NB: Speech alternates between Kevin Courtney and Dr Mary Bousted, as marked throughout.

Kevin Courtney

Who of us could have predicted, in January last year, what 2020 would bring? What a terrible thing COVID has been for our nation and our world.

For all those who have died and for their grieving families and friends.

For all those children and young people whose education has been so disrupted.

For our members who have been heroic in their dedication to their pupils.

And in times of fear and anxiety, NEU members have turned to their union. They have sought advice, information and protection. And their union has been there for them.

Our focus has been to follow the science and to advocate for good education policy based on that science. We released, last year, an international survey of the evidence on COVID and education. We wanted to follow the science, to understand what it said and be honest and open with our members, with parents and with the nation. The calls we have made we have made on the basis of the science.

We have always been clear. Our concern about schools was never that children would become very ill with COVID, but always about schools as vectors of transmission – to our members and out into the community, to parents and grandparents

Time and time again we have been proved right:

We were right to argue for schools and colleges to close to most pupils last March. We were right then to say that clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) and clinically vulnerable (CV) staff should make their contribution working from home. And the delegate who said that we have saved lives is quite right.

We were right to ask other staff to be in schools and colleges, working on rota to support those key worker and vulnerable children so our NHS could carry on.

We were right to argue, along with SAGE that there should have been a two-week autumn half-term as a ‘circuit breaker’ and then with secondary schools operating on a rota basis.  If the Government had listened there would have been less deaths and less disruption to education.

When the Government ignored us, we were right to argue that schools should have been included in the November lockdown to suppress transmission rates from schools into the community.

We were right to argue that schools in Greenwich should be allowed to close the week before Christmas because of the new variant and soaring transmission rates.

Dr Mary Bousted

We were right to argue that primary schools should not re-open on 4th January in the middle of a pandemic, with infection and hospitalisation rates soaring, and with a new variant which was known to be up to 50% more transmissible. Our zoom meeting on 3rd January had 400,000 members and members of the public online.  It’s the biggest trade union virtual meeting that’s ever taken place.

Gavin Williamson had decreed that primary schools would re-open come what may.

Blind to the gravity and the danger of the situation, he kept on carrying on. Knowing that it was unsafe to fully open schools, like King Canute he stood on the shores of ignorance telling education professionals that it was safe to go back. 

It was not.

And the fact that at least 25% of primary members signed section 44 letters, asserting their right to work in an environment which was not an immediate danger to their health, shows that Gavin Williamson was not believed when he said it was safe to return. It was a statement that Boris Johnson contradicted the very next day at eight o’clock on 4th January when he said that, unfortunately, schools were acting as vectors of transmission for COVID. 

We were also right to argue that the Government needed to adopt our education recovery plan. If it had done so, transmission rates in schools would have been reduced and pupils would have spent less time out of school at home learning.

We were right to argue that the Government needed a Plan B for GCSE, A level and vocational exams. And if the Government had listened to us, teachers and lecturers would not now be in the position where they learned just two days before the end of the spring term what they needed to know to provide the most accurate grades for their pupils.

Kevin Courtney

And, Conference, because we and you made the right choices and stood up for our members and for their pupils and their communities, the NEU – our gained – has gained a huge reputation throughout the pandemic.  Because the National Education Union could be relied upon to speak truth to power, we have grown our membership, our power and our influence as a union.

We have seen a huge surge in membership – we are 35,000 stronger than this time last year. And we want to welcome all those new members to our union – be they teachers, support staff or school leaders in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.  We want to work with them and with our existing members to improve both their working lives and the education of the children and young people they teach and support.

We have strengthened the union by increasing our school- and college-rep density. And this is so powerful for our members. 78% of the NEU’s secondary members now work in a school or a college with a rep. The percentage isn’t quite as high for primary members, but much improved at 58%.

72% of those new reps are women. 38% are aged under 35. 7% of the new reps are Black, compared to 3% pre COVID. And we recruited over 200 reps after the Black Lives Matter zoom with Jesse Jackson.

