Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 29 April 2009

National Union of Teachers conference: Fighting "teaching-on-the-cheap"

Teachers strike on 24 April 2008, photo Paul Mattsson

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.

Linda Taaffe

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.

Cover supervisors

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.

Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.

In The Socialist 29 April 2009:

Fight for jobs!

Youth Fight for Jobs launch conference

Olympics: Defend jobs, pay and conditions

Socialist Party election campaign

European elections: Build support for a workers' alternative to Labour

Stop Press

STOP PRESS: Key union activist sacked

Socialist Party workplace news

Sacked workers protest in Newcastle

Socialist Party news and analysis

Budget 2009 - debts passed to all of us

Does the 'botch it' budget benefit young people?

It's tough at the top!

Jack Jones obituary

International socialist news and analysis

Workers' internationalism: A history of the first four socialist international organisations

Sri Lanka war: Rajapakse regime ignores Tamils' plight in renewed army offensive

NUT feature

National Union of Teachers conference: Fighting "teaching-on-the-cheap"

Hands off Lewisham Bridge school!

Being a new teacher - a shock to the system


Home   |   The Socialist 29 April 2009   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate  

Related links:


triangleMoney doesn't make up for cuts - education unions must organise for funding and against Tory attacks

triangleLeicestershire - No more austerity!

triangleNEU conference: organise for the key battles to come

triangleGovernment fails to deliver on funding and teachers' pay - demand action to win 5%

triangleNEU conference: Teachers vote to strike over pay and workload


triangleCarlisle election meeting: Education - time to make the mega-rich and corporations pay

triangleThe Socialist Inbox

triangleIlford: parents and teachers unite against school cuts

triangleAcademy strike - standing up to 'bullying' management forces climbdown


triangleSave education - Kick out the Tories

triangleNEU support staff dismiss Tory 'extra funding' hype

triangleLabour votes to abolish academies and private schools


triangleGloucestershire Socialist Party: Workers' democracy vs corporate 'leadership'

triangleFight for your future - join the socialists

Reports and campaigns

Reports and campaigns


Socialist Party

Fight for your future - join the socialists



Strikes: more determined than ever


Socialist Students

Students and workers united in struggle


South Western Railway

It's a strike to ensure the safety of the travelling public



Surrey firefighters to ballot on Christmas industrial action



Social workers lobby Hull City Council


Climate change

Climate strikes: Students and trade unionists protest together


Socialist Party

Why I joined: "Proud to be a socialist"



Carlisle election meeting: Education - time to make the mega-rich and corporations pay



Workplace news in brief


West Midlands

Solid support for guards on West Midlands Trains


Climate change

Climate change election debate - Corbyn offers best green solutions but needs to go further


The Socialist

Selling the Socialist


Royal Mail

Royal Mail court ruling - national reps meeting and solidarity action essential



Jared Wood overwhelmingly elected to RMT executive

triangleMore Reports and campaigns articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777


Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 0798 202 1969

East Mids: 0773 797 8057

London: 020 8988 8786

North East: 0784 114 4890

North West 07954 376 096

South East: 020 8988 8777

South West: 07759 796 478

Southern: 07833 681910

Wales: 07935 391 947

West Mids: 02476 555 620

Yorkshire: 0114 264 6551



Alphabetical listing

December 2019

November 2019

October 2019

September 2019

August 2019

July 2019

June 2019

May 2019

April 2019

March 2019

February 2019

January 2019