NUT: holding the line or fighting to win?

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Rob Owen, Croydon NUT young members officer, argues that, despite the reticence of other unions, if teachers want to defeat Gove’s reforms they need to keep fighting

The March 26 teachers’ strike, led by the NUT, will see hundreds of thousands of teachers take strike action. One of the results of the waves of reforms and cuts in education has been the increasing politicisation of teachers. There will be lively, large, political demonstrations of striking teachers across the country. The London demonstration will assemble at 11.30am by Oxford Circus to march to a rally at Westminster Central Hall.

Teachers stand to lose thousands in pay and pension deductions as a result of Gove’s reforms.  The union is right to include wider questions of workload, stress and the high dropout rate from the profession in its publicity. Discussion in staff rooms has seen teachers balancing up political support for the strike against commitments to students upcoming exams. The opposition to Gove is near universal amongst education workers, even those not taking part in the action this time.

The long gap since the last national strike has required NUT activists to re-tread arguments about the purpose of taking action.  A well supported strike is central to showing Gove the NUT can continue to resist. It also maintains pressure on schools, local authorities and academy chains to stick to the national pay scale despite the option to reduce pay progression. Yet the national campaign for the strike has been muted. Instead of giving members a clear message of why they should support the strike, the union has seemed nervous about building it. This may well result from low confidence in striking without the NASUWT. NASUWT, the second largest teaching union, took joint strike action with the NUT last autumn, but has decided against further action this school year.

The NUT was right to call action independently; striking sends a clear message that the Union is prepared to, and can, strike alone. If we had not called the strike we would have given Gove a green light to press ahead with his reforms. The NUT can build by offering a clear strategy for defeating Gove. However, our strategy has rested too heavily on the need for unity between unions. NASUWT’s persistent reticence to take action has delayed the NUTs own action. These delays have hampered our ability to develop a strategy that has the potential to defeat Gove.

Our Union leadership contains figures capable of leading a fight for an alternative vision of education. But their vision needs to link to an industrial strategy of timely and escalating action. Last year’s town centre rallies drew thousands and showed the support for an alternative vision of education. At a school level, activists need to take a lead in calling meetings that discuss the wider questions around education and how we oppose Gove’s impact inside our own schools.

Gove’s political vision

Gove’s speeches in favour of a “traditional” education are dragging the educational agenda to the right. Attacks on the teaching of black and feminist history are just one example of attempts to re-centre education around Tory values. He openly defends his vision of an education where the “most able” (and usually most well off) students are rewarded at the expense of the rest. He has been widely attacked, even by former Tory education minister Lord Baker for thinking that “if he did it, then anybody in the country could do what he did: whether they’re orphans, whether they’re poor, whether they’re impoverished, they can all rise to the top.” Sometimes Gove may just be playing to the Tory right, yet on other occasions, notably the English GCSE grading fiasco, he has had an immediate impact.

That scandal saw the government move the goal posts for a C grade in English halfway through the year, failing thousands of students in the process. In the long term this move
towards a quota or cap on the number of A*-C grades means that a given percentage of students must “fail” irrespective of their competence. The idea that some must fail to give grades value runs counter to the ambition of all teachers to fight for the best outcomes for every pupil.

Sadly, Gove’s impact runs deeper than the final grades. His changes to the artificial market in education are intensifying pressure on schools with more disadvantaged students. The spread of academies and “free schools” may be more visible, but the impact inside individual schools is just as damaging. As funding cuts bite, league tables and fear of inspection are forcing schools to focus on assessing students’ academic levels from infant school onwards and managing their “progress data” in pursuit of headline A*-C grades. The adoption of aggressive performance management has combined with external pressure from league tables to put teachers under huge stress. In many academies almost half of all teachers will have responsibilities for managing an area of progress data. This exceeds the norm in the private sector where there is on average 1 manager for every 8 workers.

The introduction of performance related pay will judge success not on what pupils learn, but how successfully teachers meet school targets. Performance related pay will become another way of increasing workload when an average teacher in an academy already works about 60 ours a week. Studies of performance management in other industries show it acts to drive up the workload of all staff and drive down overall pay. The risk aversion performance management creates will further undermine the potential for creative and progressive approaches to education.

Targets, pressure and workload are driving good teachers out of the profession. We need a political vision for the future of education and a national campaign that motivates teachers to fight. Activists in the teaching unions can help to promote a discussion over the direction of education, linking it to increases in workload and the undermining of collective control over what is taught. We face a real danger that Gove might win the battle over pensions and pay, but whatever happens we are still fighting to win the war.

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