Monday 20 July 2009

Stll battling against workload - time for a well-earned rest

We're finally into our last week of term but the calls keep coming into the Union office to be answered - advising on 'flexible working', preparing for an unfair dismissal tribunal case management discussion, supporting a teacher instructed to take down a Stonewall poster from a citizenship display (at a Catholic Academy if you're wondering), making sure an NQT gets the pay they're entitled to, reassuring a teacher threatened with a loss of a day's pay after being off for two weeks with swine flu and then going ill again (you can't make these things up!!) ...

The biggest issues have been at my own workplace in Catford where, with just days left of term, the timetable has finally been released for next year. As suspected, the proposed loading for a class teacher has gone up from 83% to 88%! A well-attended emergency meeting was held tonight and members supported my call to seek an urgent Regional Deputation at the beginning of term and to prepare a ballot to support members in refusing to accept the increased loadings.

At least the holidays are nearly upon us (or in some areas, already started!), giving time for teachers to recharge batteries that have long since run flat under the relentless workload we have all faced over the last year - workload that we have to tackle through the national campaign of action that I am arguing for in this election.

Let's all take a well-earned rest. I will return to the blog at the beginning of the autumn term.


Wednesday 15 July 2009

Ca ira, ca ira, ca ira!

I phoned the rep today at Haggerston School in Hackney, to pass on a message of support to NUT members who were taking part in two more days of strike action to oppose job cuts. They are up against a management who gave out redundancy notices to staff on sports day and threatened an NASUWT member (who had not been balloted unfortunately) with disciplinary action if he refused to teach a special timetable set up just to get round the action.

But NUT members have responded magnificently with a 100% turnout in the strike ballot where they voted 36 to 1 in favour of action.

But this was no ordinary picket line! Kate, the rep, tells me that July 14th was (of course) a French revolution-themed picket line while today, at Year 10's suggestion, was a suffragette-themed action! There's more action due for September so let Haggerston NUT know if you've got any good themes for the next days of action!!


How can we support Local Association officers?

Before deciding on nominations, the Wrekin Division of the NUT wrote to VP candidates asking for views on how the NUT can support Divisional Secretaries. Their local secretary, Aly Langford, like local officers across the Union, is being overwhelmed by the huge level of casework and campaign demands. I am pasting my reply below - and also adding my thanks to The Wrekin for now deciding to nominate me for Vice-President.

As Aly’s letter so clearly reveals, the years of underfunding and target-driven bullying of schools and their staff are taking an increasing toll on teachers – and on the local officers who are left to try and defend NUT members but without sufficient time or resources to do so as well as we would like. It is precisely the need to change those pressures that drives me to stand in this VP election.
Even from the relative luxury of the Lewisham Division, where we have managed to hold on to the better facility agreements gained under the ILEA, we are constantly battling to keep our heads above the flood of casework - as well as making time to prioritise vital campaigning work as well. As in the Wrekin and in Divisions across the Union, NUT Secretaries are spending hours, in and out of allocated facility time, trying to meet the rise in cases - capabilities, disciplinaries, grievances …
If elected National Officer, I can assure you that I would use my ongoing experience from over 15 years as Lewisham NUT Secretary to argue that the Union has to defend its key resource – the local officers. We cannot simply pile more tasks on local Divisions, a change of strategy is needed.
We must change the way we organise and support Local Associations and Divisions, for example:
• Increase Regional Office staffing to provide more frequent and more reliable support for Divisional Secretaries and other local casework officers.
• More opportunities for local secretaries to meet colleagues in neighbouring divisions to overcome isolation and share and discuss casework demands and successful strategies.
• To try to turn individual casework into collective union disputes wherever possible.
• Overhaul ‘Hearth’ so it can better provide the key information needed by local officers.
• Campaign for improved facility agreements – but this will require a national campaign.
We must change the emphasis on local action and bring Divisions together with national action.
Changes like those above can help provide more support for associations and divisions. However, as cuts, privatisation and new methods of bullying staff like the White Paper’s threatened ‘licence’ scheme continue to worsen conditions, we will be facing even more casework and campaigns. We will not be able to respond successfully unless we organise collectively to oppose the root causes of the problems we face – underfunding, targets, workload and the lack of a decent National Contract that sets real limits on our working hours – and guarantees improved facility time as well.
For too long, the Union has looked to isolated local action to try and solve issues. While local action can win results, it takes a great deal of confidence, even in a well-organised school. Above all, the root causes of the pressures we face cannot be addressed school-by-school or Division-by-Division.
That’s why I have argued successfully at the last two NUT Annual Conferences for the Union to tackle workload through national action. I believe that we have to prepare a clear claim to win the National Contract that we have long called for as a Union, and prepare a program of national action to win it. Yes, we would have to go out and win support for that action, just as we are doing over SATs, but I believe that members would respond, as they did over pay on April 24th last year.
We cannot continue as we are now, allowing the energy and spirits of the best local officers to be exhausted through endless casework. A determined national campaign would lift the confidence of teachers to stand up for themselves, in turn helping with the individual battles and cases we constantly face. It is to help build that campaign that I seek your nomination as Vice-President.

