Conference 2018: Attending for the first time
A lot of the conversation I hear about union membership is about insurance: if something goes wrong at school, then the union will be there for you. Accordingly, there is much discussion of how expensive union membership is, especially as you progress through your career. Certainly in my first couple of years' teaching, the union being there for me was important. Firstly, my newly-purchased, branded backpack went missing from my classroom, and my NUT insurance paid out its cost. Then I needed advice about an issue at school, and my local association supported me. Now, when my school is faced with closure, causing uncertainty and stress for children and staff, the NUT are supporting us. All proof that yes, the union is there when you need it.
However, over the last couple of years I've started taking a more active role too - becoming rep at my school, attending association meetings, and this year, for the first time, attending the national conference. All these firsts took a bit of getting used to, especially the procedures, which were quite alien to me: proposing a motion, seconding a motion, amending a motion, voting on whether to proceed to a vote, voting, voting on whether to listen to further amendments or vote on the main question, etc etc. I had no idea what to expect, and very often didn't have a clue what was going on! However, more experienced colleagues continuously supported me and answered my many questions. I got the hang of it in the end, and was even shouting out to move to vote by the last day!
Over the five days of conference, I listened to a large number of teachers speak with passion on a wide range of different issues. I found motions surrounding the role of young teachers (those under 35) in the union particularly resonant for two reasons. Firstly, young teachers now make up over a third of our union, and are very much its future. Secondly, because over a quarter of teachers leave the profession within the first five years, it is imperative that we support and nurture our younger members (and older career-changers - like me!).
Members from Portsmouth related how they felt empowered after attending a young teachers' conference in their region, with another young teacher explaining how a similar conference in her region gave her the support and union family to remain within the profession. Perhaps now is the time to remind all young teachers that the next conference is 22-24th June, and our association can support you (financially) to attend. Contact Minaz for more information.
It can't have escaped your notice that support for children with SEND is harder to come by, and with cuts to SEND provision within the City Council looming, I suspect it will only get worse. One thing highlighted again and again was that children with SEND are more likely to be excluded, and it seems that academy chains do this more than community schools in order to raise their ratings. In my opinion it is outrageous that academies should be (de)selecting pupils in such a way, especially when they are the most vulnerable in our society, and therefore in need of the most support. There were fervent demands for increased funding for children with SEND, both within mainstream schooling and in special needs schools. One issue I had not previously considered was changing facilities for children with disabilities in public places. I'm sure breast-feeding mums soon create a mental map of places to feed and change their babies, but the needs of parents with older, disabled children had not crossed my mind. You can find more information on this vital campaign at changing-places.org.
There were so many passionate debates that I can't write about them all, and I haven't even mentioned the sections supporting disabled teachers, BME teachers, LGBT+ teachers, or fringe meetings in solidarity with Palestine, or Cuba, among many others! But as I voted on motions to decide the future course the union would take, I fully realised that union membership is about us. All of us. Yes, the union will help us when we're in a fix, but it's also up to us to decide what to campaign on and how, and what to prioritise: what affects our colleagues and children most. As Kate Taylor, winner of the Rep of the Year Award, said,
Every child deserves someone to fight for them, from their heart.
So perhaps we need to change the conversation. Is it about what our union can do for us, or should it be about what we want our union to do for us? I would say answers on the back of a postcard please, but why don't you come and tell us in person at our next association meeting? Put it in your diary - 18th April!