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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain


The Class (room) War

by New Worker correspondent

IN JOURNALIST CIRCLES the month of August is known as the silly season due to the lack of news because Parliament is not sitting, and politicians disappear for the holidays. As might be expected however, the class struggle continues regardless.

In the education world staff at the universities of Leicester and Liverpool have been taking industrial action in defence of jobs and standards.

Leicester University has been at the centre of an uproar after it deleted Chaucer from the English curriculum on the grounds that he is too difficult to read in the original and that by being born in the 14th century Chaucer held views that would make Guardian readers choke. Chaucer was once praised as the “English Homer”; nowadays the bosses clearly prioritise their beloved Leicester Business School instead of serious learning.

The university nearly bankrupted itself by going on an unnecessary building spree financed by costly loans that now have to be repaid at the expense of staff numbers.

Opposition emerged to 26 compulsory redundancies. Apart from three days of strike action, 72 senior staff protested that those being made redundant had been targeted because of the unfashionable approaches of their research, which they said was a serious threat to academic freedom. Another 115 took voluntary redundancy and a further 60 were forced into inferior contracts by the middle of this year. All this was on top of the earlier sacking of over 100 precariously employed tutors and additional voluntary redundancies last year.

The lecturer’s union, the University College Union (UCU), also called for other academics to boycott external marking and any events organised on the premises.

UCU general secretary and former Leicester staff member Jo Grady said that the boycott action has been a success in causing disruption to the marking process. Volunteers stepped in to do the marking, which has been either a total disaster or rather unsatisfactory depending on who you believe, with any checking on the first marking often missed out.

The action will continue, with further strikes planned to coincide with the start of the new academic year late next month. This is in response to another round of the “restructuring programme”, which threatens jobs in professional services.

UCU members have now accepted a deal to end the marking boycott in return for promises that they would receive full pay, but they have voted for action to demand reinstatement of those made compulsory redundant and the ruling out of further compulsory redundancies.

Liverpool

Further north at the University of Liverpool similar action has taken place. Two weeks of strike action took place in the first half of August to prevent cuts at the university’s faculty of health and life sciences. This will affect processing of new admissions following the A-level results being announced.

Forty-seven teaching and research jobs were to be lost, but this has now been reduced after sustained industrial action. The action was also supported by the university’s Guild of Students who also demanded that it halt any compulsory redundancies.

sustained

The university’s UCU branch president and academic-related staff member Anthony O’Hanlon warned that: “Staff have taken sustained industrial action since May in defence of jobs. Management are now facing the prospect of widespread disruption during one of the most crucial periods of the academic year – confirmation and clearing. We have made it abundantly clear we are prepared to take sustained industrial action whenever we are faced with the threat of compulsory redundancies.”

The dispute will continue with a strict ‘working-to-contract’ policy. Discussion is now taking place on further strikes timed to hit the start of the new academic year in September.

> A breath of fresh air

Meantime in schools many unions with members in the sector, including both teachers and support staff, have united to demand action from the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson that he promptly ensure improved ventilation in schools to reduce further COVID‑19 disruption.

Unite’s national officer for education pointed out that: “Public health experts have identified that proper ventilation is a key prerequisite as we enter the next stage in containing coronavirus. Free-flowing air circulation in schools, as well as workplaces and other places where people gather, should be a government priority.” He added that: “During the pandemic, education secretary Gavin Williamson has been shown to be slow-footed in his responses; now he has an opportunity to get on the front foot with increased ventilation for schools underpinned by the necessary funding.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added that: “Government action on ventilation in schools and colleges amounts to little more than recommending that windows are kept open, which is not sustainable in providing a comfortable learning environment in the depths of a British winter.”

Avril Chambers from the GMB denounced: “…timewasting from a shambolic Government. We know that ventilation is critical for reducing the COVID risk in workplaces, and schools are no different. Rather than this token effort, the Department for Education should be working with unions to develop robust guidance on ventilation standards, and putting substantial funding into air filtration systems, and heating systems for when windows have to be opened in winter.”

shocking

Speaking for the biggest teaching union, the National Education Union (NEU), Kevin Courtney deplored the fact that: “It is shocking that, rather than taking concrete steps now to improve the situation, the Department has only just announced a pilot scheme involving 30 schools in Bradford to trial the use of air purifiers, with results not due until the end of the year. Eighteen months into the pandemic, and given the accumulated knowledge about ventilation, kicking the issue into the long grass in this way is simply not good enough.”

Leaders of the smaller teaching unions also weighed in. Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said: “The government should have taken action on this much sooner – they have had well over a year to ascertain the situation in schools and make improvements. Only doing a small CO2 monitoring trial now in one local area is too little too late.”

He was backed up by Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT, who added the useful suggestion that: “The NASUWT believes that CO2 monitors should be in place in every school as part of an effective COVID safety response. Many teachers are still working in rooms which have the windows sealed shut, yet we now know that good ventilation is a key mitigation in helping to reduce the spread of COVID and other viruses in indoor environments.”

urgency

Adding to the sense of urgency, Jon Richards, Assistant General Secretary at Unison, complained that: “Improved ventilation is essential if ministers have any hope of cutting school disruption. But little money has been provided to improve airflow or even monitor it so far. To keep children in school and keep infection rates down, the government must outline a clear, well-funded plan to monitor and filter the air. With a new academic year soon to begin, the government should act right away.” He should know better that to expect prompt action or for a Tory government to spend money willingly. One wonders what is happening at Eton and Harrow.