NUT history

1870–1914: the struggle for education

The NUT was founded as the National Union of Elementary Teachers (NUET) for all teachers in England and Wales in June 1870, the year that Forster’s Education Act set up elected local school boards to build elementary schools. In 1888 it became the National Union of Teachers.

Setting up a national union was teachers’ response to 18 years of the Revised Code – the hated system of payment by results – under which the size of school grants, and thus teachers’ salaries, depended on pupils’ exam results.

From 400 members when it was founded, the NUT grew rapidly. Between 1895 and 1910 it doubled in size to become a substantial union with 68,000 members in 516 local associations.

In 1872 the new Union launched its weekly journal The Schoolmaster, which quickly became the main forum for education debate in the country.

As now, in its early years the Union’s twin concerns were on the one hand improving teachers’ pay, conditions and status – and on the other securing reform to extend and improve the system of state education in the interests of both children and teachers.

It campaigned for security of tenure and increased salaries – teachers in rural schools were particularly poorly paid – and against extraneous duties such as playing the church organ on Sundays.

Above all it campaigned against payment by results and achieved early successes when the system was abolished in 1897 and teachers’ pension rights, which had been done away with in 1862, were restored the following year.

Many of the Union’s initial educational aims had been achieved by the turn of the century –elementary (primary) education was compulsory and free and the school leaving age had been raised to 12.

The NUT was a major force behind the 1902 Education Act (the Balfour Act) which swept away school boards and replaced them with local education authorities to run elementary, secondary, and technical education and teacher training.

The Union won its first major dispute in 1896 when strike action by members in Portsmouth, backed up by support throughout the country, won the reinstatement of four teachers sacked for not starting work at 7.55 a.m. In addition, the action won a pay increase and a more civilised start time of 8.30.

Another successful strike over pay at West Ham in 1907 forced an anti–union council to recognise the union and to negotiate a settlement.

By 1913–4, a time of increasing militancy and growth of socialist influence across the labour movement, the Union had begun a major campaign for improved salaries which was meeting with increasing success at local level when war broke out in 1914.

1914–1939: Burston – the longest strike in history

When Kitty and Tom Higdon, a wife and husband team of head and assistant teacher and both NUT members, were sacked on trumped up charges, the pupils of their Norfolk village school came out on strike on April 1st 1914 calling for the reinstatement of their teachers.

So began the Burston school strike, known as the longest strike in history and now celebrated at one of the TUC’s Big Four annual festivals (along with the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Durham Miners, and the Black Country’s Women Chainmakers).

The main reason behind the dismissal was that Tom Higdon was recruiting labourers to the agricultural workers’ union (he went on to become its national treasurer) and was involved in local politics. Kate’s uncompromising campaign for proper heating and drains for the school also upset the local squirearchy and church worthies.

Mrs Higdon was represented by an NUT lawyer and a member of the education committee argued her case but they were unsuccessful and the Higdons were dismissed and evicted from their cottage. The village of Burston rallied to their cause and set up a strike school which, supported by contributions from throughout the trade union and labour movement, lasted until 1939.

Tom Higdon felt his wife had been poorly served by the Union, which was not among those supporting the strike school. Initially it did not agree to pay her victimisation pay.

However, the timidity of the Union’s tenure committee was reversed when, after pressure from a powerful minority of members at the Union’s conference and an NUT enquiry into the case, the NUT redeemed itself by awarding Mrs Higdon victimisation pay backdated to her dismissal. The Union also agreed, exceptionally, to continue payments after the normal five–year limit under the rules of the sustentation fund. (Although an NUT member, Tom Higdon did not seek support from the Union.)

1915–1919: what kind of union?

In 1915, the Union moved to new headquarters at Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, London WC1, where it has remained ever since. With many members off in the trenches and teachers’ pay levels falling as inflation took hold, the Union was increasingly calling for a national salary policy.

The 1918 Education Act secured the Union’s aims of free and compulsory full–time education to the age of 14 and stronger LEA finances. That year saw a wave of teachers’ strikes on pay which continued throughout the country into 1919, most notably in the Rhondda where winning support from the miners and railwaymen was a key part in a successful dispute.

The strikes brought to a head an issue that bitterly divided the Union at the time (and helps us see the NUT’s response to Burston in its context). Should it be a professional organisation seeking status for teachers akin to doctors and lawyers or, bearing in mind the working class background of many teachers, should it forge closer links with an increasingly socialist trade union movement?

The issue took the form of a debate over whether the Union should affiliate to the Labour Party, which in 1918 had adopted its new constitution, Clause Four of which read: ‘To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.’

Those in favour of affiliation argued that the Rhondda dispute showed that the Union was strongest when it stood alongside TUC and Labour–affiliated industrial unions, while a socialist government was more likely to agree the Union’s aim of free universal education.

Opponents countered that political independence was essential for the unity of a Union which had to deal with the government of the day whatever its colour.

The latter argument won the day in a referendum of the Union’s 110,000 members in 1919 by two to one – and that position of political independence has been maintained ever since.

