Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/577/7228
National Union of Teachers conference: Fighting "teaching-on-the-cheap"
Teachers strike on 24 April 2008, photo Paul Mattsson
For a few years now the composition of the leadership of the NUT has been changing. The main left groupings, the STA and CDFU work as one, and the previous right-wing controlling group has grown 'softer'. So most motions at this year's NUT conference were voted through without significant opposition - all except on the issue of "cover", where Socialist Party teachers took up the fight.
The motions and debate revealed very clearly the serious shortcomings of this so-called united leadership on an issue facing workers in lots of industries - how to fight the use of cheap labour to do skilled jobs.
In 2003 after a common strike threat from all teaching unions, the government bowed to pressure to tackle teachers' unbearable workload. The Workload Agreement was brought in, giving some real gains like guaranteed non-contact time for primary teachers, and the off-loading of some administrative duties. However, it also sanctioned the use of non-teachers to teach.
Under the old right-wing leadership of Doug McAvoy, the NUT unanimously refused to sign this deal, as we believed it was the role of teachers to teach and support staff to support. Children have the right to be taught by qualified teachers at all times, including by a supply teacher when their class teacher is absent.
The government virtually blacklisted the NUT for taking this principled stand, and proceeded to allow cover supervisors in some secondary schools, and Higher Level Teaching Assistants (HLTA) in primary schools to cover.
The activists on the ground tried to resist this, and some have tried action. In many places supply teachers still do cover, but in others cover supervisors exist. They are not supposed to "actively teach", only mind classes - in reality an absolute impossibility!
So the fight is at somewhat of a stalemate. In many schools the line is being held. In some, and for a combination of reasons, it is not. However with the introduction in September 2009 of a further provision of the Workload Agreement that teachers will do cover "only rarely," plus the possibility of government cuts in education funding due to the credit crunch, cover is likely to be a major issue. So this debate was very important.
Unfortunately, the soft left and soft right came together, with speakers saying we must accept cover supervisors for three days absence in secondary schools and one day in primaries. This included a Socialist Workers Party member, who urged delegates to take a series of reality checks, to tell activists the ugly truth.
In the past the left have vociferously castigated the right for back-sliding. Now some of the left are doing the same - drawing a line in the sand further back from the previous principled position. The main left leader talked about "real battles in real schools". Some delegates noted that these were the same words the old right wing once used to justify themselves.
It is true that, given the general situation in the past few years, workers, including teachers, have lost out in many respects. Some unions have not exactly encouraged action. Workers quickly assess whether their union has got the determination necessary to fight.
While Doug McAvoy was still general secretary, teachers in an Oldham school tried to stop the introduction of cover supervisors, but the union did not find a way to spread the campaign to other schools. The union leadership delayed and prevaricated so much that in the end a school ballot for strike action was lost by one vote.
However, this difficult impasse is not a reason to enshrine acceptance of defeat in conference policy. Imagine any teacher reading about our decisions (as they are a matter of public record). How keen would they then be to fight?
Imagine a headteacher undermining opposition by simply referring to their union's 2009 policy on cover supervisors. And even worse, imagine schools minister Ed Balls' minions trawling through the conference decisions, scanning over the blurb about principled stands and then seeing it in black and white: The NUT accepts cover supervisors for three days.
A government spokesperson even commented that they envisaged cover supervisors being used for only very short periods. Like three days? And this was agreed by a union with a nominal left majority on the national executive, a left general secretary, a left national treasurer and left vice-president!
Recognising the opposition coming from Socialist Party delegates like Martin Powell Davies and Phil Clarke, Sheila Caffrey, and Jim Thomson, the soft left tried to turn the conference by portraying us as wanting to strike against low-paid support workers. Their leader referred to "the stomach-churning thought" of striking against cover supervisors.
Is this not down to the skill of a fighting leadership? To take up difficult and complex issues about the exploitation of cheap labour and quality of education, and unify all workers?
Just like the Lindsey oil construction workers had to do. It is all very well when the struggle is far away like in Gaza and Venezuela, so no active part is played. Far more difficult closer to home!
Socialist Party teachers argued that we would work assiduously with other education unions, to avoid the exploitation of their members and win better pay and conditions for them as support staff.
That we would work with parents and students to fight for all absences to be covered by properly qualified teachers, and for supply teachers to be paid under the national pay and conditions agreement.
That we would call for existing cover supervisors to be properly trained, qualified and paid as teachers rather than exploited as teachers-on-the-cheap. And we would not baulk at action if that was necessary.
We would work to unite teachers, support staff themselves, parents and students in a fight against school managements that want to solve their budget shortfall by turning low-paid workers into under-paid teachers; and deprive pupils of their right to have a teacher in every class.
In the end we were not strong enough at this stage to take a majority of conference with us, although a significant number voted with us despite all the main groupings in the union uniting against us.
We are confident that the kind of approach we advocated will find a resonance in schools. Our successful resolution that calls for national action to win the funding needed to improve conditions shows the way that a determined battle could be fought.
In The Socialist 29 April 2009:
Socialist Party election campaign
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis