Q&A with Victoria Barlow, Assistant General Secretary for Communications, National Education Union

Back in March 2017, the NUT and ATL education unions took the historic decision to form a new ‘super-union’ with nearly half a million members. Members of both unions voted to amalgamate and create a new organisation – the National Education Union (NEU). Last week we talked to Victoria Barlow, AGS for the NEU, about the new union, her role, and key learnings and successes from over the last year.


Victoria will be speaking at the memcom 2018 conference on May 16th this year. Tickets to the event can be bought here.



How would you describe your role at the NEU and what are your main objectives?


In my current role, I manage the communications and membership teams within the ATL section of the new union. Although we voted to come together with the NUT in March 2017, we’re currently in a transition period, operating as increasingly closer sections, until we complete our amalgamation in December this year.

During this transition period my role is multifaceted – managing the day to day work of an already busy team while planning and delivering a huge amount of transitional activity. There’s lots of plate spinning!

My team is responsible for recruiting, retaining and engaging members – those education professionals who work in nurseries through to higher education and every education setting in between – engaging and influencing stakeholders, and celebrating the success of the union.

Once our members have joined, my team works hard to engage them within their union – from taking part in campaigns on issues such as funding, to becoming a workplace rep and supporting their colleagues. It’s important that every member sees themselves as part of the union, it’s their voice which makes the difference in their schools and colleges and with the decision-makers, right up to Government.

Together our members achieve great things for themselves and their colleagues. My team makes sure we communicate these successes back to our members, encouraging them to get more involved to create change.


What do you love about your job?


I love the variety. The landscape in which I work is constantly transforming – within my specialisms of communications and membership with the evolution of technology, within the education sector with the impact of political decisions, and within the union with cultural change. My job always gives me something to get out of bed for, and I’m lucky enough to work with an extremely talented, innovative team.


What are the main successes for the union over the last couple of years?


The vision for the National Education Union, the three years of negotiations between NUT and ATL, and the ballot to amalgamate, have been hugely successful in bringing together 450,000 education professionals.

In terms of stronger voice, we have already seen success from being the largest education union in the UK.

As one union, working with other unions and with parent groups up and down the country, our Schools Cuts campaign has restored education as one of the key areas of political debate. In the run up to the June 2017 election, we used targeted comms and campaign activity to inform MPs and Peers about the impact of planned £2.8bn funding cuts to schools in England, and we pointed voters to an interactive website which highlighted how much their local school would lose. Independent research suggested some 750,000 voters were influenced by education issues when making their choice at the ballot box. And in July 2017, the then Secretary of State for Education found £1.3bn to put towards school budgets. By working together at a national and local level, we achieved a great result.


What are the key learnings over the last couple of years which you’d like to share with peers?


I would say having a firm understanding of your landscape is the key. You need to know where you stand in terms of your members’ current and future needs, the real and potential impact of political and regulatory changes, the challenges provided by politicians and by competitors, and the opportunities of new technology. Constantly evaluating your landscape will hopefully highlight problems before they arise so you can prepare for change.

As an example, one of the reasons for ATL and NUT taking the decision to amalgamate was knowing that our membership landscape was changing. A few years ago, recruiting trainees was fairly easy, we went to university fresher fairs and signed up 300 or more trainees in one day. More recently, however, the move to school-based rather than university-based training – called School Direct – means it’s increasingly hard to get in front of every trainee to ask them to join. With 53% of trainees coming through School Direct, we rely on our workplace reps to recruit, and we have to pour significant resources into marketing campaigns. As one union, ATL and NUT no longer spend time and money on competing for the same members – we can share resources to recruit and we can spend the rest of our time and money on making a difference to members’ lives.


Can you tell us a little about your marketing communications?


I run an integrated team from marketing, to content, design, print and production, to digital and social engagement, to media relations to stakeholder events. We work closely with membership colleagues to understand our opportunities to recruit across a variety of education sectors and roles, we work closely with policy and legal colleagues to promote content which retains members and engages stakeholders, and we work closely with the campaigns department to tackle the issues which matter most to our members.

We constantly look at our channels of engagement. While our magazine is important, as it’s the only point of contact for some of our members, the global shift from print to digital presented some challenges as the majority of our members stand in front of a class during the day instead of sitting in front of a PC with access to websites, emails and social channels.

The growth of smartphones, however, gave an opportunity to engage with members during their breaks and while not at work. We learned that email inboxes quickly overflow and lead to unsubscribes, so we now favour social channels where members feel they have more control and choice over what they wish to view.

For example, for the past few years, we’ve been running our workload campaign over digital channels. Teachers work long hours, spending time on in-depth marking, data collection or meetings which add little value to children’s learning. We created a quick-to-use workload tracker for members to log how long was spent on various tasks. We then supported members through online advice and checklists to plan their time more effectively, and also gave them tools to talk to their heads about which tasks were absolutely vital to teaching and learning and which could be reduced or forgotten altogether. And, importantly, we used the aggregated results from the workload tracker to demonstrate the causes of heavy workloads to decision-makers. As a result of our lobbying, the Government has issued advice on workload management, and individual local authorities have developed workload charters for their schools.

To support our activity, we need a sophisticated database. With so many members, we can engage via surveys and polls, run AB testing on creative, messaging and timings, segment by many criteria, and we can track activity to make sure we’re constantly evaluating our success. Even automated processes such as sending renewal or arrears notices have been reviewed to make sure content doesn’t just ask for the membership fee, we use this touchpoint to raise awareness of the work of the union.

I think there’s an opportunity to learn from other industries about the most effective ways of recruiting and retaining members, about how to understand and respond to their needs and how we can make the most of members’ subs for their benefit.


Can you please provide a brief summary of what your session at memcom 2018 will address?


I’m going to talk about why we came to the point of amalgamation and how we did it.

I’ll take the delegates through how we looked at our landscape, where we saw our future without change, and what options we had in front of us. I’ll explain how we decided on NUT as a partner, what processes we went through to secure a successful ballot to amalgamate and how we’re now working on bringing together two different membership and two staff cultures.


Why should people attend memcom?


We live in fast-moving times. We need to understand how Brexit, GDPR, the Lobbying Act, new technology, the economy, the changing world of work, makes an impact on what we offer our members.

As membership organisations, we need to network, share and evolve. There’s a good chance solutions can be found when we’re thinking of them together.