North West teachers’ strike

Standing up for education
Standing up for education

The first step of the joint NUT/NASUWT strike campaign – a one day regional strike in the North West of England – was a big success writes Roy Wilkes.  Over 2000 schools were closed across the region.  5000 teachers marched through Manchester, 4000 in Liverpool, 1000 in Preston and 500 in Chester.  Young teachers, and young women teachers in particular, featured prominently in both the marches and the rallies.  The atmosphere was vibrant, positive and optimistic – celebratory even – with passers by showing enthusiastic support (and several young people actually joining the march).  It felt like we were turning a corner, that at long last we were beginning a serious fightback against Gove and his cronies.

Not before time.  It is worth briefly recapping how far backwards Gove has pushed us over the last three years.

When the coalition took office there were only a couple of hundred academies. Now over half our secondary schools have been academised and the forced academisation  of primaries is gathering pace. Ofsted are playing a more and more blatantly political role in failing primary schools in order to drive forward the program of forced academisation.  And Gove is gradually letting it be known that academisation is but a first step towards fully privatised schools-for-profit.

Gove is determined to impose his own antiquated vision of a gradgrind curriculum.  Phonics tests are sucking the joy out of learning for our very youngest children. And for older students, Gove is narrowing the curriculum, imposing rote learning in place of critical thinking, and scrapping modules and continuous assessment in favour of assessment solely by terminal exams.  (However, it is on curricular issues that Gove has suffered his biggest setbacks, as recent concessions on the history curriculum have shown.)

The Condems have forced through changes to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, which mean teachers working till 68 or older.  The government is still refusing to publish the valuation of the scheme, one of the key demands of the unions, fully 3 years after it was due to be published.

Gove has abolished national pay scales, automatic annual increments, and across the board cost of living rises (even the measly one percent), and imposed Performance Related Pay on all schools as a legal requirement.  (It is interesting to note that Osborne has used this particular Gove ‘victory’ as a template for the latest wave of attacks on the rest of the public sector.  Pressure should now be exerted on Unison and Unite to join the teacher unions in resisting this with joint strike action.)

Threat to jobs

In his latest submission to the School Teachers Pay Review Board, Gove has argued for scrapping all limits to contracted hours (currently 1265 hours per annum) and to the length of the school year.  He has also pledged to abandon the workforce reforms which have enabled teachers in recent years to concentrate on teaching and learning.  As well as worsening teachers’ conditions of work, this is a direct threat to the jobs of thousands of technicians and support staff.

These attacks aren’t the disconnected random acts of a madman, although that’s how they seem sometimes.  There is a coherence to all this, a rationality. We know that because these attacks aren’t only happening here in the UK, they are happening across the globe.  Indeed, for many years the World Bank has made it a condition of its loans to underdeveloped countries that they adopt exactly these so-called reforms to their own education systems.

Transnational corporations and the neoliberal politicians who support them have for many years taken a keen interest in all matters educational. The most obvious (but not the only) reason is that they are interested in privatising state education in order to unleash its huge potential for delivering massive profits.  The total education budget in the UK was £99bn last year.  If corporations can screw 20% or 30% profit out of that (which would be perfectly feasible if they can get away with driving our pay, conditions and employment levels low enough), then they are looking at serious money.

But grabbing profit isn’t the only reason capital is interested in education.  Control of education would give the corporations more direct control over the supply of workers/consumers in the globalised and neoliberalised economy.

Capital wants a low paid, poorly pensioned and acquiescent teaching force whose job it is to train (rather than educate) a low paid, poorly pensioned and acquiescent workforce.   They want children to spend long hours in school 6 days a week with short holidays, as preparation for working long hours for the corporations with no security and few if any paid holidays.   They want teachers to be judged by standardised testing that sifts and sorts young people so that the most acquiescent can be placed within the corporate hierarchy, while the rest make up an impoverished and immiserated  reserve army whose sole purpose in life is to keep the insecure zero-hours workforce suitably disciplined.

