Thanks to the commitment shown by NUT members in seven schools where strike notice was issued by the National Union, negotiations on Friday afternoon concluded with a successful outcome for teachers and schools in Lewisham.
Those strike notices were issued as part of the NUT's national policy to "back members at school level who want to escalate action, including up to strike action, to secure an acceptable pay policy".
As the National November NUT Reps Bulletin correctly pointed out, “an acceptable school pay policy is worth fighting for. A teacher on M3
who unfairly loses a pay increment could be worse off every year for ten years
or more until they reach the top of the pay scale. They could lose £15,000
Lewisham NUT's experience of looking to co-ordinate that escalation across a number of schools shows that, not only is it worth trying to fight for acceptable policies, making a stand together can also help win the changes to policies that we are seeking.
Although the wordings of some amendments are yet to be absolutely finalised, Friday's meeting between the NUT, NASUWT and Lewisham Headteachers concluded with agreement that changes will be made in all ten areas identified by unions as concerns in the model pay and appraisal policies recommended by Lewisham Local Authority to schools.
Having consulted with union reps in the three schools in the Leathersellers Federation, where two-day strike action was due to take place on Tuesday and Wednesday, Lewisham NUT has recommended to the National Action Committee that next week's action can now be withdrawn. The NASUWT, who also issued strike notice in one of the schools, are doing the same.
The contentious issues in the Lewisham model pay policy were not about fixed pay scales or pay portability - as these had already been agreed in negotiations last term. The differences were over the other two key issues for the NUT: "Evidence and bureaucracy" and " Fair criteria for pay progression in September 2014".
Lewisham's model policy originally stated that to move up the main pay range, “teaching should be 'good over time' as defined by Ofsted”. With such a wording in place, how could staff be sure that they would receive a fair decision over pay progression next September? We argued that decisions should be based solely on progress towards appraisal objectives, and not on other criteria such as unfair and arbitrary Ofsted gradings of lesson observations, nor on any checklist of Teachers' Standards.
It has now been agreed that the reference to "as defined by Ofsted" will be changed to "as defined by the appraisal policy of your school", in line with the approach we had consistently been calling for.
Other changes over pay-progression include replacing the need to show "an increasing positive impact" on pupil progress with a "consistent positive impact" - an important distinction. A further change of wording should confirm that the Teachers' Standards are there to inform appraisal objectives, not to be used as a separate set of criteria.
One concern over 'Evidence and Bureaucracy' will be addressed by replacing the sentence that "this school intends to generate and retain as much reasonable 'appraisal system' evidence as practically possible" by "the school will ensure that there is sufficient evidence of a robust appraisal system". Further, a contentious sentence relating to 'threshold applications' for the Upper Pay Range will no longer say that teachers should "build a mainly paper evidence base" to support their application.
Differences may still need to be overcome over individual Observation Protocols, which already differ from school to school in Lewisham. However, a further important outcome, that enabled us to advise that action should be withdrawn, was confirmation that the reference in the Leathersellers Federation policy to 'monitoring activities such as task observation' possibly taking place without 'advance notice' will now be removed from their appraisal policy.
As things stand, strike notice for three days action in January remains in place. However, if the final wordings discussed on Friday can be agreed, there is no reason why this notice cannot be withdrawn as well. However, and in answer to some of the unjust criticisms which were thrown at the Union in recent weeks, we remain clear that our action was never just about protecting teachers, it was also about protecting schools and students from the damage that will be inflicted by performance-pay.
A leaflet that we had drafted for the public, should we have had to go ahead with action, contained the following words from a letter written by a parent at one of the schools: "As
a parent, I value the work that teachers do and believe that
performance related pay will do nothing to improve the quality of
teaching and learning that my son and other students receive. In fact, I
feel it will undermine relationships between teachers and students. It
doesn't take much imagination to see where this can lead: teachers
unnecessarily pressurising students to meet targets, being reluctant to
work with students who don't follow national trends in progress or
worse, feeling compelled to cheat in order to meet targets".
We would have also explained our objection to grading teachers' lessons on the basis of 'Ofsted criteria' with the blunt, but true, summary of what those criteria could mean: "If your son/daughter fails to pay attention in my class, it could cost me £2,000".
At the same time, and unfortunately in line with the provocative tone of some of the letters that had been sent to some NUT members in the lead up to the strike, a letter for parents that had apparently been prepared by management in the event of a strike would have argued that performance-pay would allow teachers "to be paid more" !
Clearly, differences may still remain over the purpose of Gove's cost-cutting agenda, and how both performance-pay and the use of lesson observation 'gradings' can demoralise staff and damage working relationships. It was also clear from the discussions how Heads are, understandably, fearful of the pressure from Ofsted which, as the NUT has said from the outset, will be used to put pressure on Heads to implement a divisive performance-pay regime.
Usefully, both Heads and Unions agreed that the impromptu forums that emerged to negotiate over these policies should be developed to try and improve communications between us. We also hope that the finalised policy changes will be recommended to all schools in the Authority so that a common approach can be adopted across Lewisham schools.
Teachers and Heads alike will be pleased that sufficient progress was made to avert next week's strike action, but staff will still be understandably wary as to what will happen next September. Even if performance-pay assessments should now all be clearly based on appraisal objectives, Gove's legislation still leaves teachers open to the imposition of unfair objectives and unfair decisions about whether those objectives have been reached.
Teachers will still need to be on their guard over how appraisal and observations are implemented in their school. Other more supportive parts of the model appraisal policies may become important, such as the clause that states: "where use of numerical targets is appropriate, these will be reasonable in the circumstances in which the teacher works and it will be recognised that factors outside the teacher's control may significantly affect success".
The fact that teachers have shown that they are prepared to make such a firm stand over policies will hopefully help dissuade any school who might have been thinking about taking advantage of Gove's damaging legislation to unfairly block pay-progression next September.
The successful outcome in Lewisham shows what can be achieved through pursuing co-ordinated escalation of action, paying careful attention to the issues being raised by members across different schools at each stage of the campaign. It shows again that the depth of anger at performance-pay still runs deep. Now that anger must be harnessed into further escalating national action to defeat the national legislation which is still at the heart of our national dispute with Michael Gove.