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Living on a Prayer. Why unions remain important

We live in uncertain times. A job for life, clear division of class, sexuality, ethnicity & religion are constantly being blurred. But your rights as a worker will always be valued. If you allow them to be that is.

“She we’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got, It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not, We’ve got each other…” the famous lyrics from Jon Bon Jovi summed up the purpose of union membership so perfectly.

It’s 2019 not 79

Unions? We’ve heard, often through right-wing media outlets how they can obstruct employers & be awkward to deal with. Unions have lost significant powers over the past 50 years or so. I won’t attempt to go through workers rights, taking it back to my discovery of the Luddites back in a Year 9 History lesson. But neo-liberal economic policies have essentially meant the ‘market’, this big illustrious & monolithic phenomena dictates worker rights, pay & treatment. The discontent of the 70s and Thatcherite politics has contributed to this fall of union power. Unions are available in most public sector employment but I want to focus on education.

Unions have often been seen as the ‘enemy’ to employers. Yet with so much uncertainty, this enemy may end up being a key ally.

I’m paying £15 a month for what?’

Union members does come at a financial cost. What may seem like a meagre £15 a month, over a year or 10 years, it can add up. Then you’re left wondering ‘why am I in a union when I’ve never actually required their help’. This is totally understandable. It may seem like an expensive ‘insurance policy’ as such if something happens.

We all need a hand. Time to time things can change, situations can change. If anything, union membership really can come at a time of crisis for many of us. It’s sad that we need third parties to help us with our rights as workers but that’s the nature of ever changing world we live in. The ‘blame culture’, or ‘toxic schools’ or ‘shotgun accountability’ within education, perhaps we need unions more than ever?

Sophie’s Story: A true story.

After 20 years of teaching, I completed the natural trajectory of a teacher. TA, Teacher, HOD, Faculty Lead & now Deputy. I never once had any issues. My colleagues were lovely, I worked in a ‘Good’ rated school and I loved my job.

The summer results had come in and they were very uncharacteristically poor. Our school had always been around national average and it was my role to make sure school data was both accurate & reliable. Results were skewed & I was asked to meet the Head. Within weeks of the next term, I was put under immeasurable pressure to resign my post. I’ve been doing that job & well for almost 5 years. Our Year 11s weren’t great. We struggled to permanently exclude almost 30 of them, many of our target grades were heavily inflated due to inaccurate KS2 data. No excuses, the kids did badly.

I was asked to come to meetings virtually every lunch time. There were consistent conversations about my “future” & my job became available on TES! They were pushing me out. I was asked to do duties everyday after school, prevented from overseeing data entry, barred from SLT meetings, accused of lying about the illness of my Mother & I was given teaching responsibilities in Science. I’m competent with Science but being an Art teacher, I was teaching GCSE Science to bottom sets & it was difficult. I was out my depth.

My health began to suffer. I was losing weight, constantly tired & always emotional. My husband begged me not to go into work but I’m proud of achievement and stubbornly, I managed to get to February. That’s when it got too much. I was asked by various members of SLT to explain why I had missed a duty (I was showing an NQT around the school) and I was asked to “have my head examined”. So I did something I’ve never done before. I contacted my Union. Two decades of union membership fees and I thought “it would never be me”, I picked up the phone.

The union made me an action plan which first and foremost put my health & wellbeing at the very pinnacle. I was signed off & able to present the union a full documented account of what had happened. The bullying, the pressure and mistreatment. Within weeks, the School and I, through union mediation were able to negotiate a settlement. Long story short, I was was allowed to leave my role, gain compensation, also a formal apology from the Head & I’ve now re-established myself at a new school. But without the union being my broker, I think I would be on serious disarray. All my solicitor costs were covered through my union membership too.

Why join?

It’s sad to say, but this £15 a month insurance policy may be your saviour at any given time. The educational environment is high octane and challenging because the climate in education is also the same. A former colleague of mine once was accused of assaulting a students & was suspended by the school. There was no evidence of an assault. The poor guy simply asked a group of lads to leave the school library. The assault allegation was so severe that his career was on the line. The union were called, all evidence was presented & they found the student had confused him for a fellow pupil. This students embarrassment in front of his peers meant he HAD to get payback. What could have been a dismissal after a gung-ho suspension with little or no basis, actually resulted in this colleague receiving a letter of apology from the students. Yes, I know, no justice but in the grand scheme of things, career first.

The purpose of union membership:

• Gaining legal advice – this could be the result of an allegation, redundancy, dismissal, discrimination of any kind. This list is actually endless here. But unions will offer legal support, often even on the phone. As a teacher, you have little time to go through the infinite archives of legal documents. The union can support you through this & have done on millions of occasions. They are the experts, use their resources! It’s what your membership goes towards!

• Financial Assistance – again, most unions will have specialist financial advisors. They can offer support with day to day financial issues, make sure you’re not being taxed too much, that your performance related pay matches your pay scale position and many more. I once contacted the union to gain support with mortgage repayments & their advisors were fantastic in signposting me to the correct procedures & personnel.

• Compensation – imagine you have an work-related injury or you’re dismissed unlawfully. Schools & in particular modern day academies tend to exist in their own policy vacuums. They make the rules & you follow them. Whereas in the past, your council would have greater regulatory power of schools. Despite this, employment laws on ALL areas need to be respected. You may not even realise you’ve been discriminated against or if you’re entitled to compensation. Calling your union for advice wouldn’t harm anyone at all. Unions have helped teachers get something along the lines of £16million in compensation & settlements in 2018. It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle. Everyone deserves to be treated fairly & when they are not, someone has to be accountable.

Unions also offer support to NQTs, specific support for teachers on maternity/paternity leave, help for supply teachers, they offer wellbeing services & support with mental health. Unions even offer free CPD. The services are very much unlimited & when you’re swamped with your endless workloads, the union can really be a life saver.

In Summary

I’m not going to suggest that education unions aren’t without their controversies. Nor will I say that we have the greatest unions in the world in terms of bargaining power. But we do have workers rights here in the UK which need protecting.

I think what the basic premise of joining a union, it’s perhaps a sad one, it’s “it could be you”. Bad/toxic practices, bullying, prejudice, sexism, racism, homophobia, injuries, financial issues or contractual disputes. None of these discriminate. It could be you. Whether you’re a Cleaner, TA, Administrator, Librarian, Trainee, NQT, RQT, HOD, Faculty Lead, Deputy, Head, Advisor, Governor, Consultant, Academic, Researcher, Lecturer or have any position in education, having professional representation, albeit zapping some loose change from your salary, it’s absolutely imperative.

Falling foul of bad practices or bad situations doesn’t mean you should fall at all. Get up, stand up, organise, unionise and protect yourself.

The National Education Union –

National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) –

Association of School & College Leaders –


Thank you for reading,

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @shuaibkhan26

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