Friday, 5 July 2019

A few reflections on leaving London

Regrettably, I was unable to keep a commitment to speak at the Hammersmith and Fulham NEU end-of-term social last night, but sent a message which I am told went down well. So here's what I sent - and would have liked to have said in person:

"I am really sorry that I can't be with you tonight but, as some of you know, life has dealt me some unexpected cards and I am having to learn to follow Den's wise counsel and 'put family first'.

The end of the school year is always a good time for reflection, and ending my post as London Regional Secretary even more so - so here are some brief parting reflections for you to consider.

As school trade unionists we know we are organising in challenging times, with the Union merger adding extra challenges that have not always been sufficiently recognised in advance.

The high level of staff turnover in London schools is a concrete expression of the damaging effects of school cuts, inadequate pay, excessive workload, academisation, and the stress on staff and students alike of working under an 'exam factory' culture.

Yet those challenges also provide opportunities for trade unionists to make a difference to our members and the communities we support. The 49% turnout across the London Region in the primary assessment ballot that closed this week gives another example of how London NEU can lead by example and show how, if we organise and give a correct lead, the underlying discontent could be turned into successful action.

Hammersmith and Fulham NEU can certainly be proud of its latest indicative ballot results – a 58% turnout plus over 40% of your primary members voting ‘YES’ to industrial action.

These results are further testament to the work that has been done over years by local reps and Officers to build and maintain the Union. I am sure that all of you here will continue to build the NEU where a Union's real strength lies - not in Union Offices, although they are needed too - but, above all, in the workplace. With trained and confident workplace reps, backed up by well-organised school groups, we can not only successfully defend those individuals who may sometimes need Union support but, above all, we can organise collectively to make gains for every Union member.

And finally, when staff and schools are being unfairly graded, blamed and criticised, we need our colleagues to understand that even our best efforts will never be able to fully counteract the poverty and inequality which will remain the main influence on educational outcomes. That's why as trade unionists we must always remember to also play our part in the wider labour movement to build a society that puts an end to inequality, here and across the world.

So, please think of me as I strive to dust off my teaching skills when I return to the classroom in Cumbria and I will, in turn, rely on you to continue to make a difference for both the educators and the educated in Hammersmith and Fulham".

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Education under a Labour Government

"Education has always been a key question for the labour movement – and rightly so. 

If you go back to the pioneers of our movement, to the self-educated Chartists and the founders of mass trade unionism, to the first victorious Labour candidates fighting for seats on the London School Board, to Marx and other socialist theoreticians, then the struggle to win genuine education for the working class has always been a key part of the wider struggle for a better future, for a socialist future.

After all, the struggle for better pay and conditions, for better housing and health, are not ends in themselves – but to provide the environment in which the human personality can genuinely flourish, where the skills and talents of all individuals can be developed to their maximum for the benefit of society as a whole – to coin a phrase, for the many, not the few.

The National Education Union, formed from the merger of the ATL and NUT unions, although not affiliated to any political party, is proud to say we stand in those traditions of struggling for a better future and for a high quality, comprehensive education system for all.
As a union of over 450,000 members, we have the potential strength to influence the debates needed around education and to organise to make the changes necessary. In London, our density is greatest of all – with 75,000 members, largely teachers but also support staff.  

Barnet – with over 3300 in-service members, is our largest London District of all – although that brings both its complications and its strengths.

The NEU welcomes Labour’s commitment to develop a National Education Service which, alongside policies needed to eradicate poverty and inequality, has the potential to transform education and the lives of children and young people.

However, we have to recognise that those policies will only be won, and implemented, through a struggle against those who do not share our common values, who stand not for equality, but for inequality and austerity. 

That means understanding how the consensus in favour of a well-funded comprehensive education in the interests of a society as a whole was broken at the end of the post-war boom, From a time when even Margaret Thatcher could preside over more grammar schools becoming comprehensive than under any other Education Secretary, capitalism entered stormier times where education for all was a luxury it no longer saw fit to afford. 

The gains of comprehensivation – while far from perfectly implemented – were wrecked by the imposition of neo-liberal education policies implemented in Britain – and internationally – with the aim of cutting costs by making schools compete in an education marketplace, while opening up education as another source of income for private companies and Academy Trusts.

The politicians first created that marketplace by making sure all schools could be compared like supermarket goods – through a prescribed National Curriculum and standardised tests to compare school – and teacher – performance. Then, instead of blaming Governments for failing to address poverty, for failing to fund education, the blame could be placed on individual schools, Heads and staff – and their trade unions - for failing to perform as well as their competitors. Just to make sure, Ofsted was created to label the failures and make sure they were turned over into the hands of the Academy Trusts.

