Duncan Hallas



Duncan Hallas, Survey: Teachers, International Socialism (1st series), No.36, April/May 1969, pp.13-14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

When in February, a special conference of the National Union of Teachers voted by 130,000 to 90,000 to accept the employer’s final salaries offer it voted to accept, without protest, a cut in real wages for the majority of its members. The increase offered and accepted was 6 per cent on the basic scale to operate from 1st April 1969 until 31st March 1971. A 9 per cent increase was needed to restore the purchasing power of the basic scale to the level of 1st April 1967!

How was it possible for an apparently representative conference to accept such a settlement? The answer is, in part, political. The dominant ethos in the higher echelons of the union is liberal! social democratic and there is a strong conservative minority. The alternative to acceptance was strike action against the employers who are backed to the hilt by Her Majesty’s ‘Labour’ Ministers and such a struggle is the very last thing the gentlemen of the Executive (in the majority) wish to be involved in. To them the Government is not something you fight; it is something that hands out MBE’s, OBE’s and even Knighthoods.

But of course this is not peculiar to the NUT. The decisive factor in the conference decision was something else. For a small but very influential section of the membership the award was a good one. It will put a lot of extra money into their pockets. They are the headteachers.

The agreement included a section on the alleged abolition of what is called the ‘primary-secondary differential’. The effect of this is to give substantial increases to most primary headteachers and their deputies and to many secondary heads. It will also create a number of extra above scale payments for assistant teachers – more bones for the rest of us to quarrel over. Au this, of course at the expense of the basic scale on which about half the teaching workforce has to live.

The outstanding feature of the NUT is its complete domination at the top by the privileged minority of full-time administrators called headteachers. Not only is the executive completely controlled by them, they also dominate the great majority of local associations outside the London area and hence the national conference. Of course they are not themselves homogeneous. Their incomes vary greatly according to size of school and other factors, and they include a minority of Leftish Labourites and CPers who identify themselves, in varying degrees, with the rank and file. Nevertheless the union structure is so heavily over- weighted by this group, whose pay and, perhaps more important, whose work situation is radically different from those they are supposed to represent, that the aspirations of the ordinary members are muffled and distorted as effectively in this, on paper, fairly democratic union, as in some of the most bureaucratised workers’ organisations.

Headteacher domination rests on a number of factors. The majority of the membership are women and for understandable sociological reasons, they have, in their great majority been relatively inert and passive members. Even today when this situation is beginning to change, a glance at any union conference shows an overwhelmingly male representation. The minority of men in the union provide the vast majority of activists.

Amongst the men a tradition of ‘deferential’ conservatism has been influential, connected no doubt with the well established fact that teaching has been one of the main avenues of upward social mobility for the male children of skilled workers. Political conservatism is on the wane amongst active unionised teachers especially in the big centres, and some of the conservatives are now far from deferential but the old attitudes still retain influence in many areas. There are still plenty who believe ”we should be led by those who are best qualified, most experienced and wisest”, i.e. the heads.

Another factor of importance is the power of patronage possessed by headteachers. A considerable number of extra payments are available especially in secondary schools. In law appointment to pasts with extra payments is in the hands of the governors or managers of schools. In practice the headteacher is very often in a position to make his own choice and have it rubber-stamped by his nominal masters. It must be emphasised that school staffs have absolutely no say in such matters. Under these conditions, many teachers are cautious about opposing in the union, men who can add a little cake to their bread and butter.

The completely autocratic structure of the school situation also reinforces conformity and ‘deference’. The union has absolutely no effective ‘shop-floor’ organisation. The union collector has no right to represent the members; in event of a dispute he must call on the services of the regional full-time official. But the person against whom the complaint is made i.e. the headteacher, will probably be a member of the union, perhaps even a local union officer. A young member in Wandsworth who recently appealed for help against gross discrimination by the head was told by union HQ that the union “could not advise one member against another”! Of course autocratic management in schools is often modified by. personality factors. There are democratically inclined heads and determined assistants who will resist intimidation. Many schools especially big comprehensives, have staff associations of varying degrees of effectiveness and the power of heads in big schools is modified to some extent by theft need to work through departmental heads who will occasionally stand up effectively for their subordinates (and for their sectional interests). In spite of these qualifications the general pattern is one of hierarchical subordination to the boss, a pattern which is of course reproduced by the teacher in relation to his pupils and which tends to spill over into the union.