That is the miserable future Gove wants for us, for our schools and for our children.  That’s why we really are striking not only for our own pay and conditions but more importantly to defend some semblance of a quality education, and to protect our children from the nightmarish future that Gove and his corporate backers has in store for them.

Round one

At this year’s Easter conference, the NUT passed a motion to establish a national campaign for education.  Yesterday’s strike in the North West should be seen as the first round of a wider struggle for the high quality education system that our children deserve.  It is important therefore that we go beyond opposing government policy on education and the attacks on teachers, we also need to develop and share our own vision for education.  That vision will evolve and develop as the movement grows.  But I would suggest that any left vision for education would include elements of the following:

1.  Massive investment in education.  We need to build more schools and recruit more teachers so we can achieve a significant reduction in class sizes.  Why can’t we have the same pupil-teacher ratio as the Eton’s and Harrows that we are so often compared with?

2.  Schools don’t cause poverty as Wilshaw claims, but poverty does impact massively on educational attainment.  We should therefore make common cause with all those fighting the attacks on welfare and the introduction of the bedroom tax.  And we should campaign vigorously for free school meals, including free breakfast every day, for all children.

3.  Abolish OFSTED. In its place we want teachers supporting each other, collaborating with each other and cooperating with each other, to share good practice and raise the quality of the service we provide for all of our children.

4.  No league tables and standardised testing. Instead we to trust teachers with the job of assessing students, in the knowledge that they would do so not in order to grade and sift young people but  with the sole intention of guiding future learning.

5.  Scrap performance related pay.  Instead we want fair pay and decent pensions for all.

6.  A reversal of all academisation and an end to privatisation.  We want schools that really are at the heart of their communities and which are genuinely democratically accountable to the communities they serve.  Teachers, students, parents and members of local communities should be encouraged to participate fully in the governance of schools.  And cooperation between schools in each area should replace the destructive competitiveness that is encouraged by league tables.

7.  Critical thinking rather than rote learning.  If future generations are going to tackle the horrendous problems capital will have bequeathed to them (not least of which are environmental problems), people will need to have developed a confident and critical approach to problem solving.  It won’t do us any good to have a cowed and submissive population schooled only in obedience and the regurgitation of facts.

8.  Education for equality.  Teachers have worked hard to build into education a sense of mutual respect and opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia.  We can’t let the corporations undermine that.

9.  And finally, we must make common cause with students in post 16 and post 18 education.  Reinstate in full the EMA.  Scrap tuition fees.  Grants not loans for all students, so that young teachers and other graduates are not weighed down for decades under an intolerable burden of debt.

Next steps:

Teacher activists in the North West need to do much more than arrange solidarity messages to the other regions as they take strike action in September and October, while waiting for the national strike in November.  We need to build on the success of 27th June in order to mobilise students, parents and local communities as part of an emergent campaign for education.  We have much to learn from the Chicago teachers, who have built deep rooted community involvement in their struggles against privatisation and for defence of teachers’ pay and conditions.

And we still have work to do in organising teachers in those areas where confidence is still low, and especially in primary schools.  The vast majority of secondary schools were shut by the strikes yesterday, but the picture is far less rosy in many of the primaries.  I know of one primary school where the head called each teacher into her office individually and bullied them into pledging not to strike.  Only one class was closed in that school, that of the NUT rep.  That kind of bullying needs to be tackled head on.

The strength of support that they had built up in the community gave the Chicago teachers the confidence last year to call indefinite strike action.  When Mayor Emanuel tore up their contracts (which is what Gove is doing to us now) the Chicago teachers walked out and pledged not to return to work until they got their contracts back.  After 7 days of inspirational strike action and daily mass demonstrations, they won.  We need our members to develop sufficient confidence to pursue the same level of determined struggle.  For that to happen we need to emulate the Chicago Teachers Union’s model of social movement trades unionism.

By combining escalating strike action with deep rooted community involvement in the struggle we can and will defeat Gove (not to mention his de facto backers in the Labour Party.)  And from the ashes of his miserable policies will rise the high quality education system that all of our children deserve.


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