Joint General Secretaries’ speech

Speech to National Education Union Annual Conference, Liverpool

Kevin Courtney

President, conference,

The last four days have been extremely important, with significant announcements by Layla Moran and Jeremy Corbyn.

We created our new union because we wanted to shape a better future for education.

  • A better future for our pupils.
  • A better future for the teachers and support staff who serve them.

And we are seeing our efforts beginning to bear fruit.

Our new union has already won significant political space and standing in the education debate.

You can see that standing in the level of very positive press coverage.

That press coverage focussed on the issues that matter, that matter to parents and children as well as to staff:

  • on child poverty,
  • on SEND cuts,
  • on young people’s mental health,
  • on how we best assess children’s learning

On teacher workload and much else, our conference, our press releases, your speeches spoke up for what’s right.

You can also see our Union’s standing in the level of engagement we have had with political parties.

Now, we engage with all respectable political parties.

In the weeks before conference I addressed a meeting of the Conservative Education Society in the House of Lords. And there was a positive hearing for our policies and ideas even there. In fact, some of those teachers were clear to me that on most educational issues they agreed more with the National Education Union than with their own party in Government.

We will be visiting the Green Party spring conference next month – and I hope you know that when we heard Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah on Wednesday, we were hearing a Green Party candidate.

We work with the Lib Dem’s and I’ve been very pleased to have been invited to take part in the policy commission set up by Layla Moran, again using our insights and policies to contribute to its deliberations.

And we have also been so very pleased to work with Labour on the development of their policies for the National Education Service.

Conference, I don’t know how long it has been since an education union got a visit not just from the Leader of the Opposition, but also the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, and the Shadow Schools Minister.

Their presence is a tribute to your work, for our children and on our Union’s campaigns.

Mary and I will return to the significance of Layla and Jeremy’s announcements later.

But let me say you can see some part of how we have won this political space and this standing in education in the fantastic video of our members which we saw on Monday morning.

Those members and activists are fantastic ambassadors for education and our union. They are just a sample of our brilliant members.

Clearly committed, and concerned for their students, concerned for their profession, proud of their union, working for positive change.

So please join me in thanking: Tim Clamp, Maryam Asaria, Harriet Adams, Thomas Kirkwood, Maggie Browning, Alex Boyce, Ellie Sharp, Lucy Williams, Laurence Rose and Satwant Bhambra.

Now I think, with that press coverage, with those political announcements, with you our members we have had a great first conference for our great new union – and we should all be very proud to say, as does our back drop

“We are the NEU - join us”.

We have had fantastic, passionate, usually respectful debate at our conference.

We have heard some quite horrifying stories from our schools and colleges. But we have also heard about our members finding joy in the classes as Michael Holland told us, looking after Peter Pan’s shadow.

We see the potential for a life-affirming educational experience in every classroom and that is the future we are aiming for. But our teachers and support staff and their pupils also face real, very deep difficulties.

Difficulties that we are confronting together.

And how important that teachers and support staff have a strong union when they face them.

The action our members are taking up and down the country is so important.

I’ve been privileged recently to be invited to some of the many campaigns our members are undertaking. So, I want to say huge congratulations to the teachers and other staff at

Southfield primary in Ealing – who’ve resisted academisation, following a 100% yes vote on a 100% turnout in an action ballot.

To the members at William Torbitt school in Redbridge who have also fought off academisation, with huge parental support and the support of their local MP and councillors.

To the members at Bradfield School in Sheffield who struck against compulsory redundancies and who built a simply huge meeting of parents, which is making a real difference.

To the members at Barclay School in Stevenage, who despite a huge campaign couldn’t quite turn aside Lord Nash’s takeover of their school, which has subsequently led to the departure of their much respected and loved headteacher, but where they are still standing proud and organising in the Future Academies Trust.

To the members at Shrewsbury Sixth Form College taking action over graded lesson observations that even Ofsted have turned away from.

Of course, these are only a small sample of the local successes we have, and we need to treasure all our successes. Mostly in these disputes we win before action. But the union is always there ready to stand behind members if action is needed.

