By Patrick Murphy, Divisional Secretary, Leeds NUT
The largest teachers' union, the NUT, meets in Harrogate at a time when it is under pressure within the TUC for its insistence on the principle that only qualified teachers should teach.
Apart from NUT, every union representing school-based staff has signed up to a national agreement to "remodel" the school workforce. The agreement was drawn up in January 2003 for implementation from the beginning of the 2003-4 school year and will lead to teaching assistants taking responsibility for whole classes.
The other teacher unions, NASUWT and ATL, agreed to it on the grounds that it will lead to significant workload reductions for teachers. The GMB and Unison, who organise most support staff, agreed because it offers the possibility of better pay and a career structure for their members.
The NUT refused to sign up arguing that the Government's plan is to have teaching on the cheap. Pupils should have the right to a qualified teacher in every class and support staff should be paid more for what they already do rather than be asked to do the job of a teacher without the training or pay.
The NUT have not only refused to sign up, they have also publicly exposed the flaws in the agreement.
There is evidence that this has gradually undermined support for the plan, particularly within the support unions.
Mass meetings of Unison in Sheffield and GMB in Birmingham have reportedly voted to reject "remodelling". The NASUWT, however, are the most strident advocates of the agreement and have sought to isolate the NUT within the TUC.
Government minister Charles Clarke expressed his disappointment this week that the NUT is not "an active collaborator" with the Government.
We need to ensure that the union continues to refuse to actively collaborate with Clarke's agenda and instead becomes an active fighter for teachers!
No-one is proposing to reverse the NUT's position on remodelling at this conference, but we need to move beyond propaganda campaigning to active opposition.
A motion from Central Notts and Croydon instructs the Executive to "sanction ballots for strike action to oppose the employment of unqualified staff to teach whole classes".
An amendment from Waltham Forest seeks to learn the lessons from the major local dispute about remodelling last year (at Radclyffe School, Oldham). It calls for a refusal to cover for absences of more than one day in schools which employ non-qualified staff to take whole classes, and a ballot for strike action wherever there is victimisation of members taking that action.
The Executive, led by the Blairite "Broadly Speaking" group, is opposing these policies in favour of continuing the current token opposition to remodelling. This token opposition is better than nothing, especially when there are people in the leadership desperate to cave in, but, without a serious campaign of action, remodelling will become a reality on the ground.
The other major interest at Conference will be the hustings for the General Secretary election. Doug McAvoy is retiring in June this year and there are four candidates vying to replace him. Two of them, John Bangs and Steve Sinnott, represent different strands of the existing leadership. Bangs is a national officer of the union and McAvoy's favoured successor; Sinnott is the current Deputy General Secretary and the candidate of Broadly Speaking. The other candidates represent the left of the union and there is little discernible difference between them.
Ian Murch is the secretary of Bradford NUT, an Executive member and candidate of the Campaign for a Democratic and Fighting Union and the Socialist Teachers' Alliance - the two broad organisations of the activist left in the union.
He also has the support of the SWP.
Martin Powell-Davies is secretary of Lewisham and a member of the Socialist Party.
Martin's campaign is an odd and slightly self-indulgent move, given that this is the first GS election with no incumbent since 1988 and the whole of the rest of the left is unified around Ian Murch.
Ian's campaign has focused on the need for active campaigning strategies to implement the generally good policies the NUT has adopted. Above all he is arguing for the sort of action on remodelling outlined in the Central Notts/Croydon/Waltham Forest motions, and serious and sustained campaigning on pensions and pay.
It would be a tremendous gain for the trade union left in Britain if he could defeat Bangs and Sinnott and become the latest member of the awkward squad.
In the International section of the agenda there is a motion to support campaigns against child and sweatshop labour, including Ethical Threads and No Sweat. This is a short section and the main motion on Iraq has a large number of amendments. If Conference reaches the motion, however, it should be passed, since it has the support of the Executive, left and right, and it would mean a national affiliation to No Sweat.