Fearful of the Union’s socialists forging strong links with industrial unions in local disputes and mindful of the influence of teachers in European socialist movements which threatened the old order, secretary of the Board of Education H.A.L. Fisher agreed to the NUT’s demand for a national pay scale.

And so in 1919 Burnham committee – made up of teachers’, LEA and government representatives – came into being. It was to remain the negotiating forum for teachers’ pay and conditions until the Conservatives abolished it in 1986.

1919: Union declares for equal pay for women teachers

Since 1904, National Federation of Women Teachers (NFWT) – initially called the Equal Pay League – had been a part of the NUT and had been campaigning hard on the issue. This was the time of the Suffragettes’ fight for the vote and increasing concern for the plight of women working in the sweated trades such as chainmaking, catering and dressmaking.

In 1919 the NFWT managed to call a referendum of all NUT members which duly approved the principle of equal pay for women teachers. However, this progressive stance displeased a minority of men who complained that the vote had been taken when many male teachers had not returned from the war. They went off to form the National Association of Schoolmasters (predecessor of today’s NASUWT).

On the other side of the debate, the NFWT were equally displeased when it became clear that the male–dominated leadership did not see equal pay as a priority. They left in 1920 to form the National Union of Women Teachers which wound up after equal pay was finally achieved in 1961.

The Union was certainly conscious that most of its members were women, a fact reflected in the change of the Union journal’s title in 1925 to The Schoolmaster and Women Teachers’ Chronicle, while the case for equal pay was advanced in the 1930s.

An influential Union proposal in 1938 called for a pay structure based on qualifications and experience regardless of sex or kind of school.

1920–1939: continuing growth despite depression

During the depression and mass unemployment which soon followed the war, the Union’s main concern was to fight pay cuts. (It will be remembered that the 1926 General Strike was on the issue of a cut in miners’ pay which did indeed take place after the TUC called off the strike.)

The NUT had some success in mitigating cuts at national level but some local authorities were determined to ignore national settlements and to challenge the Union. A major dispute took place at Lowestoft where the education committee tried to cut teachers’ pay by 10 per cent and brought in strikebreaking teachers. With the support of other unions on the trades council and, crucially, of parents, the NUT members set up strike schools with over 1500 pupils attending and the authority backed down.

The Union welcomed the 1926 the Hadow Report which led to all–age elementary schools being reorganised as primary and secondary schools, but it wanted to go further. In 1928 it was pressing for an extension of secondary education, including raising the leaving age to 15, parity of provision in all state secondary schools and allowing LEAs to set up schools of ‘the multiple bias type taking all children from 11 onwards’ – the comprehensive.

Most NUT members were in the primary sector and the Union influenced a 1931 Board of Education report encouraging child–centred teaching in primary schools. Then as now NUT members were at the forefront of developing new approaches to education.

In the 1930s the movement for far–reaching education reform was gathering pace, with the NUT at its forefront but the prospect of legislation was put on hold with the outbreak of war in 1939.

By this time the Union had grown to over 155,000 members.

1940–1970 Secondary education for all

In 1943 during the discussion on what was to become the 1944 Education Act, NUT conference repeated its call for experimental comprehensive schools, which were by this time Labour Party policy.

In the event the groundbreaking 1944 Act brought in free secondary education for all, raised the school leaving age to 15 from 1947 (with a further rise to 16 at an unspecified date), and set up not a comprehensive but a tripartite system of grammar, secondary modern and technical schools.

The union welcomed the Act, which also made it statutory for LEAs to pay the Burnham–agreed rates of pay.

In addition women teachers would no longer be forced to leave their jobs when they married, and in 1946 a Royal Commission recommended equal pay for women teachers

This was eventually agreed in 1955 and was phased in over five years to 1961. However, nearly 50 years later equal pay remains a concern of the Union since many women teachers are in lower paid posts, having taken a career break, or working part–time or as supply teachers.

In 1963 the Union’s journal changed its name to The Teacher and became a weekly tabloid newspaper.

The Union had been sympathetic to early moves to comprehensives in the 1950s in London and Leicestershire but, having members in grammar schools, it had held back from an out–and–out pro–comprehensive policy. But in 1965 the Labour government requested proposals from all LEAs to move from tripartite to comprehensive system. Few technical schools had ever been built, secondary moderns remained the poor relations, and outrage at the invidious 11 plus exam spread far beyond the circles of progressive educationists.

The government’s move, which led to a rapid expansion of comprehensive schools, was a vindication of those within the NUT who had been at the forefront of the campaign for comprehensive education. The Union now enthusiastically backed the new policy and it has been a staunch defender of the comprehensive principle ever since.

The Union voiced teachers’ increasing concerns over class sizes – often well over 40 – and dilapidated buildings, many of which had been neglected since before the war. In 1967 members in selected areas refused to supervise meals as part of a salaries dispute and it was agreed that such duties would henceforth be voluntary.

In 1968 the Union achieved a longstanding objective when the new Bachelor of Education degree heralded the all–graduate profession.

