Sandals In Harrogate
- April 25, 2011
As usual I’ve spent the Easter weekend at the National Union of Teachers conference in Harrogate, where my partner is a delegate. There’s always a striking disconnect between what happens at these annual conferences and the way they are reported in the UK media. As an occasional conference observer and an attendee at fringe meetings, I see teachers who are passionately committed to the principle of state education and to the children they teach, many of whom deal daily with a multitude of astonishingly difficult problems stemming from an underfunded education system in a dysfunctional society.
In the British press a very different picture emerges. As the most leftist of the teaching trade unions, the NUT tends to receive the most consistent and vitriolic attacks by the British press and governments – whether Labour or Conservative. These attacks reach a ritualistic peak of outrage during the union’s Easter conferences, when politicians and journalists, many of whom have never been anywhere near a classroom since they left school, work themselves up into a lather of moral indignation at the damage that NUT ‘nutters’ and ‘ideologues’ are supposing doing to the nation’s children.
This year has been no exception. This is the first NUT conference since the Coalition came to power and the union’s overwhelmingly- approved decision to ballot its members on a one-day strike in protest at the government’s pension reforms has met with predictable outrage from the rightwing press. Thus the Sunday Telegraph warns ‘ Schools chaos warning as NUT threaten pensions strike.’ The News of the World, lying through its corporate teeth as usual, reports that ‘furious ministers warned the action would unsettle 900,000 teenagers sitting exams’ – even though the one-day strike is due to take place on June 30, after most exams are finished.
British teenagers are likely to be a lot more unsettled by the debts they will now have to repay as a result of the rise in tuition fees – not to mention the potential absence of teachers that may result from the government’s pension reforms. According to an NUT survey, nearly 72 percent of teachers aged between 30 to 50 may quit the profession to avoid having to pay higher contributions or work for longer.
The NUT is not the only teaching union to have taken this prospect badly. In normal times it would be easier to imagine Kings College Choir mugging old aged pensioners in the street than a call for industrial action from the staid and resolutely un-radical Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). In 1979 the ATL reached its militant highwatermark, when its members voted to leave the classroom 15 minutes early and sit in the staffroom.
But these are not normal times. The government plans to slash £81 billion from the national budget over the next five years, in order to pay public debts that are largely due to the £1.5 trillion paid out to repay the banks for their incompetence and dodgy practices. This gross injustice cannot be concealed by divisive tabloidspeak about ‘gold plated’ public sector pensions. And so last week the ATL also agreed to ballot its members on industrial action, at a conference in which the Schools Minister Nick Gibb was uncharacteristically jeered.
That the Telegraph and NOW should be hostile toward such developments is not surprising. But nothing these papers have said compares to the shockingly snide account of the conference by the left-of-centre Guardian‘s education editor Jeevan Vasagar that would not have been out of place in the Daily Mail, with the headline ‘Union in another world as it adapts to life under the Tories’
This dishonest and manipulative piece is a classic of smear journalism, in its slick accumulation of supposedly telling details delivered with a supercilious smirk, whether it is his description of the conference dress code (” A few of the older men wore jackets, but most were in trainers, sandals, untucked shirts or Che Guevara T-shirts.”) or his description of a Cuba Solidarity Campaign fringe meeting (” Amid the sandals, woolly hats and gloomy teachers’ children, spending a sunny weekend indoors, it was a vision of another world.”)
That’s right folks, even the ‘gloomy’ children of NUT ‘dinosaurs in sandals’ are forced to stay indoors so that their parents can indulge their ideological fantasies. Our daughter was one of these miserable children. She’s been coming to these conferences for nearly a decade, where she goes to a superb creche, which she loves. As for the Che Guevara T-shirts, I have to say that I didn’t see any. In terms of dress sense, teachers are quite a staid and conventional lot in fact. But Vasagar’s scene-setting has nothing to do with fashion. Such hatchet job journalism is intended to invite ridicule and contempt toward the people it describes and trivialise their politics and their decisions.
Hopefully readers will see through Vasgar’s tricksy caricatures, and let’s hope that the strike ballot will become one more nail in the coffin of this horrendous government. For as one Australian delegate put it, the Coalition’s assault on the public sector is one component of a global neo-liberal offensive aimed at ‘the destruction of civil society.’
That is the context in which the conference in Harrogate is taking place and sandals have nothing to do with it, though I probably should have brought mine as it has been quite humid up north.