For a while, that ideological attack – where, I am afraid, there was a new consensus that included Conservative and New Labour politicians succeeded. Education spending has been cut, locally accountable community schooling has been dismantled in many areas, SATs and Ofsted have forced up stress and workload on staff and students alike.

Since 2015, the NEU calculates that schools have had their funding cut by £5.4 billion in real terms. 91% of schools have had their funding cut. In Barnet, schools have lost out by £32M between 2015 and 2019 – that’s £290 per pupil. 

It’s not just the NEU that understands the reality of education cuts. Just today, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has produced an analysis of Conservative leadership contenders’ claims about providing extra spending for schools (although the fact that the Tories have to talk about it shows the pressure they are under). They confirm that existing government plans for departmental spending forecast further cuts – not increased education expenditure.

Buildings maintenance, staff training and learning resources have been cut across the sector. That’s bad enough - but the large majority of a school budget is spent on staff. So school cuts have meant cutting TAs, not replacing teachers as they leave, meaning larger class sizes, needs left unmet, even higher workload for those staff left. The Government’s own workforce statistics show that, while England’s schools have had 137,000 more pupils, schools have had 5,400 fewer teachers to support them - and similar reductions in support staff numbers too.

Some areas of education face even sharper attacks – like nursery schools, post-16 and special needs provision.

If you want to know more, this Saturday, June 22, a ‘Together for Education’ rally at Westminster Central Hall will be gathering together trade unions, councillors and campaigners – you’d be welcome to attend if you want to know more.

But now parents and voters are seeing through the spin and realising what is at stake.

The same goes for high stakes testing like the SATs tests at 7 and 11 and the baseline, phonics and multiplication tests used to compare schools.

More and more staff and parents are beginning to realise that these tests are nothing to do with improving education – they are in fact unreliable and unnecessary – giving parents little of the real information they want and need about their child’s progress. Of course teachers and schools have always relied on assessment to inform their work – and to inform, children, their parents and carers – but imposed high-stakes testing is to label children, not help them.

Their purpose lies in the marketisation of education, putting pressure on staff to teach to the test, narrowing the curriculum and, in turn, putting pressure on young children, all because of the threat of failure – personal failure leading to capability threats and rejected pay progression – and institutional failure through Ofsted grading and their position in league tables.

Again, the tide is turning – and the fact that Jeremy Corbyn announced to NEU Conference in April that an incoming Labour Government would scrap SATs is welcome testament to that change.

But, as with cuts, an appeal to reason won’t change the mind of a Tory Government – why would they be electing any of their leadership candidates if good sense was anything to do with it!

That’s why the NEU are presently conducting an indicative ballot of all our primary members asking members whether they would be prepared to take action to boycott high-stakes testing next year.

The ballot ends on July 2nd – and any help you can give in supporting Barnet NEU in contacting its primary members would perhaps be one of the most urgent and concrete steps that could come out of this meeting tonight.

In conclusion, decades of market-driven education policy – and the twin attacks of spending cuts and high-stakes testing, have damaged the well-being and life chances of too many young people. We need to stop those attacks – and win a Government that will look after the interests of the billions, not the billionaires – and not least, the interests of our young people by constructing the education of the future".

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Three Mile Island - 40 years on

ON THE MORNING OF 28 MARCH 1979, pumps feeding water into the steam generator at Three Mile Island’s No.2 (TMI-2) nuclear reactor near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA, failed. Emergency shutdown systems appeared to have worked correctly - but they hadn’t.

Like all nuclear power plants, TMI-2 used the heat energy produced by nuclear fission reactions to turn water into steam. Just like a power station burning coal or gas, the steam pressure then turns a turbine that spins the electrical generator. However, nuclear fission doesn’t just generate energy. It also produces dangerous waste products like radioactive caesium, iodine, strontium and plutonium. Some remain highly radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

Unlike the later disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima, a major release of radioactivity was avoided at TMI-2 - but only just. For 16 hours, plant operators struggled to make sense of their instrument readings. A faulty control panel meant they didn’t realise that a safety valve had jammed open, allowing coolant to escape and the reactor core temperature to soar.

By the time they had worked out what was wrong, half of the uranium fuel had melted. The damaged TMI-2 unit had to be permanently closed. It took 14 years and $1 billion to decontaminate the plant by removing two million gallons of radioactive water and putting over a hundred tons of debris and fuel into secure storage.

