April 7, 2023 - 6:03pm

In September, NEU, the largest teaching union in the UK, will have a new leader: new academic year, new start. It has not been a good couple of years for teaching unions, who have been accused of hijacking the pandemic for political leverage and failing to put children first by calling for longer, more stringent lockdowns; the damage to their reputation was neatly summarised by Gavin Williamson’s text message that ‘teaching unions really do just hate work.’

Yet the incoming General Secretary Daniel Kebede does not seem to be the moderate, temperate figurehead needed to persuade the public, and teachers, that the NEU is about prioritising pupils over politics.

Last summer, Kebede said at a Socialist Workers Party’s Marxism conference that strikes were about “taking back control of an education system from a brutally racist state… It is much more than about the issue of pay, it is about reorganising society, where we are free from racism and free from oppression.” Kebede has also previously compared private schools to “apartheid”, accused ministers of “whitewashing” and “removing socialist ideas from the classroom,” and declared that the British education is “fundamentally and institutionally racist.”

This inflammatory rhetoric and political posturing is dangerous. It not only undermines any claim NEU has to represent the majority of its members (I certainly would not want Kebede to speak on my behalf), but it also skews public perception of the profession and overlooks the real reasons why teachers are striking. By suggesting that the strikes are part of some ideological revolution — and, implicitly, because of deep and visceral hatred of the Tories — Kebede and the NEU pervert the real, important point: that teachers’ pay has been eroded over the last decade and workload demands are unsustainable.

The toxic politicisation of the NEU is also alienating public support at a time when we need it most. Teacher vacancies in England are currently 93% higher than pre-pandemic, and, despite lowering its recruitment targets, the government has failed to hire enough teachers in the last nine out of 10 years. This crisis in teacher recruitment and retention means that far too many schools are being forced to rely on non-specialist staff, and this high turnover will inevitably impact the quality of teaching and learning.

Yet instead of focusing on domestic educational policy, the NEU is instead using its current conference to table motions on topics such as whether or not to oppose the expansion of NATO or back Ukraine’s war of self-determination against Russia. At last year’s conference Kebede also said that he was “proud that the NEU is affiliated to Stop The War” as “the strengthening of military alliances in Eastern Europe will do nothing to bring peace.” Whether or not you agree with Kebede’s views, what has this got to do with the urgent issues facing schools at the moment? Are we checking how schools’ behaviour policies can apply to Putin?

Kebede won 28,000 votes in the NEU election, but turnout was only 9% (there are around 500,000 NEU members). Therefore, once again, the apathy of the silent, moderate majority has meant that the largest teaching union will now be led by an extreme minority voice: someone who used an antisemitic slur while defending Jeremy Corbyn and will possibly be investigated after attending a rally where the crowd allegedly chanted a song calling for violence against Jewish people.

Teaching unions often accuse the government of using education as a political football. And yet, they continue to play a dangerous game where they are more focused on attacking the government than thinking about their supporters. The irony is that electing Kebede is simply another own goal; perhaps it’s time to try a different tactic altogether.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.