What are the Easter teaching conferences?
They’re the annual gatherings of England’s main classroom teaching unions – the NEU and the NASUWT – where delegates meet to debate everything from workload, pay, and behaviour to conflict in the Middle East.
Do they matter?
For the unions, definitely. This is where their policy is decided. It is also a showcase for the profession as a whole.
The lack of other news over the Easter holiday tends to see the conferences rise to the top of the agenda but that can be a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, the public hears about the many problems facing teachers. However, in the past, some have felt that some of the more heated displays from delegates heckling politicians have painted the profession in a bad light.
“In the past” – have things changed?
Yes – to a large extent.
Government ministers no longer attend the conference of the largest and most militant unions – the NUT as was – eliminating the most obvious spark for shouty delegates.
In recent years however the union has made Labour’s new left-wing leadership welcome and Jeremy Corbyn is due to speak at the NEU conference in Liverpool on Tuesday, helping the union enter a new era.
New era? How so?
This is the first year the component parts of the NEU – the NUT and the ATL – have come together to share a single merged conference. Participants will be keen to ensure everything runs smoothly.
But there is a potential culture clash between the sensible shoed non-strikers from the ATL side and the more angry elements of the former NUT – highly politicised leafleting activists keen to take the fight to the government of the day on every conceivable front.
Enough of the internal politics – what issues will the unions actually be discussing?
The NASUWT, marking its centenary celebrations in Belfast, will be debating teachers’ mental health, pupil indiscipline, education funding and the teacher supply crisis. Age discrimination, pay, assessment, pension reforms and access to training are also high on the agenda.
And the NEU?
A very similar agenda, unsurprisingly, with school funding, teacher pay, workload, SEND and national tests in primary schools all featuring.
Will teachers be voting for industrial action and strikes?
Almost certainly. The NEU agenda includes 10 calls for industrial action, with six of them for strike action on everything for nursery funding to teacher workload.
At the NASUWT there are also 10 potential calls for industrial action – with two motions mentioning strike action, both on pay.
So does that mean there’s going to be a lot of teacher strikes in the next year?
That’s a very different question.
Government anti-union legislation has hit hard by introducing high thresholds for the support needed from members to legally go ahead and strike – and teaching unions have been struggling to clear them.
One motion at the NEU will call for a strike over school funding, but the union’s executive is already attempting to water that down with a warning that a second indicative ballot would be needed first. Local disputes may be an easier proposition.
But the truth is that however much passion, outrage and anger comes out of this year’s conferences the unions themselves will find it much harder to translate that into actual action.