Teachers’ unions must fight to reverse disastrous Tory education policies
James Kerr, teacher and Lewisham Socialist Party
Schools return this week for a new academic year with the usual mix of emotions but with the prospect of budget cuts lingering in the background.
Controversy also hangs over some schools, including the exam scandals at Eton and Winchester.
The Guardian’s recent coverage of St Olave’s grammar school in Orpington, and its policy of removing students who ‘underperform’ at AS Level, will have been met with shakes of the head from many teachers and parents but it’s not a major shock. Partly because it is unsurprising that a selective school would exclude students in order to massage results but mainly because the practice is not that uncommon.
In fact, follow up coverage revealed 20,000 students don’t complete their Key Stage 5 studies, some voluntarily but many taken off roll by schools concerned about their results and league table position, including those who are supposedly non-selective.
How many young people have had their education interrupted because of accountability measures? The St Olave’s students had the benefit of legal support and press coverage that many students don’t have access to.
This is just the latest symptom of a culture where pressure on schools and individual teachers to hit targets drives a system placed under even greater strain by cuts introduced by the Tory government.
There is a crisis in education developing on a number of different fronts and it is vital there is a powerful organised response from the labour movement, parents and students.
For the past year warnings about cuts to school funding have dominated discussion around education. After the general election a Survation poll estimated that in the region of 750,000 people switched votes on the issue of school funding alone.
The music of the future was heard in schools like Forest Hill in Lewisham, south London, where staff took 12 days of strike action against huge cuts as a result of a £1.3 million budget deficit and numerous staff redundancies.
47% of schools have increased class sizes and reduced their curriculum because of budget pressures. A generation of young people are seeing the things that enrich their lives and inspire them being taken away to balance the books.
The fallout from the general election prompted education secretary Justine Greening to divert £1.3 billion from the Free Schools budget towards local authority schools and academies. But with no injection of fresh cash into the system, cuts will still hit schools hard.
Around the country there have been successful events bringing teachers, parents and students together – like the 1,000-plus rally in Tower Hamlets in May. These can provide firm foundations to build mass campaigns to halt the cuts. As with the Forest Hill campaign, parent and student action will be necessary alongside industrial action by school staff.
The new school year brings the launch of the new National Education Union (NEU), an amalgamation of the NUT and ATL. Now the biggest teachers’ union and the fourth largest union in the Trades Union Congress, it potentially has enormous power to lead the fight in defence of education, but only by adopting a clear and bold winning strategy.
At the November 2016 special conference that paved the way for the NEU, Socialist Party Teachers raised opposition to the truncated process to ratify the rule book of the new union and the impact some of the contents of that rule book would have on the union’s ability to respond quickly and effectively in mounting industrial action.
We agreed that the NEU could be a ‘game changer’ but that is not a given and it will need to be not just a big but a fighting union – bringing together the struggles of teachers and support staff on the ground and on a national basis.
This year will be a defining one for the immediate future of education and there will be no hiding place for the new union, which will be tested on the issue of school funding in particular.
When asked about national strike action at the launch of the NEU, joint general secretary Mary Bousted said: “My view is that if you’re looking at education funding, the power of information, campaigning and the moral case you can make is extremely powerful. I think for funding that’s probably a more effective route.”
While a thorough and comprehensive campaign of information can be effective, it would be naive to think that the ‘moral case’ will defeat a government intent on attacking state education.
Under the new anti-trade union law teachers have much higher thresholds to meet for national strike action. But with the combined resources of the NUT and ATL used in a major campaign, and the kind of expertise put on show with the schoolcuts.org.uk website, then even a high threshold could be obtained.
We should also remind ourselves that in the USA, right-wing legislators have previously set ballot thresholds at a level they were sure teacher unions would not meet and were proven wrong.
It is not only on funding that urgent action is required. High stakes testing in schools is damaging young people and the teachers who teach them.
This is particularly acute at primary school where young children are dragged through tests that most adults would struggle with and where the pressure takes its toll. For example,eight out of ten headteachers reported a rise in mental health issues for children during exam time.
Even a House of Commons select committee has acknowledged this, stating in its report: “This high stakes system… is leading to a narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’, as well as affecting teacher and pupil wellbeing.”
A motion at this year’s NUT conference agreed a ballot of leadership members this term which could pave the way for a boycott of the tests in 2018. Taking this forward is an immediate task for the new union.
Testing also contributes to excessive workload for teachers, which is forcing many to leave the profession. In fact, a survey found one in ten teachers had left in a 12 month period with the majority citing workload as the factor driving them out.
In some authorities, like Nottingham and Coventry, Fair Workload Charters are being introduced to try to retain teachers. Campaigning for these to be rolled out across the country and ultimately incorporated into a legally binding national contract for all teachers is essential to halt the exodus from teaching.
Recruitment and retention has become particularly difficult in London schools with the vast majority of headteachers reporting difficulties in recruiting teachers in all areas.
One factor compounding this recruitment and retention crisis is public sector pay. If teacher pay had simply kept pace with inflation, it would be £5,000 a year higher on average.
While funding may be at the forefront of teachers’ minds, pay cannot be ignored and, with the potential for industrial action across the public sector to break the pay cap, demands for an end to performance-related pay and for guaranteed pay progression for all teachers need to be incorporated into campaigns.
This is a weak and divided government. Graham Brady, chair of the Tory backbench MPs’ 1922 Committee, was forced to concede in the aftermath of the general election that the flagship plan to roll out new grammar schools was dead in the water. This comes after numerous u-turns by the Department for Education in recent years and shows their vulnerability when faced with opposition.
It also comes at a time of growing popularity for the policies put forward by Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto at the general election. The idea of a National Education Service, providing free education from cradle to grave, is popular. It has the potential to not only attract new teachers but also win some back to the profession they’ve left behind.
It would inspire young people who can see a future where their interests, hopes and dreams are nurtured within education, not dulled and dented.
Corbyn must guarantee the ‘renationalisation’ of education, with academies and free schools brought back under local authority control and an end to the current accountability system which distorts the way schools are run so much.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Paulo Friere’s ‘Pedagogy of the oppressed’ which joined the long tradition of critiquing the way education is run under capitalism. 50 years on many of his observations are more relevant than ever.
Socialist ideas will be vital in providing answers to the big questions students, parents and teachers have, and will come to the fore in the struggles ahead.