On 15 April, the first day of the National Education Union (NEU) conference, delegates voted to ballot primary members for a boycott of all high stakes summative testing, including Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs and the phonics tests.
An (electronic) consultative ballot will run from 4 June to 12 July or later. Disaggregated “real” ballots will follow at the end of 2019, in areas and schools where there has been sufficient response to the consultative ballot, and will conclude in January 2020.
This was the fourth successive years that supporters of a boycott had put such a motion. They had responded to objections over the years by clarifying and sharpening their proposal so that it embraced all imposed tests and all primary members, including support staff.
The Executive had, as usual, submitted a spoiling amendment. It was clear that something dramatic was happening when the Executive amendment was easily defeated on a show of hands. A second, more woolly amendment could still have been passed.
Duncan Morrison from Lewisham had used his right of reply to oppose the first amendment. Good speeches by Kari Anson and Tracey McGuire, a Durham TA, persuaded delegates to reject this second amendment too and move to a straight vote on the boycott.
The President at first described the hand vote as “too close” to call. The normal procedure in that case would be to hold a “digi-vote” (each day, delegates were issued with electronic voting devices).
Instead the President called for the show of hands again and then declared that the boycott motion was lost. Several delegates stood up to demand a proper vote. The President refused, insisting that she couldn’t see 200 people. At which point around 500 people stood up. She continued to refuse. Mayhem.
In the end the delegates succeeded in forcing a digi-vote. Within minutes the results appeared on the screen. The boycott testing motion had won by over 30,000 votes.
This was a tremendous victory, not only for the advocates of a boycott but for union and conference democracy. It wouldn’t have been possible without the organising efforts of the rank and file group Education Solidarity Network and the political focus and tenacity of comrades in the Workers’ Liberty school workers’ fraction.
For now, of course, this is just a Conference victory. Getting to a ballot will be a major battle requiring maximum effort by all in the Union. Under NEU rules we will need to achieve a high turnout and overwhelming yes vote in a consultative ballot before moving to a legal ballot. This can be done but it won’t be easy. Despite an over two-month balloting period and a huge effort from head office, our recent ballot on pay and funding saw a national turnout of just 31%. The 2016 Trade Union Act requires 50%.
The NEU conference was a militant and feisty affair which augurs well for the future of the fourth largest union in Britain and the largest education union in Europe. Delegates voted for action ballots on teachers’ pay, too, and came close to calling on the union leadership to overturn a bureaucratic agreement with the TUC which prevents the NEU from seeking bargaining rights and recognition to represent our support staff members.
It was commonly thought that the mixing in of delegates from the traditionally more cautious and moderate ATL (which merged with NUT to form NEU) would dilute the militancy of the NUT. And the old NUT left has itself become tamer. On the National Executive of the NEU decisions have been entirely dominated by a huge bloc uniting the two main competing factions from the old NUT (Broadly Speaking and the Socialist Teachers Alliance).
That bloc came to Conference opposed to a testing boycott and seeking negotiating rights for support staff. At a launch event for what they call the NEU Left, their aims were summarised as “moving away from the old to embrace the new” and “focusing on what unites us, not what divides us”. In fact this was essentially the old NUT leadership trying to engineer the maintenance of their own power.
The credibility and influence of that “new left” lasted less than 24 hours. The vote on an immediate move to demand recognition and bargaining rights for support staff was close enough to be win next time.
The most determined speeches against came from the so-called NEU Left. In particular, a SWP member speaking for the Executive urged support staff delegates to “be patient” and avoid “going to war with” other unions. Two days earlier he had opposed the testing boycott; now he said that we must not risk falling out with Unison and GMB at a time when we were balloting.
In fact it will help us win action in more schools and stop the testing regime if more support staff are recruited to the only union proposing to boycott; the NEU.
The ESN fringe meeting was hugely boosted by the dramatic testing vote The fringe also saw a lively and militant meeting to abolish the anti-union laws and a Workers’ Liberty meeting opposing Brexit.
Now the testing boycott must be won. That will require all districts and branches of the union to be on a war footing from now until the summer break.
Stand for what’s right
By a Durham teaching assistant
Mam why are you sad?
Why do you cry?
Why are you stressed?
Why do you sigh?
Why do you snap over the littlest thing?
Why don’t you laugh?
Why don’t you sing?
I’m sorry my pet that you see me sad
I don’t mean to cry
I don’t mean to get mad
I’ve only ever wanted to just
do my best
I don’t see my friends
I don’t get much rest
I know that the powers that be won’t agree
I know that the upset of all they won’t see
I feel bad that my time is taken by fight...
… Stop mam! I want you to stand for what’s right!
I know that you’re busy, you don’t have a choice
I know that it’s time that they heard your voice
I know when you stand together you’re proud
I know you’ve a message that’s clear and that’s loud
I know that I love you
I know that I care
I know that my mam I’m willing to share
I only ask one thing when you fight off the sack
If you don’t mind can I have you, my mam back?
Fast forward two years, and the job’s still not done
I’m there with you mam when you shout all for one
A more determined collective you’ll surely not find
the headline stood out… none left behind!
I’ve moved forward mam, time goes so fast
No more school days, it’s uni at last!
The fight and the passion that you all show
Has helped me to learn
Has helped me to grow
I hope a solution for all will be found
A solution that’s fair
A solution that’s sound
But til then with pride I am happy to say
I’m proud of my mam
A Durham TA