That data’s important. It allows us to benchmark where we are building the union from the base. But what’s more important is what the data means. For the NEU it means that we are becoming, in schools and colleges, more representative of our membership. Young women stepping up and taking on the responsibility of being a rep. Organising in new ways, using those WhatsApp groups to communicate with their members and across their multi-academy trust or local authority with other reps. They are sharing their successes and their challenges, helping each other, supporting each other, and winning in their workplace. And now we want to win more.

We want to thank all those members who have stepped up and volunteered to be workplace reps, COVID reps, Health and Safety reps. The strength of the union is their strength.

Dr Mary Bousted

And we must be there for them post-COVID.

We cannot unthinkingly go back to past ways of doing things. We must recognise that there is a ‘new normal’ of new and successful ways of working in the union, and we must consider what we want to keep doing differently.  Whilst we will welcome, when it comes, the return to in-person meetings in the union – at branch and district and Executive level, at Conference and in CPD events, in regional councils and so much more – we must not forget that for many of our members these events are just not accessible because they have caring responsibilities. 

So, we have some pressing questions to think about.

For example, why can’t we make zoom available for all meetings, so that members can attend either in-person or remotely – which may be far easier for women with child-care in the evening or at the weekend?

And, with blended attendance, how are we going to structure our meetings so that they are welcoming and interesting to all members?

Procedures are important. But we must remember that the procedures are there to serve the purpose of the union and that purpose must be to engage, to empower and to energise our members so that they can organise, collectively, to make their own working lives better.

Throughout the COVID crisis our members have been remarkable. Remarkable in their commitment to their pupils, remarkable in their dedication to them – turning to new technologies to teach remotely. Remarkable in their compassion for their most vulnerable pupils – feeding them and making sure they were safe. And remarkable in their connection with their union.

Kevin Courtney

In his remit letter to the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB), Gavin Williamson acknowledged that schoolteachers and leaders had made a huge contribution to the nation’s efforts in responding to the unprecedented challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. He praised their ‘extraordinary dedication’. He then went on to argue that their pay should be cut.

Gavin, don’t think we haven’t noticed. We have.

Words are cheap. And you want teachers and lecturers on the cheap. You want teaching assistants on the cheap. You want supply teachers on the cheap. 

We are not fooled by your talk of a ‘pay pause’.

Let’s call it out for what it is, Gavin. It’s a pay cut. 

A pay cut for the professionals who you relied upon to educate the nation’s pupils remotely. Who, with no CPD completely transformed their practice, using new technology to communicate with pupils in their homes.  Our President, Robin Bevan, calls this the biggest and most successful IT infrastructure project ever accomplished in the United Kingdom.  He is right.

A pay cut for the teachers who you, Gavin Williamson, are relying on to support education recovery throughout the next year and beyond so that children and young people are supported to fulfil their potential in life.

And the continuation of low pay and term-time only contracts for support staff who did so much in the pandemic to keep in touch with pupils, to keep them safe, and fed, and connected with their school.

We’re going to make the case for pay in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Wales and Northern Ireland we have some politicians who listen more than Gavin. But we don’t just need politicians who will listen, we need politicians who will act.

Dr Mary Bousted

There is no justice in these pay cuts. We know the truth when we see it and the truth is this: that this Government was fulsome in its praise of the public sector – for nurses and doctors, for teachers and leaders – when it was desperate. But when things get back to a new normal – because of nurses and doctors and teachers and leaders – it reverts to type.

We see you, Boris Johnson. We see you, Gavin Williamson. And we don’t like what we see.

We don’t like what we see when it comes to this Government’s track record on child poverty, either. Of course, we knew about child poverty before the pandemic – but COVID has revealed, for all to see, the extent and severity of child poverty in the UK.

The NEU’s survey of members on the poverty of so many of their pupils tells a shocking story.

What they have seen, in their remote lessons, getting glimpses into their pupils’ homes, has been shocking.  Children living in damp, overcrowded accommodation with nowhere quiet to work.  Children who have no food in the house. 

