East London shows the way: strikes are how to fight for state education

Little Ilford school strike, Photo: James Ivens

Little Ilford school strike, Photo: James Ivens   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

James Ivens, East London Socialist Party

Two strikes in Newham, east London have the future of publicly owned and run education at their heart. What’s more, the mini-strikewave which has followed them in surrounding boroughs shows the potential for wider action.

The action against forced expansion of Little Ilford School rages on. Its seventh and eighth strike days on 8-9 December again counted dozens of pickets. This is despite multiple year groups and staff members isolating due to rampant Covid cases.

The strikers’ mood is dogged and participation remains firm. In fact, the school’s National Education Union (NEU) group has grown from 60 to 75.

Too many students, too few staff, and yet more disruptive building plans are the reasons for this dispute. But its political crux is privatisation.

With expeditious strikes in 2018-19, Newham NEU defeated most attempts to turn more local state schools into state-funded, privately run ‘academies’. Under huge pressure, the local Labour council even reluctantly agreed it would formally oppose academisation.

Newham needs new schools

Meanwhile, Labour’s own gentrification policies in London had funnelled working-class families into localities with insufficient school places. What Newham needs is new schools to take the pressure off.

However, the Tory-Liberal central government’s Education Act 2011 introduced ‘academy/free school presumption’. This meant local government could only build new ‘community schools’ – owned and run by the council – if they received no viable pitch for a privately run school.

The final arbiter? The (Tory) education secretary.

In 2015, the Tories updated the ‘presumption clause’ to ‘free schools’ only. Free schools are simply new academies which anyone can set up. Like all academies, they are ‘free’ from national union agreements on pay and conditions, the national curriculum, and even the need for qualified teachers.

So now Newham is saying the only solution to the problem it has created is an under-resourced school expansion – or a free school.

In fact, it could fully resource staffing and student places by using its vast reserves and borrowing powers, and demanding the money back from the U-turn Tories. With some creativity, and backing for the NEU’s campaign, it might even find a way round free school presumption.

In the meantime, the dangers of free schools are underlined by the ongoing dispute at London Design and Engineering UTC, on a University of East London campus. It’s a ‘university technical college’: a secondary-age free school focused on ‘Stem’ subjects.

The vicious school management sacked NEU rep Sharon Morgan – for the crime of asking questions about Covid safety. A judge even decided in her favour, but such rulings are not binding.

Staff and students work in cramped facilities. Like in all schools, workload is increasing while staff numbers fall. One striker told us the time between bells to change classrooms has been cut completely – periods end and begin simultaneously! Are teachers expected to teleport?

Turnover is high. Conditions are unbearable. This is sweated education, and it’s the future the Tories want for school workers and working-class students.

Nonetheless, the brave core of strikers have rattled bosses, stood at the windswept Dockside gate on six days this year. Management attempts to intimidate pickets and keep students away show this.

Both these local strikes are fighting aspects of a national problem: free school presumption. They are also angry and worried about coronavirus safety, falling pay and rising workloads – national problems too.

Socialist lead

Led by Socialist Party member Louise Cuffaro, Newham NEU has shown the mood is there to fight if leaders are willing to lead. And that mood is contagious.

In Hackney, members at a ‘special educational needs and disability’ (SEND) institution – the independent Leaways School – walked out on 8-9 December. NEU members are demanding better pay and sick leave (see article here).

Next-door Tower Hamlets NEU called a strike of SEND educators on 9 December. The Labour council is proposing redundancies in the ‘Support for Learning Service’.

Havering Sixth Form College struck on 10 December for safer Covid measures. All the students are in every day! Outside London, Kingsway Primary in Wirral, Merseyside struck for Covid safety the same day.

With or without a national lead, schools have no way forward but to fight. They must not be left to fight alone. The national leadership of the NEU needs to learn from east London and have the confidence to build ballots on industrial action nationally.