From the teaching union conference halls...

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska & Pete Henshaw | Published:
Debate: Teachers voting during the NASUWT’s 2019 annual conference in Belfast (Image: Mark Hakansson/Mousetrap Media)

The two largest teaching unions in the UK – the NASUWT and the National Education Union – met for their annual conferences over Easter. Dorothy Lepkowska and Pete Henshaw report

NASUWT: Age discrimination

Teachers are calling for “urgent action” to tackle the age discrimination being faced by older colleagues in schools, with many being “hounded out of their jobs” because they are “too expensive”.

As the NASUWT met for its annual conference in Belfast last month, delegates once again raised concerns that schools are pressuring older teachers to take early retirement.

A motion debated by union members raised concerns about the “large numbers of experienced teachers leaving the profession”. It blamed “highly pressurised and stressful working environments” that are leading to burn-out and forcing many teachers into early retirement. This in turn leaves many facing financial hardship as a consequence of substantial actuarial reductions to their pensions.

Delegates have instructed the NASUWT to campaign with government and schools to prevent older teachers being “forced out of their jobs”.

The NASUWT has previously raised concerns that teachers aged over 50 are seen by some schools as “too expensive” and can find themselves facing capability procedures in a bid to push them out. Employing an NQT instead of an older teacher can save schools around £15,000 a year.

General secretary Chris Keates said “Instead of older teachers being valued and their contribution to the school appreciated they are facing grossly unfair and unacceptable treatment. All our evidence shows a catalogue of older teachers being disproportionately placed on capability procedures, denied access to CPD, subject to excessive observation and scrutiny, having pay awards and pay progression withheld and put under intense pressure to leave their job.

“We have even had examples of overt and blatant age discrimination, with teachers over 60 being asked outright by headteachers whether it wasn’t now time for them to think of doing something else.

“Inequality and discrimination is rife across schools and despite being confronted with irrefutable evidence ministers still fail to act. The skills, knowledge and expertise older teachers can contribute should be celebrated by employers, not shunned and devalued.”

Meanwhile, the NASUWT also published the findings of a survey of 2,000 members, with 80 per cent reporting that they have been bullied in the last 12 months.

Forms of bullying included being undermined (84 per cent of victims reported this), being ignored or ostracised (51 per cent), having work criticised in front of others (44 per cent), being threatened with capability (42 per cent), being shouted at (24 per cent), and verbal abuse (23 per cent).

The bullying was being done by senior leaders or line managers in a majority of the cases, although one in five incidents involved other teachers. Incidents reported ranged from being belittled in staff briefings to being ignored.

One respondent said: “Ostracism is such a subtle form of bullying that it is very difficult to highlight. This is the main form which I have experienced. Not being consulted, being ignored and over-ruled by non-teaching staff.”

National Education Union: Workload

An investigation is to be carried out into the number of secondary teachers being made to take lessons outside their specialism, amid concerns that the practice is common in schools and is hitting staff wellbeing and workload.

Teachers at the annual conference of the National Education Union (NEU), which took place in Liverpool last month, voted for the investigation as part of a motion on workload and pedagogy.

They have instructed the NEU to look into just how many teachers are affected by this practice and the variety of subjects they are being required to teach.

Peter Shreeve, an NEU member from the Isle of Wight, told the conference that although he was a linguist and German specialist, he had been instructed by senior leaders to teach subjects as diverse as computer studies, social and religious studies, and Mandarin – which he had to learn himself first before delivering lessons.

Dominic Coughlin, a NEU executive member, told the conference that the practice was “an unintended consequence of many teachers having to go part-time in order to do a full-time job”, and because of on-going teacher shortages in subjects such as maths, the sciences and languages.

The latest initial teacher training (ITT) figures for 2018/19 show that the government has failed to recruit enough secondary school teachers for the sixth year in a row. Indeed, a SecEd analysis of the missed ITT recruitment targets since 2016 showed shortfalls of more than 1,000 teachers in some subjects, with science, computing and maths hit hard. Mr Coughlin told SecEd that because of shortages and the fact that some teachers are unavailable to teach for the whole week, schools are relying on colleagues to cover lessons.

He explained: “This is causing disruption to teachers, who often have to move classrooms and are working outside their comfort zone, as well as to students, who don’t have a subject specialist and continuity of teacher for the same subject.”

