Teachers on strike to beat Gove’s attacks

On October 17th thousands of teachers will strike in the third of the NUT/NASUWT’s regional days of action. The strikes are in opposition to government attacks on pay, pensions and working conditions, attacks that are dizzying in their scale and intensity.

Escalating national action needed to defeat Gove’s attacks

This offensive is directly related to the ongoing privatisation of state education through the creation of Academies and Free Schools outside local authority and democratic control.

The assault on pensions came first. Since 2012 teachers have been required to work longer before receiving their pensions, to the age of 68 and higher for teachers under 35, and to pay considerably more in superannuation contributions (teachers now pay an average of 9.6% of their pay in pension contributions). At the same time the value of a teacher’s pension has been reduced – by 15% over a lifetime.

Dismantling the pay structure

The current attack on teachers’ pay comes after several years of public sector pay freezes or below-inflation settlements (such as the current derisory 1%). Now Education Minister Michael Gove is in the process of dismantling national pay structures altogether. He envisages a highly fragmented system with performance related pay at its heart.
Progress on the main pay scale will no longer be dependent on experience but on “performance improvement” as determined by the outcome of annual appraisals. The existing points on the main scale will no longer be mandatory but will simply become “reference points” so that schools can choose to pay them in part – or not at all. They will also lack portability: when teachers move schools there will be no obligation on their new schools to match existing salaries. These changes will lead, as an NUT response puts it, “to the determination of pay levels at school level” with pay rates varying between and within schools.
Salaries will be individualised and headteachers will have immense power to decide pay progress. This is the aim – failure to tow the line, work extra hours, or “do as you are told” will lead to loss of pay awards. The bullying and intimidation of staff that has become such a prevalent feature of schools today will inevitably increase.

Increasing the work load

Gove has made it clear that, following pay and pensions, his next target is to be teachers’ working conditions. His recommendations in June to the School Teachers’ Review Body intend to give managers the maximum freedom to determine and expand the hours and job definitions of teachers. The recommendations include:

  • The removal from the School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD) of limitations on the time that teachers can be directed to work – currently 195 days and 1265 hours. Gove thinks that teachers must be available to work whenever the Head wishes. He refers approvingly to the extended school days that are a feature of the Ark Academies and to a Free School in Norfolk which stays open for 51 weeks a year!
  • The removal from the STPCD of the “rarely cover” requirement. This would have a devastating impact on teachers’ workload as well as supply teachers’ jobs.
  • The removal of limitations on the tasks teachers can be asked to perform, including many that are currently regarded as clerical and administrative and the reinstatement of invigilation for teachers. Such a widening of duties will, of course, enable management to cut the jobs of clerical staff and invigilators.
  • The removal of the specification that planning, preparation and assessment time (PPA) must be allocated in blocks of at least 30 minutes and on a weekly basis, creating a situation in which PPA could presumably be allocated irregularly and in much smaller blocks -10 minutes? 5 minutes? – according to the wishes of management.

The logic of privatisation

There is a clear logic to these recommendations and to the attacks on salaries and pensions. The government is seeking to create a teaching workforce whose pay and conditions have no national framework, where each school or region will set its own pay and conditions, where a teacher’s working life is tightly controlled and monitored by management, where “rewards” are determined by the Head. The government hopes that such a change will result in the weakening of union organisation as well.
Such a workforce will possess the necessary “flexibility” demanded by privatisation, a flexibility that will be vital to the academy chains when they attempt to use their schools to facilitate the creation of profit. As Howard Stevenson has succinctly put it “the changes being imposed are pivotal to the government’s wider objective of reconfiguring public education in England as a largely privatised system. Central to achieving this objective is the creation of a low-cost, flexible and fragmented workforce without the organisational capacity to challenge dominant policy agendas.”

Weak leadership

To deal with this government’s attacks on teachers and state education, we need to break completely with the passivity exhibited by our trade union leaders over the last three and a half years. During this time they have allowed the Coalition government to push through detrimental measures whilst mounting only token resistance. Whilst the government has been utterly determined and ruthless in pursuit of its objectives, the union leaders have dithered and vacillated, desperately hoping the odd day or half-day strike would return the government to “negotiations”. Despite the teachers’ unions being formerly opposed to Academies, over 3000 have been created since 2010 Academies Act; indeed over half of all secondary schools are now Academies. Yet there has not been a single day of national action, even from the supposedly “left led” NUT, in opposition to the process. Instead teachers have been left to fight against Academies on a school-by-school basis.

Similarly, the failure of the union leaders to organise sustained strike action during the pensions campaign of 2011-2012 meant not only that the government pressed ahead with its pension reforms but that it was emboldened to mount yet more attacks. They are now coming for our pay and conditions precisely because of the weakness that was shown in the pensions campaign

More than one-day strikes needed

Gove’s attacks can certainly be defeated. We need to be clear that this will require determined and extensive strike action, action that makes readily apparent the level of disruption the government can expect if its attacks are not withdrawn. Whilst the immediate task for activists is to ensure that Thursday’s regional strike is as solid and militant as possible, we must recognise that much more action will be needed if we are to force the government to back down.
Crucially, we need a programme of rapidly escalating national action – strikes that build towards indefinite action if necessary.
This will only happen with massive pressure from below. NUT members must demand that the Executive sanctions escalating action through resolutions at school group and association meetings, in petitions and emails.
If the Executive refuses to call action, we need to organise our own action from below independently of the official apparatus of the union. We must re-establish the tradition of taking unofficial action where our union leaders fail to defend us.
We need strike committees in every workplace and committees of action in every area. Strengthening organisation at the base of the union and encouraging the self-activity of rank and file members, will be crucial to counter both the attacks of the government and the failure to lead by our unions at national level.

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