Educate, agitate, organise - the need for young NEU activists

I orginally wrote this article for the Morning Star newspaper, to appear in their special issue coinciding with this year’s NEU (NUT Section) Annual Conference. It appeared in the newspaper on Friday, 2018-03-30, and can be found online at the link below.

Original article

The formation of the National Education Union is a historic opportunity to expand education trade unionism, writes PHIL YEELES

TWO years ago, I made a speech at the NUT annual conference, highlighting the need for the union to increase recruitment of young teacher activists.

Two years on, the need remains just as urgent, if not more so, as education in Britain continues to face crisis after crisis, from cuts to funding, to the creeping threat of privatisation, to the undermining of the philosophical foundations of public education.

Both the Southend and Sutton Associations will be presenting motions promoting recruitment of young teachers at this year’s annual conference. This article will summarise many of the issues raised, coupled with wider issues around union engagement.

Young teachers - in NUT parlance, that is members under 35 years of age - make up 33 per cent of the membership of the NUT Section of the National Education Union. Yet the average age of a union officer is 53, as of November 2017.

That is not to say that the union has not supported young teachers well in the past, having established several representative bodies within the union, but the time is ripe to push forward and specifically target young teachers to encourage them toward officer roles.

As a proudly lay-led union, it is absolutely vital that those who constitute the future of teaching take on leadership responsibilities.

This is, however, part of a wider problem with activist recruitment across teacher trade unions.

As the nature of teacher training changes, it has become more difficult for unions to make “first contact” with new teachers.

Last year, over half of newly qualified teachers undertook training other than through universities, largely severing the traditional route through which trade unions have been able to recruit new and student teachers.

As the Sutton Association notes in its motion, the average union recruitment of PGCE students is 95 per cent, whereas it falls to just 50 per cent among School Direct trainees.

This places a heavy responsibility upon workplace representatives, who must make the case for union membership directly, often to an audience for whom the trade union movement is entirely unfamiliar, and who may well be hostile to trade unionism, given its consistently negative depiction in the mainstream media.

This is compounded by the fact that not every school has a union representative; in my own area, Cambridgeshire, we have a significant proportion of schools with no union rep, and therefore no simple route through which to recruit new teachers.

This is detrimental to the entire profession, as trade union effectiveness is predicated upon worker engagement. Difficulty in recruiting members means difficulty in making gains for all teachers, including non-members.

But it’s not quite all doom and gloom. The formation of the National Education Union is a historic opportunity to expand education trade unionism, and one which the NUT has called for for some years.

Unity is strength, as they say, and the incorporation of the ATL and the NUT into a new education union can only help the cause.

The inclusion of teaching assistants and other education staff is also significant; after all, we are all on the same side. With more members, and more resources, the National Education Union will be able to expand recruitment in the coming years.

In an environment where teacher retention is, frankly, alarming (with 45 per cent of respondents to a recent union survey of young teachers saying that they were intending to leave the profession within five years) this will be essential in improving the lot of teachers and, by extension, pupils.

So here is a call to action: get involved and build your union. If you are a young teacher, you are the future of the union and of the profession, and future gains will only come with passionate activists willing to work for the benefit of teachers, schools and, crucially, children. Become a rep. Join your local committee. Become an officer. Get involved in local campaigns. Spread the word about the union to new teachers within your school. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat: remember that we’re all in it for the betterment of education, of our working conditions, and of our pupils’ learning conditions. If we don’t do it for ourselves, it won’t happen.

Phil Yeeles is a primary school teacher in Cambridge, and president of the Cambridgeshire Association of the National Education Union (NUT Section). His blog can be found at

Phil's blog