All those Tory MPs who castigated teachers in the first wave of the pandemic about the amount and quality of remote learning didn’t mention the shocking fact that, according to Ofcom, between 1 million and 1.8 million children live in homes without internet access or without laptops or other IT devices essential to learn remotely – and, if we are honest, essential to live fulfilled lives as citizens in the 21st century. Children are going to find it so much more difficult to learn if their lives are blighted by inequality and insecurity.

And it should be understood by everyone, even those Tory MPs who voted against giving poor children free school meals in the holidays, that children cannot learn if they are hungry and hugely stressed if they do not know whether they will be hungry soon.  If they are living in crowded, damp accommodation with nowhere quiet to learn – a huge problem for many children in the pandemic. If they are trying to do remote learning on their mother’s phone because their household is not connected to the internet, or if they don’t have laptops.

Kevin Courtney

So what this COVID pandemic has exposed is the reality that schools and colleges are far more than institutions where children are educated. One of the most brutal effects of austerity has been that so much of the public realm which children and their families relied upon has disappeared: youth centres closed, SureStart centres closed, libraries closed, benefits cut or arbitrarily terminated. As these public services have been decimated, so schools and colleges have stepped into the breach – feeding children and clothing them, becoming counsellors, helping parents who can’t fill in their benefit forms.

Anne Longfield talked about this in her final speech as Children’s Commissioner. She said, “Seeing headteachers walking around their communities handing out food parcels to locked-down children – not just to make sure the children are fed, but because it was the only way to see them and to make sure they were OK – that has been incredibly moving.” And she added: “If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s the fundamental role that schools play in vulnerable children’s lives – way beyond teaching.”

And so it is entirely right that this year’s Fred and Anne Jarvis award has gone to Marcus Rashford, who has been an ambassador for the fundamental right of all children to have enough to eat.  And we want to commend him here and thank him again for the work he has done, and continues to do, to stand up for the children that the Conservatives would want us to forget and whose policies make these children’s lives even harder. 

If Boris Johnson means what he says about wanting to level up, he would focus on one important thing.  He would make it his mission to eradicate child poverty which is the biggest cause of unequal outcomes in our education system. 40% of the education attainment gap between rich and poor children is set in stone before they start school. Other countries have attacked child poverty. If we want to increase the life chances of all children, we must stop them living nervous, anxious narrow lives where they do not know beyond their school dinner where the next meal will come from.

Dr Mary Bousted

Teachers, leaders and support staff have gone beyond the extra mile in this pandemic. They have stepped into the wasteland of public services decimated by austerity. They’ve rolled up their sleeves and worked to protect the most vulnerable. They are heroes and they should be treated as heroes, as should our other key workers.

But as the return to school becomes the new normal it is remarkable how quickly the new normal becomes the bad old days. Workload went through the roof for teachers and leaders with remote learning. You would have hoped, now, for at least a modicum of relief. But now we are back to in-person teaching and learning, and in too many schools and colleges the bad old days are back. With the threat of Ofsted inspections looming, some leaders, fearful of the inspectors, reinstate in-school accountability practices which work only to exhaust teachers, not to improve the quality of their teaching or their pupils’ learning.

So now we are seeing the re-emergence of lesson observations, and book scrutiny and curriculum audits. All of which are built on mistrust and all of which denigrate our members’ professionalism. What should be a collegiate conversation becomes dictation. And what gets diminished and destroyed in this? Teacher professionalism, autonomy and efficacy.

The OECD says that the essence of professionalism is informed choice and autonomy – the ability to use your experience and knowledge to make informed judgements.  Now, the stats I am going to use next are from the 2018 TALIS survey run by the OECD. I am afraid that there are no figures for Wales and Northern Ireland because those nations did not take part in TALIS. England has now pulled out of this international survey as well. We were opposed to this, but we think that the survey results were so worrying that the Government did not want any more bad news.

So, what does TALIS tell us? Well, the most startling and shocking finding is that England comes top of the OECD league table when it comes to teacher stress. 38% of teachers in England reported that they felt a lot of stress in their work – when the OECD average for teachers feeling a lot of stress is 18%, less than half the figure in England. 