Martin Powell-Davies,
Secretary, Lewisham NUT.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Trusts won't help working-class communities

Denis Mongon, a consultant who, in his words, I have already 'locked horns with' in the debates over Trust schools in Lewisham, proved a controversial speaker at the second day of the NUT's National Education Conference.

Billed as a discussion on working-class underachievement, Denis failed to provide the analysis that could have got to the heart of the issue by looking at the many factors that impact on working-class children such as poor housing, lack of access to books/internet at home, lack of job prospects etc. Instead, he semmed to focus solely on the need for strong 'school leadership'. While being one factor, the top-down leadership model presented can prove extremely divisive to staff and students alike.

However, it was when Denis was asked to explain his support for Trusts that delegates most strongly objected to his responses. He made clear that he believed that Local Authorities should have a 'commissioning' role - i.e the Blairite model of services being put out to other providers to run - including schools. He questioned whether the state school system had worked after schools were 'nationalised' (an interesting term to choose!) and thought that the NUT should support Trusts on a case-by-case basis - such as the Goldsmiths Trust he was supporting in Lewisham.

Denis can be a persuasive speaker but his arguments angered teachers at the Conference. Breaking-up Local Authorities with Trusts and Academies won't help working-class communities. Rather, in a polarised system, it will be those that are most at the margins - by class and ethnicity, who will lose out the most.


Saturday 11 July 2009

Assessment for learning - not for league tables

The first day of the NUT's National Education Conference in Stoke Rochford this weekend focussed on the issue of assessment, the discussions coming against a background of the awaited ballot to boycott SATs for 2010.

Sue Horner, from the QCA, introduced a session on curriculum and assessment. Some of her contribution, suggesting what it might be possible to achieve if teachers were given more control of what they taught, was welcome, as was her statement that "assessment must not just be to feed the data machine". However, a number of teachers spoke with anger about how the demands to meet imposed targets meant that meaningful curriculum initiative was impossible for many schools. Others, including myself, warned that 'assessment for learning' and APP had to be operated in a way that considered the workload pressures on teachers and the size of our classes.

A provoking presentation from Tim Oates from Cambridge Assessment laid bare the fault lines running through the whole National Curriculum structure, not just SATs themselves. In short, the whole idea of allocating 'levels' to children was based on dubious grounds. Instead, he believed, as I do, that the simple numerical level should be thrown out. Instead, teacher assessments that show understanding of specific concepts need to be developed, which in turn can be used to help explain to pupils how to progress in a way that a simple number cannot do. As APP also relies on the same levels as SATs, it is also not an adequate replacement, even if it can be managed in a way that avoids excessive workload for teachers.

At the end of the day, I chaired one of the groups of secondary teachers to discuss the NUT's campaign against SATs. We agreed that the curriculum-narrowing, pupil-stressing, inaccurate SATs must be stopped - but so must the league tables that unfairly label schools and pupils be stopped too - whether they are created by SATs or teacher assessment. In the same way that secondary teachers are already trusted to carry out GCSE coursework, moderated threough external assessors, teachers should be trusted to assess their pupils without having SATs.


