Sarah Smith

"Without my union, I wouldn't have survived"

Sarah Smith is an English teacher who found herself on the frontline of a shocking battle between her head teacher and the rest of the school. For her work, she was named her union’s workplace rep of the year in 2015. Here, in her own words, is her story…

I was the ATL [now part of NEU] rep at a free school in Cornwall

For two and half years, we had a head teacher who was an aggressive bully who picked on teachers, other staff members and even some pupils. He had zero respect for women, workers’ rights or trade unions. Of course we complained, but the governing body didn’t want to know.

When I first started as a union rep, I didn’t really have much work to do

Everyone was happy before the head arrived. After he started, I became the busiest rep in Cornwall. I had to deal with daily incidents of bullying; I was being pulled out of lessons to accompany staff to meetings with the head. Two of my colleagues had nervous breakdowns, and three needed counselling for PTSD.

I wouldn’t have survived without the support of my branch secretary, David Guiterman

He would call me before school to check I was okay, and he always knew the answer to anything I wasn’t sure of. I received constant support from my union.

The situation generated a huge membership of the union because everybody needed me!

My union allows everyone working at a school to join – support staff, admin staff, etc – so I was helping all those people as well as teachers. It was a lot of pressure, but I wasn’t going to stand down.

Eventually, myself and David, the branch secretary, organised a secret off-site meeting.

We called for a vote of no confidence in the head teacher and the result was unanimous. David wrote a letter to the school’s governing body, demanding an investigation, and threatening strike action. It was a Catholic school, and the diocese sent out a team to investigate…

When we came back to school in September, he was gone.

We never saw the results of the investigation, though we did ask. You think things like this can’t happen now, but they do. That’s why unions are so important.

For me, it was about justice.

I don’t care how big you are, how much money you’ve got, or how tough you are, if you’re behaving like that you can’t be allowed to get away with it. I really believe in the power of people getting together and saying “no” collectively. That’s a big thing for me.

There’s more of a need now for unions and the TUC than there ever has been.

I’m really worried about the erosion of workers’ rights. If you want to stop injustice, you have to remember you’re not alone. If we speak as one voice, we have so much power.