That’s shocking, isn’t it? But I bet it’s what you already know from your own experience.

Now, teachers don’t mind working hard.  The profession already works the most unpaid overtime of any profession, with working weeks regularly exceeding 50 hours, and 55 hours for leaders.

But teachers do mind – they mind very much – being told what to do and spending hours and hours of wasted time filling in forms, inputting data and marking. Teachers in England also come top of the marking league table. Other countries are investing far more in other forms of assessment, in addition to marking. They are focusing on conversations between pupils and teachers which allow for much more detailed and focused feedback.

Nearly 40% of teachers in England feel that they do not have enough control over their practice and are not able to make professional decisions about the content of their lessons.  Across the OECD, 81% of teachers feel that they do have control of their practice. So, Conference, what is it that we are doing wrong in this country to make teachers feel so lacking in professional empowerment and judgement?

What are we doing in this country to make leaders feel so ground down? Why do they feel so strongly that the DfE is a hindrance rather than a help to their work? Why do they feel so unsupported by government despite their heroic efforts to educate children, to care for them, to run a test track and trace programme in their schools and colleges?

How is it that this government could have got this pandemic so badly wrong when it came to education? How is it that the DfE resorted to multiple versions of its guidance, leaving leaders desperately trying to decipher what had changed between one version and the next? As if they did not have enough to do as it was. 

Conference, we get wearily resigned to the incompetence of our government.  But international comparisons tell us something new. What they tell us is it doesn’t need to be like this. And in other high performing nations, it is not like this. Conference, it does not have to be this way.

Kevin Courtney

So we, the National Education Union, are going to try do something about it. We intend to use our new strength, our new technology, to fight for teacher professionalism and control. We are going to take the motion on workload, passed at this conference, and give our reps the tools to bargain for good work in schools and colleges, MATs and local authorities. Work that empowers teachers, educates their pupils, and raises standards of education.

We are going to take Motion 20, building the union in each education workplace, we are going to make it a reality so that the NEU is able to make a difference, as the motion directs us, to members’ daily working lives. And we are going to do this by supporting our reps nationally so that, in school after school, we negotiate on the professional issues which are at the centre of our members’ working lives – pedagogy, the curriculum, assessment, in-school accountability, and CPD.

And then, school by school, college by college, MAT by MAT, give our reps and members the confidence to assert their rights as professionals. Their right to good work. Their right to have their valuable time valued. Their right to be listened to as a professional. Their right to have their knowledge and experience respected. We’ll encourage them to share their experiences of winning steps, no matter how small, so that we turn the conversation. Yes, we can do something – we can make some ground.

And we will make this case nationally to Government and to employer bodies.

We will make it to parents and the public.

We will engage with every section and sector of our union to ensure this work is strengthened through the perspectives of leaders, support staff, college staff, supply members and across all our diverse equality strands. When we work together, we can achieve so much.

Now we aren’t looking for changes on teacher workload which transfer that workload to existing support staff who are already overworked and underpaid. Nor are we looking for changes which move workload up to school leaders. Instead, we want more funding for schools. And we want to arrange teacher workload the way other countries do – where teachers don’t have to spend so much time producing documents which evidences what they have done. 

And we will do this, not just for our members – although that is a very good thing to do – but for the children and young people they teach. Because they deserve teachers who are not exhausted. They deserve teachers who are able to stay in the profession, not leave in droves within five years. They deserve an education system which is not fatally undermined by teacher shortages and by experienced teachers leaving in despair, leaving a job they love, because they just cannot stand the stress anymore.

We will continue to campaign, as Motion 26 demands, on child poverty. And we will build on our hugely successful Help A Child to Learn campaign with the Daily Mirror, providing over £1m of stationery and learning aids to children who, when asked in their homes by their teacher on Zoom to get a pen and paper to write with, had neither in their house. We will launch a pledge for every politician to hold them to account for the action they take on child poverty.

We are going to continue to work towards a better, more inclusive education system: for disabled children through our work on SEND and mental health support, as motion 34 asks us, and for an education system that take on the challenge of race as motion 24 suggests.

