Michael Gove is doing everything he can to provoke all out war with the teaching unions.
In November, he sent a letter to head teachers urging them to dock the pay of National Union of Teachers (NUT) and National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) members who are engaged in action short of strike action. Fortunately, very few heads have followed his advice. Those who have, such as Andrew Seager, head of Stratford Academy in Newham, have been forced to back down following determined strike action by teachers.
Next came the report of the School Teachers Pay Review Body (STRB), which gave Gove most of what he had asked them for. National pay scales will in effect be abolished, to be replaced with performance related pay (PRP). Young teachers who in the past would have moved automatically up the pay scale each year will now be forced to rely on head teacher patronage in order to get their increments. Even the measly 1% cost of living rise (and any future pay rises) can now be withheld at the whim of the head teacher.
Gove had also asked the STRB to allow head teachers to actually reduce the pay of so-called poorly performing teachers. They didn’t reject that request out of hand but put it on hold for the time being. However, we can be sure that if there is little or no resistance to stage one of Gove’s attack, actual pay cuts will be on the cards in the not too distant future. And Gove is now making noises to the right wing media about bringing in even more restrictive anti-strike laws should we have the temerity to take action to defend ourselves.
The imposition of PRP will be one more nail in the coffin of state education. Children learn best when they are taught by well-motivated teachers working in a collaborative and mutually supportive environment. PRP is an attempt to undermine collaboration and to impose competition between teachers.
Gove’s attacks have nothing to do with ‘raising standards’. The highest performing jurisdiction is Finland, where almost all schools are state comprehensives, teachers are well paid and respected, there is no high stakes testing or league tables, and certainly no performance related pay. Yet Gove prefers to follow the model of the much less successful but highly profitable free schools in Sweden and Charter schools in the US.
So why is Gove mounting such a blatant and provocative attack now?
Teaching has a higher density of trade union membership than any other job in Britain. This Is what stands in the way of Gove’s ultimate plan which is the wholesale privatisation of education, allowing corporations to run schools for profit (along the lines of the Swedish free schools). To make that nightmare a reality he first needs to smash the teaching unions.
Gove’s belligerence has been compared to the attack on the miners in the eighties. But the Ridley Plan was developed over a period of several years, and was never announced in advance to the press! Gove seems ham-fisted and amateurish by comparison. And unlike during the miners’ strike, this government can’t import cheap education from overseas to break a teachers’ strike.
There is no doubt that Gove is the darling of the right wing press. He has rapidly academised over half of our secondary schools (a first step towards privatization) and is now making inroads on the primaries. Gove is also making considerable headway with realizing his dream of imposing a 1950s grammar school style curriculum on the entire state sector.
Education is a strategically important and politically sensitive sector of the economy. If teachers were to mount a determined response to Gove’s attacks, with a serious campaign of escalating strike action, they could undoubtedly give him a bloody nose and force the government to retreat.
Has Gove bitten off more than he can chew?
Gove has obviously made a positive assessment of the balance of forces, taking into account the ease with which the government swept aside the public sector unions during the pensions dispute. When Unison and the ATL threw in the towel, the leadership of the NUT and the NASUWT dithered and prevaricated, allowing the government to inflict a de facto defeat on our pensions.
In the face of every onslaught by the government our union leaderships seem to freeze, like rabbits caught in the headlights. This happened yet again at the NUT Executive meeting on 25th January, which voted to delay strike action until the Summer term (in the hope of getting the NASUWT on board) and voted down (by 22 – 20) an amendment calling for strike action before Easter. An opportunity to join PCS in a Europe-wide action in March has therefore been squandered in favour of a rather vague commitment to rearguard action which may well amount to little more than token protest.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Our sisters and brothers in Chicago have shown us how to wage a determined struggle in defence of pay and conditions. The Chicago teachers walked out in September and pledged to stay out until they won. After 7 days the employers backed down.
Rank and file teachers have shown time and again that they can deliver when given a lead by the union executives. The national strikes in June and November of 2011 boosted our confidence and shook the government. After a lull while the leaderships prevaricated, the fighting spirit was reinvigorated by joint NUT/NASUWT action short of strike action, which began in September. That action must now be used as a spring-board for escalating strike action sooner rather than later. There is too much at stake to allow Gove another easy victory.