Some of the factors making for the supine and spineless attitude of the NUT are present also in its much smaller rival, the National Association of Schoolmasters, although to a lesser degree. The NAS is basically a reactionary organisation, formed originally to oppose equal pay for woman teachers. In recent years it has proposed various schemes e.g. family allowances and special increments for long and continuous service, which are intended to reintroduce unequal pay by the back door. Only men are admitted to membership and on social and educational issues, it is usually well to the right of the NUT. Notwithstanding these facts and also the absence from its ranks of politically committed militants, practically all of whom are in the NUT, the less ‘establishment’ character of its leadership has allowed a limited militancy on certain issues. There have been for the most part wrong-headed or downright reactionary in their objectives. The current ‘work to rule’ campaign which has led to suspensions of teachers and token strikes, has the aim of securing the reference of the teachers’ salaries question to the Prices and Incomes Board or to an ‘independent’ enquiry instituted by the Government! But however absurd the aim, the fact that the NAS has taken even a limited action increases its appeal to many militant but apolitical men teachers. In fact the leaderships of the two organisations feed upon one another; the NAS gains recruits as a result of the flunkyism of the NUT leadership and that leadership benefits from the draining off of militants from its own organisation into the blind ally of NAS sectionalism.

There can be no effective long term alternative programme and leadership in any union which does not have as its basis a political organisation. The opposition and potential alternative in the NUT was based, for many years on the Communist Party. The party had at one time substantial forces in the field. In 1960-61 there were according to an ex-member who was in a leading position in the CP teachers’ faction at the time, some 2,000 card-holding party members in the NUT. The party’s strategy was based upon the support of ‘progressive’ candidates in union elections and upon the pressing of resolutions at various levels of the organisation. The maximum ‘unity’ was sought around programmes that were acceptable to the more progressive members of the executive and the militants were kept in line by denunciations of sectarianism, adventurism and so on. The result, given the non-participation of the vast majority of the membership was the absorption of the party’s leading activists into the union machine. They had some influence on policy, especially educational policy. but it was won at the price of tacitly accepting that policies basically unacceptable to the union leadership should not be pressed. At no time was the basic question of democratising the union, of headteacher domination, even raised. In fact the party’s leading figure in the field, Max Morris, was and is a head teacher. The same is true of the prominent fellow travellers.

Today the party is no longer a serious force. Its members are hopelessly split on policy. At a recent meeting of the Inner London Teachers Association (a sort of district committee without any real power) a proposal from the militant Wandsworth Association that the ILTA call an unofficial token strike on the salaries question was narrowly defeated by 28 votes to 25. Many of the prominent CP members supported the motion; others including the president of the Surrey District of the party voted with the right wing! There are still devoted and self sacrificing CP militants in the union. There are other CP members who have made their peace with the establishment. The decline of the party is, in the short run, a mixed blessing. It has undoubtedly, strengthened the right wing. It has also permitted the evolution, as yet on a small scale, of an authentic opposition which is uninhibited by the supposed need to win friends amongst executive members.

The loose grouping of IS, ex-CP, and unaffiiated militants around the journal Rank and File is as yet very fragile. The influence of the paper (circulation now around 4,000) is limited but growing. It does constitute a nucleus, the only nucleus in sight, around which the industrial and political militants can crystallise. Already the executive is considering organisational countermeasures. A number of known activists face disciplinary charges. The strategy of Rank and File centres around a single issue, democratisation, of the schools and of the union. The two are inextricably bound together as this article has tried to demonstrate and contrary to the shrill criticism of some sectarians, they are political issues of the first importance.

The educational structure is an extremely sensitive part of the capitalist state machine and the school system is perhaps even more important in this connection than the higher educational system. The basic function of schools in Britain today is to turn out docile and suitably trained units who will fit into the slots provided by the economy. Docility is the main aim of the authoritarianism dominant in schools. When it is challenged the basis of the whole system is threatened.

The long run prospects of cracking the rigid structure of both school and union structure have been enormously enhanced by the pupil protest movement now developing. This promises to be the axe to the root of the traditional British autocratic school. It challenges the authority of all teachers but above all it challenges the autocratic rule of headteachers. Left wing teachers have the duty to identify with and support this movement. Their struggle is our struggle. There will undoubtedly be victimisation of both pupils and staff. The fight against these will constitute one of the most important aspects of our work.

The next few years will be stormy ones in education. Teachers now face the certainty of declining real wages; pupils are beginning to question the system; the struggle in the schools and in the union will sharpen. Easy optimism would be misplaced. The ideological resources of the system, not to mention its repressive apparatus, are still very great. Whether or not socialist militants can develop the cohesion and determination to make themselves a real force in education is still an open question. If they can the possibilities are enormous.


Last updated on 12.2.2008