And it’s very important for our overall strategy to know that in almost all cases there is huge parental support for these teacher and support staff members

And our members are seeking other ways to organise themselves. Our members are setting up networks - Black educators, Women’s networks, LGBT+ , Young Educators, Supply teachers, Support staff networks and many others up and running…

And these groups are having some real successes. Women’s Networks have organised conferences and workshops around our “Sexism - It’s Just Everywhere” report. Our supply teachers in Wales have made a real advance this year – nothing like as much as we want – but still a real step forward and directly growing out of the work of the supply network.

Now, I want to turn to some important steps in our campaigns to shape the future of education.

Our funding campaign is going from strength to strength. School and college funding is an issue that will not go away – and I want to thank everyone who has helped build parental engagement this year. No politician can ignore the fact that three quarters of a million people changed their vote in the last General Election because of school funding.

And so, we will want to encourage parental campaigning in the run up to the local elections, and to ramp it even more than that if there is a General Election

And our other work is keeping it at the top of the political agenda.

For example, we got huge coverage recently for our councillors’ letter to Damian Hinds. And in that regard I want to thank our members Jumbo Chan and Maggie Browning, who as well as being full-time class teachers are also local councillors and are leading our new NEU Councillors’ Network – which created that success.

As I’ve already mentioned we got a huge story on SEND funding this week arising from NEU research. We’ve had other coverage over petition hand-ins, etc. I want to thank the staff who did that research and all of you who are engaging with parents of children with SEND. If there’s anything you can do to support the SEND national crisis in their demonstrations over half-term please do so. I’m very pleased to have been invited to speak to the London demo.

And I want to wish all good luck to our sixth form college members beginning a ballot for strike action over the disgraceful levels of funding for 16-19-year-olds.

But what I’m going to reveal today about class sizes will be something we will come back to time and again in our funding work – because we are about to see a significant increase in the number of secondary school children in super-sized classes. And my prediction is that this will enrage parents.

The Government can keep repeating its lines about more funding than ever before – but what’s happening to class sizes will give the lie to that.

I’ve got four slides I want to show you and the press. Four slides that I think Damian Hinds should respond to.

KC speech slide 1

This graph shows the trends in pupil population. Primary pupils are the top line, secondary pupils the line under that. That secondary line is showing a significant increase in the number of secondary pupils, as the bulge in primary passes through. It may not look huge, but the scale on the left is in millions. That’s a big increase. Now, our Government should be prepared for this because these children were born 11 years ago. The Government has had time to prepare

KC speech slide 2

This second slide shows the long run trends in average class sizes. Again, primary on the top, they’ve historically had bigger classes – much bigger than in other European countries. Look to the middle of the graph you can see the peak in 1997. A peak caused by the last big squeeze on education funding. And a fall which came after it due to a change of government and a change of priorities. Remember that in 1997 Labour said that’s its manifesto was Education, Education, Education.

But look to the right of the lower line, the secondary line. Look at that sharp increase in secondary class sizes. We are forecasting that we are about to pass a 40 year high in secondary class sizes. Now remember these are average class sizes. And when these large-scale averages go up, if they aren’t planned for they can have even bigger consequences on peak class sizes.

KC speech slide3

So, this third slide shows the number of super-size classes of 31+. Again, you can see the peak in the numbers at the end of the Conservative Government in 1997 and you can see the effect of increased funding and the cap on infant class sizes which followed it.

But look at the bottom line, Conference.

Astonishingly, we are about to see the number of secondary children in classes of 31 and above is about to pass the number in primary schools.

And bear in mind the number of secondary teachers teaching outside the subject they trained for.

Conference, this represents a real problem in our schools, a real problem for our members as well as their pupils, a real problem this Government has seen coming for 11 years. A real problem it hasn’t dealt with.

KC speech slide 4

My fourth slide explains why. It shows the long run of the proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on education. It goes up and down, usually with a change of government. And you can see the sharp decline since 2010.

Now this is state education as a whole - schools and universities, but not independent schools – unlike some of the figures that the Government sometimes produces.

And this graph shows the share of GDP spent on education is down to practically where it was in 1960.

So just think back to what schools and universities were like in 1960.

Young people left school at 15, not 18. Tiny numbers went to university.

This decline in the share of GDP spent on education must be reversed.

Education must become an investment again.