The nuclear power industry claims nobody suffered health effects from the radioactivity that was released during the TMI-2 incident. However, that is disputed by local cancer sufferers who blame the accident, and the government’s attempts to play down the dangers at the time, for their illness.

What’s certain is that the Three Mile Island accident dealt a severe blow to the idea that nuclear fission could provide safe, clean energy. The US government was forced to introduce more stringent construction and safety regulations. This put a further squeeze on the profits that could be made from building hugely expensive nuclear power stations.  

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster, when a fire in the graphite core of a nuclear reactor released radioactive plumes for ten days, fuelled public opposition further. In the USA, over 100 orders for new reactors were cancelled and no new plants were approved until 2012.

The advocates of nuclear power then tried to reinvent fission as ‘green’ energy since, unlike burning fossil fuels, it does not generate the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. However, the 2011 Fukushima disaster then provided another deadly reminder of the disastrous consequences of systems failure in a nuclear power station.

The disaster at Chernobyl was a product of an impatient, unaccountable Soviet Union bureaucracy pressuring technicians into a reckless experiment aimed at speeding up repair times. Fukushima was the product of a reckless private operator, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, ignoring the risk from tsunamis and earthquakes. But could these risks be avoided if nuclear power was part of a nationalised energy system under workers’ management?

A genuine safety culture could reduce risks but, just as at Three Mile Island, the chance of human error and mechanical failure is always present. Even if an accidental release of radiation is avoided, every radioactive reactor eventually has to be decommissioned, at huge cost, when the power station closes.

They can’t just be dismantled like an old factory. The radioactive material has to be safely and securely stored for many thousands of years before its contents could be safe to release into the environment. A 2018 government report estimates the cost of cleaning up just the UK’s 17 nuclear sites could be over £200 billion.

Many of the UK’s nuclear power plants are already operating beyond their originally planned lifetimes as it is. The Hunterston B reactor in Ayrshire has been out of action ever since 370 hairline cracks were found in its ageing graphite core. They can’t be mended so EDF, its private operator, has applied for permission to increase the safety limit to 700 cracks instead!

The fact that only one new UK nuclear power station is under construction, Hinkley Point C in Somerset, is because the economics of nuclear power are now so clearly flawed. This white elephant, a legacy of New Labour's Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s support for the nuclear industry, will, if its technical flaws are overcome, end up being the most expensive power station ever built. The cost will be met by bill payers through a deal that guarantees that EDF will be paid about twice the actual going rate for the new reactor’s electricity output.

Not everyone has struck lucky like EDF. Hitachi and Toshiba have pulled out of their plans to build other new nuclear power stations planned for Wales and Cumbria. In Pennsylvania, the remaining Three Mile Island No.1 reactor is itself facing shutdown this year - not through any accident but because it’s been making a financial loss.

Instead of continuing to subsidise risky and expensive nuclear power, urgent investment is needed in the further development of wind, solar and other renewable sources while rapidly improving energy efficiency. 

Energy generation and transport industries should be part of a nationalised environmental plan of production. This is the only solution to urgently tackling climate change while also providing skilled jobs, particularly for those presently employed in the nuclear industry.

Austerity-ridden capitalism is unable to make the investment needed to rapidly and safely phase out nuclear power, far less the global plan needed to tackle global climate change. For that, socialist change is needed.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

What does the Government evidence to the STRB tell us about teacher pay and retention in London?

The Government provided evidence to the School Teachers’ Review Body in January 2019 that needs to inform the NEU’s campaign for improved pay and conditions for London’s teachers:

1) A campaign over London teachers’ pay also needs to be a campaign for improved funding

It is no accident that the Government’s submission (or, in reality, instruction) to the STRB starts by emphasising the economic outlook and the need for “fiscal discipline”. In the Government’s view, “public sector pay remains competitive” and any awards need to be based on “affordability”.

The evidence also stresses the particular need for affordability in schools. As usual, the Government stresses that schools should use performance pay and pay scale autonomy to limit costs but “while recognising the importance of schools’ flexibility to set their pay policies in light of local circumstances, we continue to consider it very important that the STRB pay due attention to the likely impact of its recommendations on schools’ budgets, in the light of this affordability evidence” (para. 45). It also warns that “although the government provided funding, through a teachers’ pay grant, to support the implementation of the 2018 award, it should not be assumed this will be the case again for the 2019 award” (para. 34).

