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.