It also means that some concepts which need to be taught at key stage 3 in order to prepare pupils for study at GCSE and beyond – a common necessity in subjects such as science or maths – were potentially not being delivered adequately.

The debate also heard testimonies from delegates who said that what they taught and how was being increasingly dictated by senior leaders, with staff no longer able to draw on their own expertise. Executive member Jessica Edwards said the vision for teaching and learning was no longer of multi-approach teaching to suit the needs of pupils, but for the teacher to act like a foreman on a production line.

The motion also called on the NEU to promote the importance of teacher autonomy in the classroom alongside its campaigns to tackle workload.

Dr Mary Bousted, NEU joint general secretary, said: “Appropriate professional autonomy, application of pedagogy, and use of their knowledge, skills and experience has been eroded by excessive national policy reform and an accountability system that drives bureaucratic evidencing of work rather than prioritising that which makes the biggest impact on teaching and learning.”

NASUWT: Funding

Teachers feel forced to dip into their own pockets to buy classroom resources and materials or even food, clothing and toiletries for pupils.

A survey of more than 4,300 teachers – published at the NASUWT’s annual conference – found that one in five buy lesson resources and equipment on a weekly basis, while two-thirds say they have bought paper or stationery.

It also revealed that in the last year, 45 per cent of the teachers say they have bought food, equipment, clothing or toiletries for pupils.

Examples include buying breakfast, paying for shoe repairs, buying stationery, supplying toothbrushes, underwear, spare trousers, spare coats, tissues and sanitary products. Half of the teachers also said they were forced to buy resources because of funding pressures on their school.

One respondent said: “Simple things like a class set of scissors, rulers, protractors, compasses, calculators are not available but are needed for my subject.”

The respondents also said that the amount they are spending to provide basics for pupils has increased in the last year. One said: “I work in a PRU. Many students are from low income families. They often come in hungry. We run a breakfast club and those on free school meals do get breakfast and lunch but there are those who are not FSM who are hungry or need deodorant etc. I have no idea how much I have spent on items.”

Another added: “There has been a rise in the number of Pupil Premium children without sanitary products. I am buying more basic equipment like pens because the school runs out and we have nothing to write with. I’ve always had supplies for those who don’t – I was brought up on benefits and I know what it’s like – however it used to be just one or two children in a class of 30. I now have five in a class of 20.”

NASUWT general secretary, Chris Keates, said: “Evidence shows that many teachers are facing financial hardship themselves as a result of year-on-year pay cuts, and yet faced with increasing child poverty some are shouldering further financial burdens to support their pupils. Teachers care deeply about the pupils they teach and will go to great lengths to ensure their needs are being met.”

National Education Union: Mental health

A sixth-former has described the stress and worry being experienced by today’s students.
Elizabeth Knappett, 17, the daughter of Kim Knappett – joint president of the National Education Union (NEU) – was speaking to delegates during a break-out session on mental health at the union’s annual conference.

Ms Knappett, who attends a school in south London, said teachers were piling the work onto students to try to meet the demands of the curriculum.

She told the NEU delegates: “The biggest stress of our lives is examinations. When I was doing GCSEs, I was scared if I didn’t get my grades then I wouldn’t get into the sixth form and my life would be over. Schools are not teaching us coping strategies.”

She said an inability by young people to cope with stress meant that these problems would be carried over into adulthood.

Her comments came ahead of the publication of the findings of an NEU survey on young people’s mental health. Involving more than 8,600 teachers, the study found that four in five had seen an increase in student mental health problems since 2017, with reports of children as young as nine-years-old talking about suicide.

One respondent said that their school had seen “three suicides in three years” and that there was “much more anxiety, self-harming”.

However, only half of the respondents said their school offered access to a school counsellor, and only 30 per cent offered external specialist support. When asked why, 57 per cent blamed funding cuts.

Meanwhile, in the conference hall, NEU members approved a motion tackling the problems caused to students’ mental health by the exam factory culture. It called on the NEU to put the welfare of students and teachers at the forefront of its work.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “Teachers at every stage of children and young people’s education have to be less concerned about the individual and more about hitting Ofsted and government ever-changing targets. The end result? Many stressed children, who see their value and the value of education only in terms of the level they have reached.”


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