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Tory education policy: 'This is just about making cuts isn't it?'
Interview with a trade unionist
The Con-Dem government's agenda for education is being revealed more starkly. On top of cuts in resources and the privatisation of education, teachers are under attack.
Students are suffering. The Socialist spoke to Martin-Powell Davies, a member of the national executive committee of the National Union of Teachers and secretary of Lewisham NUT, about the current issues in education and the way to build a fightback.
Martin Powell-Davies, London representative on the national committee of the NUT teachers union, photo Paul Mattsson
What do you think the Tories' general strategy for education is?
I think that under [education secretary] Michael Gove, the Tories have revealed their agenda far more blatantly than any previous government.
Tony Blair and New Labour, at least on paper, argued that education was a good thing for society as a whole.
Now it's quite clear that elements of the right of the Tory Party have abandoned this idea. They have consciously decided that there is no point in spending money and, in their eyes wasting resources, on young people who they are never going to be able to provide a decent job for, or a decent future.
The government seems to see teachers as a barrier to their policies and that teachers are partly to blame for some of the failings in the education system. What is your response?
We've seen these attacks across the globe. We've seen the same from Obama's education policy makers in the USA.
Education is riddled with problems but those problems aren't about bad teachers.
If it wasn't for the hard work of teachers over years, things would be in a far worse state. Teachers' unpaid overtime, working 50-60 hours a week, has been the sticking plaster that has managed to keep schools together. It has covered up a critical lack of spending and lack of staff.
Gove and the government want to continue to make those attacks so they want people to blame teachers.
What is the background to the industrial action by NUT members starting on 3 October?
Teachers' pay and conditions are set nationally using the School Teachers Review Body. This is supposedly independent but it generally rubber stamps what the government of the day has asked them to do.
We suspect the review body is going to come out sometime this term with an even stronger link between teachers' pay and performance.
This could mean that not only would you not get a pay rise but you could have your pay cut if you didn't meet the government targets.
At a recent meeting in a primary school, when we discussed this threat, one of the young teachers there correctly said: "This is just about making cuts, isn't it?"
What do you think about Gove's introduction of the English Baccalaureate exam as a replacement for some GCSEs?
As socialists we understand that any exam system is about rationing opportunities. It's about deciding which child gets sent in what direction whether it's to university, college or future employment.
There was a recognition, certainly when GCSEs were introduced, that the old O level/CSE division blocked off opportunities for too many school leavers.
Opportunities had to be widened so that every child had the same examination system, under the GCSE. It was a reform that reflected the general pressure to support equality of opportunity and comprehensive education. And it was actually brought in by a Tory government.
Even then elements of the Tory right argued against it. They said it was opening up opportunities for people who didn't really require them.
Now that right-wing agenda has come to the fore, demanding cuts that previous governments wouldn't have considered.
There are always educational arguments about what should be in a curriculum, what's the role of course work, whether it should be an end of year exam or a modular exam.
But what Gove is actually saying is that he wants exam grading so that it rations the number of top grades.
What are the dangers of the creation of academy schools?
Academy supporters want to pretend that by turning a school into an academy it's therefore going to be better. There is absolutely no evidence for that.
Why should taking a school out of a local authority and giving it to a private company to run make it better?
The history of privatisation has been that services have got worse. But the academy agenda is also about getting rid of local authorities and getting rid of and undermining teacher trade unions.
The majority of teachers are in a trade union. The density of trade union membership is one of the highest in any profession.
The government recognises the potential power of teachers to oppose these reforms and to inspire other workers to fight their policies.
By breaking up local education authorities into individual academies and privatised academy chains, they also want to attack the trade unions, making it harder for there to be national pay and conditions. And increasingly they attack trade union facility time.
The difficulty we have is that often the only people really fighting for democratic local authority services, whether it be schools, bin collections or anything else, are the trade unions and the public.
The Labour local authorities aren't fighting for council services. In many ways they are quite happy to see them privatised.
And of course it was a New Labour government that brought in university tuition fees. It started to cut the EMA allowance for 16 to 19 year olds and it started academies.
Many people then think: 'Our school might as well be an academy because our local authority doesn't care about education'.
But councils don't have to be this way. That's why we have to fight for anti-cuts candidates in council elections and this is why we've got to support initiatives like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition.
Because then you could elect councillors who could change the direction of the council and make sure schools are run as we would want them to be run - with proper funding and resourcing and equal opportunities and genuine comprehensive education.
What sort of education system should we be campaigning for?
The English school system has become an exam factory. There is very rarely teacher training that discusses how children learn or about child development and educational psychology.
It is simply a matter of - how can we deliver the exam targets that are being imposed on us by government?
There's constant pressure on teachers but also on students. Many young people are being labelled as failures from a very early age. Even those who succeed in exams are under enormous pressure.
What we want is a system where children enjoy learning and that means providing resources. Class sizes are at 30 and in some London schools it's beginning to go over 30. You cannot meet the individual needs of students in that kind of environment.
The demand which the Socialist Party and the unions have raised is that class sizes shouldn't be 30 they should be a maximum of 20.
One of the broken promises of the last government was that Gordon Brown promised to close the gap between the funding per pupil in state schools and those in fee paying private schools.
That's long been forgotten. But what's good enough for the children of the wealthy should be good enough for every child.
How can we fight for these type of resources in education?
From 3 October the NUT are embarking on a campaign of action short of strike action. This is starting to win victories and give people confidence that union action can work.
In one of our Lewisham schools, there was due to be a staff meeting on the first day of the current action against rising workload.
That meeting exceeded the number of meetings in our guidelines, so I told the head that I would be telling NUT members not to turn up. The meeting was cancelled.
Teachers are beginning to realise that rather than just accepting attack after attack, we can stand together and refuse the constant barrage of new initiatives and demands on our time.
If we stick together we have got the strength to push things back. But we now need to build from the action short of strike action to national strike action.
One older teacher recently said to me, quite correctly, that the problem is that we're still stuck with a contract which doesn't limit our weekly working hours.
We must fight for a contract, as the NUT is campaigning for, that sets a 35-hour week for teachers.
We need a contract that says we should have 20% non-contact time so that we can properly plan during the working day rather than in the evenings and weekends.
We must reduce class sizes. We must stop the government putting pension ages up to 68 and more. Until we begin to do that, our workload will continue to be intolerable.
Teachers are enjoying the solidarity of standing together to change things in our schools. But they know that we have to stand together nationally, hopefully alongside other unions, in firm national strike action.
Only that will bring lasting change for the better for teachers and the young people that we teach.
In The Socialist 3 October 2012:
Education news & analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party NHS campaigning
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Socialist Party news and analysis