And we are persuading others of this. Tory MPs afraid either of elections, or more charitably of the real effects these cuts are having, are starting to speak out.  Even Esther McVey staged a Westminster Hall debate on school funding in her constituency.

And in another sign of trouble for this Government, we are working increasingly closely with the f40 group of local authorities, a cross-party group, but with a large number of conservative run authorities in membership, and we are working well together.

We are jointly promoting the rally on June 22.

The f40 group prompted our councillors network letter.

Conservative councillors will speak at the rally on June 22.

Conference, this presents a real problem for the Government.

And the work all of us in this new union are doing can keep education spending at the top of the political agenda, for long enough that this Government is going to have to invest or to face the electoral consequences. Please do everything you can to build this funding campaign.

Conference, you have made other important decisions this week. You voted that we, all of us, will conduct an indicative ballot over pay in the Autumn and you have voted that we will organise a ballot of all primary members over high-stakes testing, with the indicative ballot opening in the next few weeks.

We will do all we can to learn from the indicative ballot last year and do better.

This is a challenge to all of us.

What we know fundamentally is that schools with reps got better turnouts than those without, and those with trained reps got better turnouts than those with untrained reps

We know that you mobilising your reps, having good meetings of reps locally, really matters.

So this will be major work for all of us in the summer and the autumn, alongside what we do on workload, forced academisation, and the baseline.

Now, meetings of reps on one issue can discuss other issues to. So please do get those reps meetings organised for the week before half term.

Because we know funding really matters in our schools.

But we know so much else matters too.

Our education system needs deep reform. It has been going wrong since 1988. That’s why we are so pleased by the political announcements we have heard this week.

When Layla Moran says she would remove Ofsted and SATs and the baseline you can see our campaign to Shape the Future of Education is really taking shape.

When Jeremy Corbyn announces that the Labour Party will remove SATs, baseline and phonics tests from our education system, he lifts the spirits of every teacher.

And in that battle our new union is going to make a real difference, so that is why I’m now going to hand over to my friend and joint General Secretary, Mary Bousted.

But conference, just before that let me say this:

Viva ATL

Viva NUT

Viva NEU

Unity is Strength.

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary

Travel, they say, broadens the mind. I have been doing a little of that recently, representing the NEU at the International Summit for the Teaching Profession in Helsinki.

It’s a unique summit – now in its 10th year. Education ministers are not allowed to attend without a trade union leader.

So, for the past few years Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, and I, have sat side by side, with education ministers and trade union leaders from 25 OECD countries, discussing our respective education systems.

Would it surprise you, Conference, if I said that Nick and I have not agreed about much?

Indeed, we have strongly disagreed many, many times.

Nick believes that competition between schools raises school standards. He keeps believing this despite all the evidence to the contrary.

What we know is that it is cooperation and collaboration, between education professionals, which improves education.

Nick Gibb could not come to this year’s summit in Finland because of pressing matters in the House of Parliament.

It is a pity that he could not make it because he would have learned a lot.

Olli Pekka-Heinonen, Director General of the Finnish National Education Agency, spoke about the Finnish education system and gave his views about why his country consistently tops the PISA international league tables.

He used one word repeatedly – and that word is ‘trust’.  He said ‘We trust each other. We trust our institutions. Parents trust schools.’

‘Where you give trust’, he said, ‘you get back trust.’

What a powerful statement of truth.  And how sad it made me feel when I heard it. Because it made me think about our education system and our members working in it.

Our system is built on a lack of trust.

Conference, that is why it was so amazing to hear Jeremy Corbyn say to us, all of us in this hall, that Labour trusts teachers and support staff.  Let me repeat his words.

He said: ‘You are the professionals. You know your job. You know your students.’

It was amazing to hear this because it is so far from where we are now, under this government.

Under this government our members are under constant surveillance.  They are obsessively monitored.

They are policed by an inspection agency, Ofsted, which lives up to the intention of its founding Chief Inspector, Chris Woodhead, who wanted Ofsted to be a ‘weapon of fear and terror’ to teachers.

Too many of our schools are driven by fear.

Too many of our schools are dogged by data – much of it inaccurate and useless – in that it gives no useful information beyond what teachers already know.

Data which stacks the odds unfairly against schools doing the hardest work.