I also attended an excellent workshop on teaching about transatlantic slavery, with an emphasis that I welcomed on how slavery was fought by enslaved Africans themselves. Have a look for resources on

Friday 10 July 2009

Local ballot nominates Martin in Amersham & Chesham

Nominations can be made at a quorate general meeting - but also by local ballot.

I was pleased to be given the news tonight that Amersham & Chesham NUT members voted to make me one of their two Vice-President nominations. The choice was made by sending ballot papers to home addresses and allowing members to make their choice from the materials circulated by candidates. My thanks for their support.


Standing up to the bullies

Yesterday, while on the train to and from Shrewsbury, I took a number of urgent calls from staff at Merlin primary school in Downham, Lewisham. That morning, the Local Authority had served an ultimatum on the governing body - agree to be taken over by Haberdashers' Aske's Knights Academy - or else.

This is a politically-motivated threat, quite simply. The Authority has been trying to bully a number of Downham schools into being forced into the Academy federation, up to now without success.

Unfortunately, cowed by threats of Ofsted visits and given the impression that there was no alternative, by the end of the day governors started to abandon any fight and the mood rubbed off on staff who also voted - if narrowly - in a meeting at the end of the day to accept the Academy.

That mood had to be changed - and having visited the school tonight, it has been! Why should teachers accept the threats and the blame and be steam-rollered into an Academy? Why should the community lose its school to an Aske's takeover? Why should governors be bounced into a decision before parents have even been consulted? Staff left for the weekend determined to fight the bullies and fight for their school.


UPDATE: On Monday evening, the Merlin governors met and a majority voted to reject the takeover. The Authority will no doubt be back with a 'warning notice' to try and bully the school into submission but now they know they have a fight on their hands. A parents' meeting is planned for the beginning of next term to explain what the Authority intends - and why staff and governors want to join with parents in opposing it.

Representing members in rural schools

A wide-ranging discussion at the Shropshire Division meeting in Shrewsbury tonight focussed on the funding pressures on rural Authorities.

I was invited to give my views as Vice-Presidential candidate – and afterwards received Shropshire’s nomination. Above all, it gave us all an opportunity to compare the issues that were common to all teachers, whether from Lewisham, Shropshire or elsewhere, as well as the particular pressures facing rural schools.

Concerns about workload, threats to pensions, support from Regional Offices, the loss of work facing supply teachers and the pressures of ‘APP’ were to the fore, as they would be in many Divisions. But concerns about how the threat of funding cuts would hit already cash-strapped rural authorities were the main subject of debate.

As I pointed out, the latest White Paper refers to the ongoing discussions about the ‘formula review’ which the DCSF are conducting to decide how funding should be distributed amongst different authorities with different levels of need.

Shropshire members pointed to the difficulties that didn’t seem to be recognised in the present funding arrangements such as the high cost of school transport in rural areas and lack of adequate internet access, as well as the conflicting pressures between protecting small village schools and adequately funding larger urban schools within a poorly-funded Authority.

We discussed how funding had to be needs-led – making sure all schools were adequately funded to meet the needs of their students – instead of just having schools and Authorities argue about how best to carve up an inadequate overall budget cake. But with the ‘cake’ threatened by government cutbacks, we all recognised that a national battle to defend education funding would have to be fought, linking up with parents and local communities too.

But the Union needs to recognise the particular pressures on rural areas, which are not often discussed at Conferences which can sometimes be dominated by larger metropolitan areas. The White Paper’s solution to protect rural schools by looking at ‘shared posts’ and federations to provide ‘value for money’ could add to the pressures on staff. I agreed to pursue the suggestion of a national meeting aimed at bringing rural associations together to discuss specific concerns such as funding, school closures and union organisation.

I hope Shropshire’s nomination will help towards getting me elected as a National Officer where I would seek to help convene just such a meeting.