We won’t be fazed by reports which say that racism doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter in our education system.

We say to Boris Johnson and the Government: it is true that black children often face two obstacles – one racism, the other poverty.

But far from using that to say racism doesn't matter, as the Sewell Report does, this truth should be a clarion call for you, Prime Minister, to act on both. But currently you are failing on both.

We will challenge sexism and gender stereotypes in schools, building on the ground-breaking work we have already done with our Sexism in Schools – It’s Just Everywhere report and our CPD materials.

Conference, yesterday you passed a motion calling for a moratorium on exclusions. We want to see root and branch reform of our education system and a huge reduction in exclusions, particularly a reduction in the exclusion of black boys who are six times more likely than their white peers to be excluded. This is a running sore in our education system and it needs to be healed.

Dr Mary Bousted

But Conference, we also believe that you do not intend that girls who have been raped in schools and colleges, girls who have been sexually harassed in schools and colleges, will be required to remain in a classroom or walk down a crowded corridor with the perpetrator of that rape or that sexual harassment. The NEU’s own report It’s Just Everywhere showed how routine is the sexual abuse and harassment of girls in schools and colleges. The Everyone’s Invited website, with thousands of testimonies from girls and young women, showed the shocking extent of sexual harassment and sexual violence perpetrated against girls in schools and colleges and universities. I have read the testimonies. They are heart-breaking and shaming.

And in those cases, and in cases where teachers and support staff are physically attacked whilst doing their job, we believe that the sanction of exclusion must still be available if that is the correct sanction to keep the victims safe. And to keep boys who are viciously bullied or attacked safe.

What is important, surely, is that no child or young person is ever excluded from education. If a school or a college ceases to be the best place for that young person, then the alternative provision provided for them must be excellent, must enable them to progress in their education and in their personal and social development, and must enable them to be reintegrated into mainstream education as soon as possible. Conference, that is the interpretation that we will use.

Conference, schools and colleges need to be better places for all our pupils. The NEU’s independent commission on assessment – looking at alternatives to the secondary-school route march through exams – will report later this year, and we will publicise the findings of this commission and be a leading player in the debate, which is raging now, about GCSE and A levels and their future. COVID has revealed to parents just how inappropriate is the national curriculum, which is not ‘powerful knowledge’ but a route march through rote learning.

It is notable that fundamental questions are now being asked, by so many, including the previous Conservative secretary of state for education Kenneth Baker, and by Tory MPs, about the curriculum and assessment. For example – what is the purpose of GCSEs when students remain in education and training until they are 18? Why do we put our young people through so many exams? What does this pressure do to their attitude to learning? Why don’t we plan for and prepare for skills development? The NEU commission on assessment is looking at all these key questions, and so are many other groups.

Conference, the National Education Union showed in a crisis just how powerful we are when we work together. If the NEU was not a household name before the pandemic, it is now. Just look at our reach. We increased our Facebook page from 50,000 to 150,000 followers this year and we now have the biggest social media presence of any union in the UK.

We can use that reach to make the case for education in so many other areas – building our campaign on funding, for the much-needed reform of primary school assessment, and an end to SATs and baseline tests.

And if there is one lie that has been nailed, it is this one – that schools and colleges are solely academic institutions with one purpose. Of course, the central purpose of schools and colleges is education – teaching and learning – but they  are so much more. And how much more, they have shown this year.

We will use this media reach to inform and educate. We will use it to give confidence to our members and to our reps. Confidence in the strength of the National Education Union. Confidence in our evidence-informed policies and campaign. Confidence in their ability to exercise their professional judgement.  Confidence that they have the right to make choices about the work that they do, work which should be empowering and fulfilling and energising. Confidence that it should be good work. Confidence that they have the right to have reasonable working hours which give them time for their family and friends, for resting and relaxation. Confidence that they have the right to be paid properly for the work they do.

And in supporting our members developing this confidence, our union will be built anew in each school and each college.

We, you, Conference, are the NEU. And there is power in the union.