The following year saw the Union’s first ever national stoppage when members in over 300 schools were out for two weeks after pay negotiations had broken down.

By its 100th birthday the NUT has nearly 300,000 members.

1970–1997: conflict and campaigning

In 1972 the Union affiliated to the TUC in order to more effectively influence national economic policy which affected teachers’ salaries.

In 1974, teachers won a substantial pay rise after the Houghton Report. For a few years teachers felt reasonably well off but rampant inflation and government pay restraint ate away the gains. In the same year the school leaving age was raised to 16.

The 1980s were hard times for trade unions – witness Mrs Thatcher’s assault on the miners, the Wapping print workers’ dispute and the Tory government’s anti–union laws. After a long pay dispute involving local and national action by teachers’ unions over the two years 1984–86, teachers too were punished.

The government abolished Burnham and their pay and conditions were imposed by the secretary of state. In 1991 a review body was set up to make recommendations to government, which had final say.

The 1980s pay dispute was characterised by inter–union rivalry and division, and division within unions themselves. Some in the NUT felt the final settlement was too modest yet it was a fact that the Union lost nearly a third of its membership during these years.

Faced with an anti–union government and the loss of negotiating rights, the NUT embarked on a new strategy of campaigning to rebuild members’ confidence and win public support, particularly from parents. The Union placed advertisements in newspapers, it commissioned research, it lobbied MPs. It revamped its publications as The Teacher became a magazine sent to all members from 1990, while five years later the Union’s website went on line.

There was plenty to campaign about: local management of schools, performance–related pay – which the NUT characterised as a return to payment by results – , an over–prescriptive national curriculum, testing and league tables, appraisal and much else besides.

The Union’s boycott of SATs from 1993 to 1995 won the end of league tables for seven year olds.

After the experience of the 1980s dispute, the Union embarked on a conscious policy of seriously seeking professional unity, calling for one union for all teachers and seeking a response from those who felt likewise in other organisations.

1997–2008: Looking to the future

The Union had high hopes when in 1997 Tony Blair’s New Labour was elected with “Education Education Education” as a main campaign slogan. However, despite investing heavily in schools – including in new buildings – reducing class sizes and committing itself to ending child poverty, the Blair regime proved a disappointment.

It continued the previous government’s commercialisation of education, brought in the private finance initiative, and developed foundation and specialist schools and city academies.

Despite Labour’s supposed support for equality of opportunity, Blair himself denigrated ‘bog–standard comprehensives’. Instead of restoring teachers’ negotiating rights, the government maintained the review body and entered into a workload agreement with other unions which the NUT could not accept. Relations with the government deteriorated rapidly and the Union found itself further from the centre of power than at any time in its history.

Yet, while this isolation meant the end of hopes for professional unity for the time being, it left the NUT free to campaign vigorously on testing, workload, the endless succession of government education initiatives, the restoration of negotiating rights, and teachers’ salaries. The Union also extended its services to members into professional development and ICT training and began developing policies setting out how education ought to be.

These years also saw the more vigorous pursuit of minority rights with LGBT, black teachers’ and young teachers conferences and groups, while the Union expanded its international work particularly in relation to the Middle East, landmines, and child poverty.

The reward was increasing respect across the teaching profession, which led to a rising membership again at a time when many unions’ membership was tumbling.

The Union’s strategy of lobbying and public campaigning, backed up by research studies, brought results in Wales when in 2001 the Wales Assembly Government abolished league tables and over the next few years replaced tests at Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 with teacher assessment. These moves increased the pressure to relax the testing regime in England.

In 2004 the Union issued a major policy statement Bringing Down The Barriers, followed in 2005 by A Good Local School for Every Child – which affirmed the value of comprehensive education, emphasised equality of opportunity, and set out a vision of schools as the vibrant heart of every community. In 2006 it published Born To be Great – a charter aimed at increasing achievement of young black males.

By 2008, after a succession of below–inflation awards, pay was top of the agenda again as members voted for a one–day strike calling for ‘Fair pay for teachers’. The Union’s Easter conference became a rally for the action but less than three weeks before the day, the Union was shaken by the tragic death of general secretary Steve Sinnott at the age of 56.

So it fell to his deputy Christine Blower, who became acting general secretary, to lead the Union into its first national strike for over 21 years on April 24. Of Steve, she said: ‘The best way to mark our respect would be to maximise the effect of the campaigns to which he was so committed.’

The strike day was a great success with rallies, marches and meetings taking place throughout England and Wales. At the time of writing further action on pay is planned.

By 2008 membership had increased to over 290,000.


NUT General Secretaries

1870–73 William Lawson
1873–91 TE Heller
1892–1924 Sir James Yoxall
1924–31 Sir Frank Goldstone
1931–47 Sir Frederick Mander
1947–70 Sir Ronald Gould
1970–75 Sir Edward Britton
1975–89 Fred Jarvis
1989–2004 Doug McAvoy
2004–08 Steve Sinnott
2009–2016 Christine Blower
2016- Kevin Courtney