Wednesday 8 July 2009

Union must listen to members when deciding action policy

While the Executive has yet to implement Conference policy calling for national action, union groups have been encouraged to take school-based action. Yet reps from two school NUT groups are expressing their concern at the decisions taken by National Action Officers over the action proposed for their schools. An opportunity for the Union to show that it is taking a firm lead in defending members is in danger of being replaced by confusion and even bitterness.

Members at Prestwich Arts College in Bury were disappointed that the one-day strike action which they were going to take on July 7th - against the threat of increased timetable loadings (a threat faced by school groups around the country as a consequence of not funding the 'rarely cover' provisions) - was reduced to just a one-hour strike, without consultation with members at the school. They are calling for one-day action to be reinstated to take place next week.

Members at St.Pauls Way school in Tower Hamlets have been angered by the postponement of strike action proposed to oppose compulsory redundancies. In this case, the proposal to call off the action was put to the members at a school meeting where 40 attended. However, the rep reports that the meeting voted unanimously for the strike action to go ahead. They understandably feel let down that the national Union has, as yet, not changed its position.

I have today spoken to both my Inner London National Executive members to pass on these concerns. Both Kevin Courtney and Alex Kenny agreed that the Union needed to reconsider its position in these two disputes. I hope that this will be the case.

As in any dispute, there are bound to be differences over strategy. In both these disputes, I understand that key National Officers felt that their decisions correctly reflected some concessions made by the employers. However, it is clear that this is not the view of the members in the schools concerned.

If the Union is to successfully build the confidence to take action, then we must listen to the views of members directly involved in the dispute and consult fully with school groups in developing the correct strategy at each stage. Where members are prepared to take action, then there would have to be very good reason not to back them in taking it. Where there are differences, then every effort has to be made to debate, discuss and come to a common agreement on the right way forward. Imposing a strategy from above will only demoralise and divide.

In both these cases, members are prepared to act. We should grab opportunities to show the strength of the union by taking such action, raising confidence to fight in these Associations and beyond.

Another nomination from Ipswich

My tenth nomination for the Vice-President election was agreed by a meeting of the Ipswich Association, who also voted to nominate Nina Franklin.

Roger Mackay from the Ipswich Association reports that "members who had attended annual conference spoke of Martin as a forceful and persuasive speaker with a strong personality"


Thursday 2 July 2009

Two more nominations - make that three

My thanks to Merton and Blackburn with Darwen NUT Associations for nominating me at their meetings tonight.

Blackburn with Darwen nominated me for Vice-President alongside Simon Jones while Merton confirmed their promised support at their July meeting tonight, which I attended as a speaker. As usual, Merton had a lively meeting with a high proportion of young teachers present. The discussion after the meeting was a good opportunity to talk to young colleagues about their concerns - including debts, workload, organising in Academies and the problems with implementing 'rarely cover' in practice.

My thanks also to Leeds NUT who have contacted me to confirm that I was also nominated at their General Meeting.


Wednesday 1 July 2009

Back to the future with the White Paper

Ed Balls' White Paper promises to build a "21st century schools system". But our politicians' visions for the 21st century seem to hark back to 19th century schooling instead of post-war 20th century comprehensive education.

Take my own school in Catford where a consultation paper has just been issued proposing that we become an "Associate School" of Colfe's, the local independent school that charges fees of over £4,000 a term. It is being sold to parents with the promise that a handful of our students might be given bursaries to attend the Colfe's sixth form. Of course, in return for this help for our 'deserving poor', Colfe's can show the Charity Commissioners proof of their charitable works so that they continue to gain tax advantages while they undermine the state system.

Balls' White paper promises yet more Academies and Trusts and introduces the new 'licence' that teachers will have to renew to prove that they are up to the job. This will become just another weapon to hold over teachers' heads with the threat of non-renewal of licences being used to bully staff into even more unacceptable workload and acceptance of unreasonable instructions.

We have to stop this juggernaut of privatisation and workload. As Carole, the Bexley NUT President, rightly said in her speech at their summer 'do' that I attended tonight, there's no pleasure to be gained out of saying "we told you so". We know these plans will make education even more divided and drive even more dedicated staff out of the profession. We have to act to make sure it doesn't happen.