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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain


At the chalkface

by New Worker correspondent

EASTER is a welcome break – and not just for the kids. It’s also conference time for the teaching unions so let’s take a look at some of the issues facing education workers in the United Kingdom, particularly those raised at the recent conferences of the two major teachers’ unions.

First, the main teaching union, the National Education Union, the product of a 2017 merger between the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, that met for annual conference in Bournemouth last week.

There, some 1,600 delegates representing their 460,000 members debated the great educational issues of the day. Later the smaller (313,000) NASUWT: The Teachers’ Union held their own meeting over the Easter weekend in Birmingham. Both are affiliated to the TUC.

ambiguous

Both unions have a some- what ambiguous status with many members, regarding them as ‘professional’ staff associations rather than trade unions. However financial necessity has ensured that teaching has long been a heavily unionised occupation.

The NEU does not only represent teachers, but class-room assistants and head- masters which can make it difficult to please everyone, both at a national and local level.

Apart from some NASUWT members employed north of the border, the de- liberations of both unions do not directly concern Scot- land where the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) rules the roost. Needless to say both gatherings devoted much time to discuss matters relating to teachers’ pay, something they want plenty more of.

The NEU voted to commit the union to a national indicative ballot to demand at least an eight per cent rise. But this first stage on the road to industrial action will proceed at a snail’s pace and balloting is unlikely to start before the autumn term.

Jessica Todd, a delegate from Waltham Forest in London spoke for many when she said: “The rise in inflation, energy bills and cost of living makes it impossible to make ends meet. The sad reality is it’s not affordable to live and work in areas like mine. We need a pay campaign to build a big result and it needs to start now. We deserve an above inflation pay rise.”

In his opening address of the less militant NASUWT’s conference, General Secretary Patrick Roach also demanded a programme of “pay restoration for all teachers” which will mean “a minimum” of a 12 per cent increase from this September and warned, “if that means supporting our members with industrial action then so it will be”.

One hopes they have more success than Scottish teachers. At the end of last month EIS members voted by 80-20 per cent in favour of a 2.23 per cent pay offer which should have been settled by April of last year.

EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan said his members had “fired the starting gun on a major campaign for a fairer and far greater, pay settlement for 2022/23 – with the EIS having already formulated, and submitted, a claim for a 10 per cent pay increase for Scotland’s teachers and associated professionals.”

survey

On the eve of their conference NEU released a survey of their English members that report that 44 per cent of state school teachers in England plan to quit within the next five years, with half of those planning to go in two years. While this is based on a small number of respondents, (1,788) this is 17 per cent more than last year.

Apart from below inflation pay rises in recent years, which Patrick Roach pointed out has seen pay falling in real terms by 19 per cent since 2010, teachers have complained of an excessive workload. Last year an analysis by the Labour Party showed that while in 2021 one in ten secondary school pupils were in classes of 31 or more. The present figure was one in seven. There is every sign that this trend will increase.

Inspections

NEU voted to launch a campaign to “Replace Ofsted”, the school inspection quango which teachers have long had a strong dislike to claiming it is “not fit for purpose”. The union complains that Ofsted inspections involve too much work for teachers and that all schools will be inspected by 2025. It is boldly launching a petition to “replace Ofsted with a school accountability system which is supportive, effective and fair” one which will “work with teachers, leaders and other stakeholders to establish a commission to learn how school accountability is done in other high performing education nations” and “develop an accountability system which commands the trust and confidence of education staff as well as parents and voters”.

biased

NEU has long complained Ofsted is “unfairly biased against schools and colleges in poor areas and is far more likely to slap them with an unjust negative judgement – even if they are improving”. It has officially complained to the UK Statistics Authority about Ofsted’s “deliberate misuse of statistics and the deliberate suppression of relevant data”. This is not surprising. Inspectors are not usually liked by those whom they are inspecting.

Private Schools

Fire and rehire battles have often featured in these pages, and the education sector is not entirely immune. Patrick Roach cited the case of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), a group of 23 private schools, where teachers were forced into strike action when the trust withdrew from the national Teachers’ Pension Scheme.

Last month GDST withdrew its fire-and-rehire threat and conceded that teachers would be able to stay in the scheme if they are already part of it and only new staff would be excluded.

This, Roach said was only one of a “growing list of shame,” where private schools were “vying to strip teachers of their pension rights without the slightest justification for doing so.”

He reported that the union had unsuccessfully demanded that the Department for Education issue guidance to schools advising against the use of so-called fire and rehire policies and to publish information on schools and colleges that had used this policy.

More daringly Roach said that if the Independent Schools Council, ignored the problem, “the public seriously needs to question whether these schools should continue to benefit from public contracts or tax subsidies,” which seems to be a roundabout way of saying they should lose their charitable status.

The NEU has also been involved in industrial actions at the GDST. It has also many other complaints about the private sector, which is not all Eton, Harrow and Rugby. Apart from not getting cost of living rises, the majority of support staff in the private sector are paid for term-time only. The Covid crisis also highlighted that sick pay at these establishments is nota- bly worse than in the public sector. Mary Bousted, NEU’s Joint General Secretary said: “During lockdown, our members worked tirelessly to ensure that the best education possible continued while coping with the health risks to themselves and their pupils. Yet their reward is falling living standards, as pay fails to keep pace with inflation.

“In this unprecedented squeeze on living standards, we call on independent school employers to recognise that the success of their schools is down to the staff. They must ensure that salaries keep pace with inflation, pensions are not undermined, and that workload demands are reasonable and balanced.” That’s them told.

