Exclusive: “The nation has a right to hear about the scope of widespread institutional racism that includes teachers’ unions,” a whistle-blower and senior member of the NEU told The Independent.
Hundreds of Black and Asian members have alleged that Europe’s largest teachers’ union is institutionally racist and condemned its “failure to protect minoritised groups”, The Independent can reveal.
Three letters, backed by around 300 signatories in total, have been sent to the National Educational Union (NEU) calling for an external investigation into the matter and detailing areas of specific concern including the “hemorrhaging of Black members”.
The union’s annual conference in Bournemouth began on Monday, and it is understood National Officers called an emergency executive meeting as members’ racism concerns continue to mount.
“The Joint General Secretaries acknowledged that the union exists in an institutionally racist society – and said that is why they are both serious about addressing it in society and in the union,” the union said on Sunday in a response to an open letter from members.
Amid claims of the union’s “inability to nourish and maintain a positive working environment for its Black staff”, concerns have been raised in the aforementioned public letter about the “poor treatment” of a number of Black and Asian staff members and delegates, in addition to one sent privately to the NEU and seen by The Independent.
These staff members include race and LGBT equality policy specialist Camille Kumar and Black executives within the union.
“The nation has a right to hear about the scope of widespread institutional racism that includes teachers’ unions,” a whistle-blower and senior member of the NEU, told The Independent.
A formal complaint has been received by the union with regard to a senior figure who is accused of mistreating Black staff members in front of colleagues, and members, during two highly-attended internal meetings.
“We are deeply concerned and appalled that both these incidents involved displays of disgraceful behaviour conducted towards Black women,” a letter to joint secretary Kevin Courtney, backed by 50 signatories including senior Black members and delegates, reads. This document was shared with The Independent and, unlike the open letter, has not been made public.
“We do not believe that the unacceptable behaviour reported (…) is conducive to the union’s stance on anti-racism and inclusion!”
The union has received the letter and, following months of lobbying from members, an external investigation was launched into complaints against the senior figure last week, The Independent understands.
Numerous staff members of colour have been “forced out” of the NEU after feeling like they’ve had no choice but to resign due to concerns of systemic racism, according to claims in the open letter.
The NEU has denied this allegation in an official response to the letter which the union shared with The Independent over the weekend.
“The way I was treated felt really awful,” Camille Kumar, NEU’s former race & LGBT policy specialist who left in February, told The Independent.
“I’ve worked professionally for over 20 years – I’m in my forties now and I feel quite confident and skilled at what I do.
“Yet, from the day I said I was pregnant, the deskilling process, work being taken from me and being dismissed altogether really had an impact on my mental health and wellbeing to the point where I felt I couldn’t continue working there; I’ve never felt that way before,” she said.
Ms Kumar said her time at the NEU was marked by weekly instances of her professional opinion and judgement being “overridden by the views of straight white men and women at middle/upper management levels”.
According to the ex-staffer, examples include being asked to rewrite the trans and gender questioning pupils guidance as a matter of urgency “within restrictive parameters” decreed by a senior executive who had done little to no reading on the subject – only to have her work completely ignored and being told that a poem by a Black lesbian member, inspired by Pride month, about the struggles and joys of her experience, would not be published on the website because “the content might open a bit of a can of worms”.
On another occasion, Ms Kumar said she was told to have a logo redesigned for the decolonising education policy because the Black power fist is ‘too aggressive’ and was routinely asked to undertake pieces of work only to have them completely rewritten without any feedback or consultation.
“I do not believe this mirrors the experiences of my straight white peers. I believe this is tokenism,” she said.
“Unions are supposed to be supporting their members around issues like this,” Ms Kumar said, adding that there is concern the NEU will lack the competence to help others with similar issues if it fails to tackle racism in its ranks”.
“It took me a long time to rebuild myself again and believe that there’s hope in this work and things will get better. The hardest thing was that feeling of hope being taken away.
“So much of my work was to do with members, supporting them, making sure Black people, people of colour and LGBT voices are being heard.”
An NEU spokesperson said: “The NEU and its leadership have a proud record of anti-racist activity both as an employer and in our campaigning and we must always strive to do better. The NEU national officers have considered the text of the open letter and have prepared a response which answers the allegations in depth.
“They have considered the results of an investigation into the allegations made by an ex member of staff and agree that they are unsubstantiated. The Union has launched an Anti-Racist Framework for schools – which 2,000 members have already been trained on and which will be a major focus of this conference.
“The NEU is always open to listening to concerns and ideas about how to improve. We are a transparent and open organisation with clear complaints procedures. Such procedures are always operated without prejudice or prejudgement.”
Referring to the union’s comment and response to the members’ open letter, Ms Kumar said: “The whitewall of defensiveness with which the NEU has responded is in itself revealing. If we are to address institutional racism, misogyny and homophobia we have to accept it is endemic and prolific.
“The first step is believing that the problems within the system are borne out in the experiences of people of colour, women, LGBT and disabled people. Blanket denial, half-truths and thinly veiled accusations will only serve to maintain the status quo.”