted to be a speaker at the meeting organised atDownhillsSchool.  It was a public meeting that attracted over 400 people, not many campaigns can claim a success on that scale.  We will, of course, stay side by side with the Downhills campaigners and with all campaigners who wish to oppose the privatisation of our education service.


As we know, because the Government tells us all the time, we are in a time of constrained budgets and money is tight.  So you might reasonably expect the DfE to be watching every penny.  It might come as a surprise then to find that a whopping £305.6 million was spent on the academies and free schools programme between April 2010 and February 2012.


A total of £31.3 million was spent on payments to private companies “assisting with the establishment of academies, free schools and University Technical Colleges between May 2010 and February 2012.


Some £2.6 million was paid to 27 free school groups between November 2010 and February 2012.  One such group was the team behind theRivendaleFreeSchoolin Hammersmith and Fulham.  A community and parent campaign saw off this bid but not before the team had received £33,000.


There are more figures with which I could shock you Conference but I will mention just one more example.  This will all be available on our website.


An increasing amount of staff resource is being used at the DfE on these vanity projects when the department, as a whole, is shrinking.  The annual staff costs for the free school team at the Department has seen a huge increase from three point nine million pounds to six point one five million pounds in a year.


Little wonder that Michael Gove is known as the Secretary of State for Free Schools and Academies.


Colleagues, we need to fight on many fronts as a united union but how much more effective many campaigns would be if waged by a single unified teachers’ union?  When we say we are theUnionwhich stands for one union for all teachers, we mean it.  We will continue to work to achieve the maximum unity and unity in action with all organisations but never lose sight of the prize that is a single unified teachers’ union.


Pending that, we continue to build our own membership.  I’m delighted to report that membership is still on an upward trend.  We are the largest teachers’ union inEuropeand in terms of affiliation to Education International, we come third only to the very big American unions, NEA and AFT.  We are especially pleased to have large numbers of younger activists stepping up to take on roles in theUnion.


Whether you are a newer or more longstanding member, like Brian Chadwick, 50 years of service to the Union in Gravesend or my own friend and colleague, Clare Maloney, with just a little short of the half century and many more to whom we have sent letters to thank them for their years of membership, the Union is pleased to have you.


I’d like to thank all the associations and divisions who have invited me to their meetings this year.  Of course, it’s invidious to mention some and not others but I’m going to anyway.  Thank you for the warm welcome and delicious cake I got inGermanywhen visiting the Services Schools.


Thank you also to Portsmouth Association for both the delicious food and brilliant Presidential Address at their AGM – both courtesy of their President, Pam, whose age would be indelicate to mention.  I think she has 20 years on me.  I hope I’m still as fit and feisty when I get to that age.  It is she who reminded me about obnoxious interference – and that Portsmouth Association has been the first Association of the National Union of Teachers to take strike action in defence of members’ conditions – in 1871 no less!


To all the other associations and divisions, thank you for the invitations and the hospitality I am always afforded.


To my colleagues in Hamilton House and the regions andWales, a huge thank you for all your work.  I have been toWalesless this year but Kevin’s been there a lot.  I’m delighted that this year has seen the inauguration of the Wales Section of the Agenda for Annual Conference and that colleagues inWales– even before a debate in this august body – achieved such a stunning victory against the proposed banding scheme.


I’m looking forward to my visit to Pembrokeshire in June.


A special thank you is of course due to Kevin.


I know I’ve said this before but I really want to repeat it here and now.  TheUnionis lucky to have you as DGS – and I’m lucky to have you too.


Before we come to the song at the end of this speech, I’m going to quote something from George Bernard Shaw.  I quote it with apologies or perhaps, congratulations, toWales.


George Bernard Shaw once agreed to speak on ‘What’s wrong with English education’.    For some reason, he arrived late so this is how he began:


“Ladies and gentlemen, I was supposed to speak on ‘What’s wrong with English Education’ but I have only three minutes for my speech, so I’ll speak on ‘What’s right with English Education’.”


Colleagues, there is very much right with education inEnglandand inWales.  The true professionalism and dedicated hard work of our members and the real pleasure we all feel when a child suddenly ‘gets it’.  However much the pressure of Ofsted and Estyn.  SATs (not inWalesof course) and league tables bear down on us, we know that there is strength in the Union – so over to Billy Bragg – not, alas, in person.




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