In summary (para.4), it states that “the evidence sets out the importance of ensuring that the pay award does not place undue pressure on school budgets, with a 2% increase in per teacher pay being affordable nationally” and that any awards “also need to be considered in relation to other areas where schools may wish to invest (such as school improvement, teacher continuing professional development, pastoral support and teaching resources)”.

It is therefore clear that any campaign for increased salaries for London teachers also needs to be linked to a campaign for improved funding for London schools.

2) A London pay campaign needs to relate to a national campaign over declining teacher salaries

In its initial submission to the STRB this January, the NEU took up the issue of “affordability” pointing out that “last year, the STRB sought to address the deterioration in the value of teacher pay and the “further deterioration” in teacher supply. Although insufficient in our view, the STRB’s recommendation for a pay increase of 3.5 per cent across the board showed that it understood the need for a whole-market signal on pay to address teacher supply problems. The Government’s unprecedented decision to refuse to implement this recommendation was not based on any refutation of the STRB’s case, but on funding grounds. The Government’s damaging policy on education funding was therefore used to justify further damage to teacher pay and teacher supply”.

The submission goes on to argue “that the STRB should not feel constrained by questions of affordability in its recommendations but should focus on the actions it believes are needed to restore the appropriate value of teacher pay and address the recruitment and retention crisis. It is then the Government’s responsibility to address the resource implications”.

As it goes on to explain, “Government found additional money for teachers’ pay last year after stating that no additional resources would be available. The Government can choose to find additional resources again – this is a political choice which rests with the Government”.

The submission points out that, nationally, “teacher starting pay, when expressed as an hourly rate based on the average 54.4 hours worked by teachers according to the latest DfE Workload Survey, is just 13 per cent above the National Minimum Wage (NMW). This gap has narrowed significantly”.

Interestingly, a similar analysis carried out by the NFER (Worth, J., Lynch, S., Hillary, J., Rennie, C. and Andrade, J. (2018). Teacher Workforce Dynamics in England. Slough: NFER) is referred to in the Government’s own STRB submission. Although this uses median earnings, so arrives at higher hourly rates, in analysing a not unreasonable scenario that assumes that teachers also work three weeks in their holidays, it concludes that this “would mean teachers work the most hours per year of the three professions [comparing to police officers and nurses] and have the lowest real average hourly pay”. Their analysis also concludes that “teachers’ average gross annualised pay per hour has fallen over time, due to falling real-terms pay and longer weekly working hours”.

In conclusion, the NEU submission calls on the STRB to recommend:
• an immediate fully-funded pay increase for all teacher pay points and allowances of 5 per cent in September 2019;
• further pay increases for teachers as soon as possible, to restore the cut in teacher pay against inflation since 2010; and
• a further urgent review of teacher pay levels, to establish appropriate pay levels for the long term that will support recruitment and retention by ensuring that teacher pay levels are competitive with those of other graduate professions.

The NEU submission at this stage has not provided a specific demand for an increase in pay for teachers on the London scales. It warns that “real-terms pay cuts and restrictions on pay progression affect teachers across England. Just as teacher supply problems are systemic and require a holistic response, regional pay would provide no solutions and would create new problems” but makes clear that “we do, however, have concerns about the current operation of the long-established London pay area arrangements. The STRB noted concerns on this area in its 28th Report (STRB, paragraph 5.9); and we will discuss these issues in more detail in the context of the forthcoming remit on the pay framework”.

3) The Government’s own evidence points to the need for improved pay for teachers in London

To what degree a campaign on London teachers’ salaries should relate to a national pay and funding campaign is a strategic question. However, what is clear from the evidence already provided by the Government is that there is a clear case for increased salaries for teachers covered by London pay arrangements.

a) The STRB’s 28th Report (as eventually released in July 2018)

In its 28th Report referred to above, the STRB stated in paragraph 5.9 cited above that “Some consultees raised concerns about the impact that the current geographical bandings have on teacher recruitment and retention for some schools, particularly those near the borders of the Inner London, Outer London and Fringe areas. There are also some distinctive features of the teacher labour market in London that may mean that the differentials between these bandings need to be reviewed”.