Schools serving poor children, living in deprived areas of the country, whose teachers and leaders are routinely shamed by negative Ofsted judgements which utterly fail to recognise just how much difference their work has made to the poorest pupils’ lives.

Judgements which fail to recognise that these schools are increasingly, as austerity continues and bites deeper, the only functioning institution in the locality – providing food and clothes to children whose parents can’t afford these basics.

Let us be clear, Conference. It is our dysfunctional and toxic school accountability system which is poisoning our schools, the education professionals working in schools, and our children.

And at the centre of this dysfunctional and toxic school accountability system is Ofsted.

Ofsted, more than anything else, creates mistrust in our schools. It creates divisions between leaders and teachers.

Ofsted drives teachers and school leaders from the profession.

Did you know that one in three school leaders leave their posts within three years of being appointed?

And schools in deprived areas find it almost impossible to appoint leaders because the risk of the ever threatening, career ending, negative Ofsted judgement is with them constantly.

So, in too many schools, teachers and leaders struggle not only with the demands of the job – and teaching is a highly demanding job – they struggle also with constant instability as colleagues come and go, trying to do their best. Knowing that their best will never be judged good enough and that, however hard they work, late into the evenings on weekdays and at weekend, it will never be enough.

Teachers in the UK teach about the average number of hours in the classroom.

Where the excessive work really kicks in, is in the out-of-classroom work they do which takes twice as much time as their teaching timetable.

This is not work done to improve teaching and learning.

It is not work done to help teachers think more deeply about the curriculum, about their pupils, about their learning and how to assess it.

It is work done for someone else so that they have proof that teachers are doing their job.

It is work which makes teachers feel that they have no professional agency, no professional autonomy.

It treats teachers as children.

Professional adults don’t like to be treated as children.

Teachers have not studied for at least four years at graduate level to be treated like children. They have other choices they can make, skills that they can utilise in other work, and so they leave, in droves.

Contrast the condition of teachers in England with teachers in Finland. Far from being unable to meet its teacher training targets, as England has been unable to do for the past five years, the hardest profession to enter in Finland is primary school teaching.

Which shows that making teaching an attractive profession, and keeping teachers in the profession, is possible if you create the right conditions for the profession to flourish.

Conference, Finland understands this truth.  Finland abolished school inspections in 1991.

And yet Finland consistently comes in the top three education systems in international comparisons and has done so for decades.

Closer to home, in Northern Ireland, NEU members have refused the inspectorate access to their classrooms for over three years. When the inspector walks into a classroom, students are told to open a text book placed on their desk and to commence silent reading. Inspectors in Northern Ireland have been able, only, to form judgements on the school’s safeguarding procedures.

But conference, there has been no decline in educational standards in Northern Ireland.

Parents have not been demanding that inspections resume.  They have trusted their teachers.

When Kevin and I made a recent visit to Northern Ireland, NEU teacher members told us that they had regained their sense of pride in their work, based on their professional agency – their choice to focus on what is important to improve their teaching and their pupils’ learning.

I salute our NEU members in Northern Ireland for their brave action in keeping the inspectorate out of their schools.

And that is why, conference, that is why Ofsted has to go. Ofsted must be abolished.

The Greens and the Liberals have pledged to abolish Ofsted. We want Labour to make that pledge too and put it in its manifesto.

And when we say Ofsted has to go, because it does its work so badly, we are not saying that schools should not be accountable to their pupils, to their parents, to the public, to their local communities and to the nation.

Schools must be held accountable, but in ways which are proportionate, focused and intelligent.

Schools must be held accountable in ways which build teacher and school leader professionalism and keep them in the profession.

Because no education system can succeed when it burns teachers and leaders up, and then throws them out.

And there is another demonstration of trust in the Finnish system which Olli-Pekka Heinonen talked about.  He talked not only about trusting schools and trusting teachers, he talked about trusting pupils too.  He said: ‘We don’t want to be testing them all the time. We want them to support their own learning. Where you give trust you also get back trust.’

Conference, you made a momentous decision on Monday to ballot the members to boycott SATs.

As I said to you yesterday – decisions made in the conference hall now need to be made real in the 20,925 primary schools in England where NEU members work. They will need to understand why we have voted to ballot to boycott SATs and they will need to be brought along with us.

