Teaching Unions: Protection, Information, Representation or Stagnation? #UnionBecause

22nd January 2012

Well no, that’s not all there is to it, otherwise how would the November 2011 teachers’ strike have succeeded in closing over two thirds of schools? Then perhaps teachers really are the left wing “ideologues” Gove warned about but if so, why was turn out in strike ballots only 40% for both the NUT and NASUWT …confused? Me too.
It’s a controversy the LKMco team will be poring over quite a lot over the next few months. We’re launching a major research project looking at teacher and head teacher perceptions of trade unions. As part of the launch we collected video clips of teachers talking about reasons why they’re in a union. We’ve recorded a few but are encouraging all teachers and school leaders to record and post their own #UnionBecause videos on YouTube.
Our videos have already started to cast light on why teachers join unions:

Lots of teachers tell us they joined a union to protect themselves from false allegations. As Garth (an LKMco associate and part time teacher in South-London) tells us, with lots of hormones rushing around, things can easily get misinterpreted.

Unions can be a useful source of information. Lindsay Loftus an Acting Assistant Head and Head of Maths tells us her union membership helps her keep informed of changes that might affect her.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most strident voices for collectivism comes a union rep, Khadija Derdabi. She tells us of the importance of “solidarity” and “standing by your principles:

However, she is not alone in her view. Sam Woodard, Head of DT explains that given how much education policy is made by “people who don’t necessarily know about education”, it’s important to have unions who can negotiate between government and teachers.

Reform or stagnation
Much of the discussion of collective voice that has come out has been focused on improving education policy more broadly, rather than just campaigning on terms and conditions. This tendency links to Susan Moore-Johnson’s arguments in “Paralysis or Possibility.” Moore-Johnson explores whether unions are self-interested blockers or progressive improvers. She explores variations in teacher contracts between districts as well as unions’ relationships to professional development arguing that there is “substantial evidence (which) shows … that teacher unions have led to many practices that not only permit but also promote local variety and reform.” This contrasts with the views of Terry Moe  who argues that in the US, the ‘failure’ of the school reform movement is “largely due to the power of the teachers’ unions.” Moore-Johnson argues that a move began in the 1980s  away from “industrial unionism” and towards “win-win” negotiation or “reform unionism”. She also describes the on-going debates in unions about whether they should “focus exclusively on protecting and advancing teachers’ interests or should expand their agenda to include the improvement of schools.” If these first few videos are anything to go by, we might expect the focus amongst teachers to be on “reform” rather than stagnation. Should this be the case, unions will need to make sure their behaviour is in line with teachers’ objectives by focusing on standards and quality as opposed to defensiveness.
Of course, these are early days for our research project and these videos are only an informal dipstick of our friends’ and colleagues’ opinions. However, as more data emerges from our large scale survey of teachers and head teachers (all teachers and heads reading- please participate!) it will be interesting to see if this trend continues. The survey will be the first stage in our research which will also include a series of detailed interviews with a sample of teachers and heads (you can also volunteer to participate in that when you complete the survey or by emailing [email protected]). We’re going to be finding out:

  • Why teachers and school leaders join unions
  • How they chose their union
  • How they feel about their union
  • What happens with teachers who aren’t in unions or work in independent schools
  • What sort of experiences head teachers have of working unions

The research is being funded by edapt and will culminate in a report published at the start of May, so watch this space! We’ll also be releasing a few more #UnionBecause videos later this week.

Get involved

  • Complete the survey
  • Record your own #UnionBecause video on your webcam/laptop-camera/phone etc. Tell us who you are and why you are/are not in a union then upload it to YouTube with #UnionBecause (make sure you email us/tweet us so we know to link to it).

Thank you to @miss_mcinerney and @kalinski1970 for these two new videos