The Report showed evidence that the relative position of classroom teachers’ median earnings in all regions has continued to deteriorate but that the comparison is worse in the South-East and London, but with Outer London teachers suffering a significant relative decline over the last five years:

b) Government Evidence to the STRB (January 2019)

In its latest evidence to the STRB, Government evidence illustrates specific concerns about London teacher pay, recruitment and retention. It points out, based on NFER analysis (see below) “that system-level retention is more challenging in certain subjects, particularly science and modern foreign languages, and in certain areas, particularly London. This analysis, in common with the department’s, found that retention is most challenging in the first five years of a teacher’s career. The STRB will want to consider these retention trends in deciding how to best target its recommendations to tackle retention challenges”.

Its own School Workforce census figures, released as the “Teacher Analysis Compendium 4” in September 2018, it had already confirmed the worse rate of retention in the London Region: 


In this latest evidence it provides further relevant regional data.

This table confirms the higher ‘wastage rates’ of teachers leaving the profession in London:

This graph indicates that, while median salaries in general may be higher in Inner London, this is not the case for academies. This must presumably be due to either to having a younger workforce – suggesting higher turnover -and/or greater use of performance pay measures to prevent pay progression.

c) NFER Paper - Teacher Workforce Dynamics in England (October 2018)

Further, in the NFER paper Teacher Workforce Dynamics in England referred to in its evidence, the NFER researchers sought to develop the clear evidence from the Department for Education’s own 2016 local analysis of the teacher workforce where, as they state “London stands out from the analysis as being different to the other regions, having higher than average rates of teachers leaving the profession, proportions of unqualified teachers and proportion of schools with vacancies or temporary staff”.

To make sure that this wasn’t just a general urban effect, the NFER researchers analysed the data in comparison to other large cities and concluded that “there is something unique about London that makes the teacher supply challenge particularly acute”. It went on to produce data showing that:

  • “London has a higher rate of teachers leaving the profession than other areas ... Overall, London loses 0.5 per cent of its workforce each year from teachers moving to other schools, after accounting for teachers moving to a school in London from a school outside London. Again, this is not the case in other large cities”. 
  • “Teachers aged in their 30s and 40s tend to move out of London” putting particular pressures on recruitment into middle and senior leadership. “While these opportunities for quick progression can initially attract teachers to London, it may leave teachers feeling underqualified and therefore overwhelmed by their extra responsibilities”.
  •  “London has seen the fastest growth in pupil numbers ... The high rates of London teachers leaving the profession and moving to schools in other areas are despite London having seen the largest increase in teacher demand in recent years”. 

    The Report concludes that “Our analysis suggests there is something unique about London that makes the teacher supply challenge particularly acute. London has considerably more teachers leaving the profession compared to other areas, including other large cities. It also suffers from greater churn of teachers moving to schools outside of London, particularly experienced teachers aged in their 30s and 40s. Small and medium-sized areas, rather than other cities, are the biggest destinations for teachers who move out of London. The high cost of living is the main barrier to longer-term retention of teachers in London”

    d) Teacher Supply, Retention and Mobility in London (Worth et al, 2018) 

    The NFER paper also refers to further evidence produced by Worth et al in another NFER report produced with the GLA on behalf of Teach London in May 2018. This similarly concludes that “the findings demonstrate that London’s teacher labour market faces a particularly acute challenge over the coming decade and that this challenge is specific to London rather than a general pattern across other large English cities”.

The report concludes that “the most important factor driving low teacher retention in London is higher housing costs” and produces an analysis comparing rents with leaving rates for younger staff:

It also gives data to show that:

  • London has a higher rate of teachers leaving the profession [i.e. the state sector]. “Between 2010 and 2015 an average of 10.5% of non-retiring teachers left teaching each year in London (around 4,000 teachers per year). This compares to the national average of 7.5%”. 
  • More London schools have vacancies and temporarily-filled posts than in other areas.  
  • London’s primary and secondary middle leaders are leaving the profession at a higher rate than in other areas (Figure 13 shows an average for the period from 2010-2015).

The Report concludes by proposing two possible solutions.
(1) “housing policy interventions ... to retain more teachers in London”
(2) “to increase the pay of teachers in London”

4) What is the effective ‘London Allowance” after the September 2018 Pay Award?

Following the Government’s failure to implement the STRB’s recommendation of a 3.5% rise across the board in September 2018, the lower 2% increase on the UPS now means that a M6 teacher in Inner London is paid more than a UPS1 teacher in a school covered by the Outer London pay area.

The table below shows the effective ‘London Allowances’ on different scale points based on a comparison with the England and Wales scale: 

These figures need to be compared with recent research from Donald Hirsch at Loughborough estimating the additional costs of living and working in Inner London as being around £8,000 a year more than national costs, in Outer London around £6,500 a year.