So, Conference, when we leave this hall, we must understand that our work is just beginning. We know that the most effective way to bring people to your point of view is to talk to them, face to face.  So, we need to have a massively big conversation about why SATs are so damaging to our children. And you will all need to commit to being involved in that conversation in all the primary schools in your branches.

It is an enormous task. But we are many. Together we can achieve great things.

But our desire to reform our education system must not stop at primary education. Our ambitions must be wider.  As Madeleine Holt said yesterday, we must reform secondary education as well.

Because, in secondary education in the UK, we are topping the international league tables in the wrong ways, doing the wrong things.

Do you know, the UK is a complete outlier when it comes to the secondary curriculum and its assessment.

And we, in England, are hurtling forwards to a rosy past where academic subjects are all that matters, really.

Where there is an implicit belief that it is good for children and young people to fail throughout their school life – with a sense that this is, somehow, ‘good for their character’.

We know that the secondary school curriculum is narrowing, as schools face impossible funding decisions, so art, and music, and drama, and design technology, and so much more is lost from the curriculum.

We know that GCSEs and A levels are too packed with content so that, in covering everything, too much is skimmed over, without the time to really foster, in our pupils, a deep understanding of what they are learning.

We know that the return to timed, linear exams at GCSE and A-Level leaves pupils suffering under a welter of practice papers and mock exams. Do you remember the promise made by Michael Gove that taking away coursework and practical learning would lead to more teaching time? Well, that hasn’t happened has it?

We know that students in secondary schools are spending their time in lessons writing – and that speaking and listening, making and doing is becoming too much of a rarity.

But did you know that we are doing this, just at the same time as other high performing education nations are deciding to take a different path.

Countries like Singapore which has acknowledged that decades of didactic teaching towards high-stakes exams has resulted in high levels of student stress and unhappiness.

With students who are compliant and complicit, with high levels of academic achievement, but who leave schools without the essential skills they need in their adult lives in the 21st century.

So, in Singapore, there is a new education goal – to develop the whole person and to promote the personal attributes of self-awareness, self-management, self-assessment and responsible decision-making.

And Singapore is not alone in refocusing the goals of its education system beyond narrow academic curricula and high-stakes testing.

So too are New Zealand, Japan, Estonia, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Ontario.

Applied knowledge. Interdisciplinary knowledge. Skills development. This is where successful education systems are heading.

And where does this leave us in the United Kingdom?

Well, we are top of the memorisation table, coming only behind Uruguay and Ireland for rote learning.

And the problem with this? Well, as the OECD international evidence base proves, rote learning is fine for simple, basic knowledge, but becomes less and less effective as a teaching strategy the more complex and high level the learning needs to be.

Conference, we must reform our secondary education system so that we do not top the international league table of rote learning.

We must recreate it so that our students are expert orators, highly skilled in their reasoning abilities, their creative abilities, their willingness to cooperate and collaborate with one another and to work well together.

These are the skills that employers say they want and need. And these are the skills which are needed for successful lives in a century where there will be few, if any, jobs for life because technology is moving so rapidly and in ways we can barely envisage.

So, Conference, we are nothing if not ambitious. We want radical reform of our education system. We want good work for all NEU members, for support staff, for teachers, for lecturers and for leaders. We want to be treated as professionals. We want to be trusted. Give us trust, hold us properly accountable, and see how we, and our pupils, will fly.

We have such talent in the NEU and such dedicated activists. Emma Parker from Durham who, last year, organised a national conference on SEND attended by over 300 delegates. And she is doing it again this year.

And Jess Edwards, who only last month organised a ‘Celebrating Education’ conference where teachers, support staff, leaders, got together to talk about the real issues that matter to them – over 500 delegates, working all Saturday to improve the lives and the learning of their pupils.

I salute Jess and Emma. I salute all NEU members – support staff, teachers, lecturers and leaders, who work in schools and colleges throughout the UK, and who really make a difference to children and young people’s lives. Away from the sound and fury. In their schools and classrooms day in and day out. Doing the job. Doing the best they can.

I salute all of you. I believe that the NEU will do great things.

And, with my friend Kevin, together as Joint General Secretaries, we are proud to serve you.