Horrible Pupils

Both unions seem to think their pupils are like the girls of St Trinian’s and the Bash Street kids from the Beano. NEU complains they are being corrupted by the easy availability of porn just as the late Mary Whitehouse, who was also a teacher, warned us decades ago.

The Health and Safety Executive has put teaching sixth out of 25 occupational categories for violence. In this case it mostly comes from the little (or not so little) darlings. But teachers also have to face the ire of parents unwilling to accept that their little angels are also a problem.

Schools turn a blind eye and are reluctant to exclude troublesome pupils and though they are allowed to screen pupils for dangerous weapons few, in fact, do so.

Both unions also complain that as a result of teachers being in online contact with pupils during the pandemic many parents think that teachers can be contacted at any time of the day and night, rather than fix appointments to see them at school during the working day.

NASUWT also moaned that school pupils are getting too big and fat. As a result they are at risk from small desks causing stunted physical development. In addition pupils’ feet stick out causing trip hazards to teachers of all sizes.

Supply Teachers

Among the other problems facing the teaching profession is that of the supply and substitute teachers who step in to cover absences. At the NASUWT conference it was pointed out that they suffer from less favourable terms and conditions compared to permanent teachers, which is resulting in a recruitment crisis. In particular they have problems accessing the Teachers’ Pension Scheme.

Commercial

Formerly many were employed by education authorities, but they are now employed by commercial agencies who are primarily interested in maximising profits and take an increasing share of teacher’s pay. At NASUWT conference Patrick Roach said that: “it cannot be forgotten that this year began with schools being brought to an abrupt halt by shortages in supply teachers created by a Government that had failed to retain them”. In future “to prevent future crises in supply of substitute and supply teachers, the Government must finally award the same conditions and entitlements as permanent teachers.

“Returning to a local authority-managed supply pool will begin to rectify the in- equalities in pay and other terms and conditions which have been exacerbated by opportunist supply teacher agencies”.

NEU as the Big Bad Boss

As a footnote it is worth recording that at present the NEU is involved in a dispute which has seen a 94 per cent vote in favour of a 48 hour strike on Wednesday and Thursday of this week. Unhappily for NEU it is the boss and it will be facing the pickets.

The strikers are member of Unite which has thrown its weight behind one of their members employed by the teaching union.

Michael Gavan, a regional officer at the NEU. has been disciplined for matters relating to internal processes and procedures when he supported an NEU member facing withdrawal of legal support. Unite tried to sort things out through NEU’s internal processes and through the conciliation process Acas, with no luck. Regional co-ordinating officer Sarah Cook said: “Our members strongly believe their colleague has been unfairly treated. This matter should have been dealt with informally.

“Strike action could still be averted if the NEU reverses its decision to discipline our member.”

Other Education Battles

In Scotland, Wednesday saw members of the EIS’s further education wing (EIS-FELA) take strike action as part of their own long running battle for higher pay. This is the first instalment of a planned 14 days of discontinuous strike action taking place this month and next.

After 70 per cent of members voted for action, General Secretary Larry Flanagan said “words of gratitude, and a pay offer that does not be- gin to address the pressures on the cost of living, are not enough”.

This was in response to an original offer from College Employers Scotland (CES) which included A £150 one-off payment, and a £850 consolidated payment in recognition of the work done throughout the pandemic which CES says is a “higher pay offer than that already made to and accepted by teachers, civil servants, police, and fire service”.

Predictably

CES Management predictably say the EIS-FELA claim is unaffordable. Gavin Donoghue said “colleges are already in deficit by £5.7m and the sector is facing a real-terms cut in funding of £51.9m this autumn,” adding that “strike action will not result in an increased offer, there simply isn’t any more funding that colleges can put forward.”

So it looks as though the EIS-FELA will have a fight on its hands, but as the local elections are coming up a surprise could be pulled out the biscuit tin at the last minute.

Across the Irish Sea teachers and college lecturers are among those taking part in another discontinuous strike action in the coming fortnight.

Unite is taking action in Northern Ireland at councils, the Education Authority, the NI Housing Executive, further education colleges, schools and the youth service. This strike is a response to the failure by employers to provide an improved pay offer to workers. The offer from the National Joint Council was 1.75 per cent, at a time when inflation is nine per cent.

General Secretary Sharon Graham said “The offer of 1.75 per cent is completely unacceptable – it’s a huge wage cut. All workers have a right to expect pay to keep pace with inflationary pressures and it’s appalling that public sector workers face a choice of heating or eating”.

Garth Scott, the province’s Regional Officer added that: “These workers took a powerful first week of strike action only a matter of weeks ago. They also gathered in large numbers at Stormont to highlight their determination to defend themselves from the cost of living crisis.

“These employers need to address the pay expectations of their workforce. Their failure to do so to date has led to this escalation and the unnecessary disruption that will inevitably result.”

pinnacle

Meanwhile at the pinnacle of the education system, the universities, the long running battle over pensions continues. But the battle has been marred by the failure of the University College Union to meet the legal mandate for strike action. Last week staff at another 24 UK universities successfully secured man- dates to take further action. In all nearly 80 per cent backed strike action with almost 90 going for action short of a strike.

This month cuts drawn up by the universities were im- posed which will see lectur- ers lose over a third from their future guaranteed retirement income. The cuts are based on the value of the valuation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) which had slumped at the start of the pandemic. UCU claim that as the value has rebounded to £88 billion, benefits could easily be increased rather than cut.

The latest ballots meant a total of 37 universities have secured new mandates to take strike action which extend to October 2022.