Sunday 30 October 2011

School Wars by Melissa Benn - A Review

Join the discussion about the battle for the future of comprehensive education at 'Socialism 2011', a weekend of discussion and debate hosted by the Socialist Party at the University of London Union, Malet St      WC1E 7HY.
I will be introducing the discussion on " 'Free' schools at a high price: defeating the attack on comprehensive education" on Sunday Nov. 6,                 1pm - 3pm.
For more information, visit:

“School Wars – The Battle for Britain’s Education” gives a readable and concise overview of the post-war expansion of comprehensive education – and the growing threat that these educational gains could be washed away by a tidal wave of Academies and Free Schools.
Melissa Benn’s book explains how the rapid growth of these ‘independent state’ schools, unaccountable to elected Local Authorities, is strengthening the grip of private and religious interests over state education. Dedicated to her father, Tony, the veteran Labour left-winger, 'School Wars' is a heartfelt defence of universal comprehensive education as the best way to provide a good education for every child in an environment where children from all classes and backgrounds are taught together.
Her strong convictions are based on the facts and arguments outlined in the book, but also on her own positive experiences as both a pupil and as a mother of children educated in London comprehensives: “All this has confirmed it for me: comprehensives work. Given an increase in resources and greater political will in relation to school structures, and particularly selection, they could be world-class”.
But why, Benn asks, is the threatened dismantling of comprehensive education not producing the same level of public outcry as the attacks on the NHS? Her answer is that comprehensive education was never legislated for in any coherent form by any of the post-war Labour or Conservative Governments.
It was introduced slowly and unevenly and never became a universal system. Several Local Authorities, like Kent and Buckinghamshire, still retain grammar schools, selecting through the ‘11-plus’ exam even today. The fee-paying ‘public’ school sector for Britain’s elite remained untouched while the 1944 Education Act made sure that the ‘voluntary’ church schools also retained their privileged position within the state system.
The 1944 Act introduced free secondary education for all, but through a divided tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schooling. Unlike the universal NHS, class divisions were clearly maintained in state education.
But perhaps the difference in attitude is also down to more deep-seated prejudices. Benn rightly states that the notion that all children of whatever background should be taught in the same classrooms and given the same educational opportunities has always been a radical one.
Genuinely comprehensive education will always be opposed by those who believe, in essence, that some children will always be too ‘dull’ to benefit from it. Benn points to the influence of Sir Cyril Burt’s now discredited research into IQ tests which underpinned the 1944 Act. “Burt believed that social class correlated with intelligence: the higher up the social scale you were, the greater your natural fund of intelligence”.
The same debates had been fought within the Labour Movement at the time of the 1902 Education Act. While trade unionists campaigned for the ‘common school’ for all youth, the right-wing Fabian trend supported Sidney Webb’s selective ‘capacity catching’ system of scholarships to provide secondary education to ‘all whose brains make it profitable for the community to equip them with more advanced instruction’.
Such prejudices may not often be voiced so bluntly today but many of the supporters of Gove’s ‘schools revolution’ have a similar philosophy. While some claim to stand in the ‘comprehensive’ tradition of supporting the disadvantaged, Benn suggests they see their job as promoting ‘social mobility’ for just a “few talented children from poorer homes ... deserving of a more rigorous education”. The rest will be left to struggle in underfunded maintained schools and a smattering of vocational academies and technical colleges.
This is far removed from the long-standing labour movement demands for an education system that helps to transform the prospects and outlook for working-class youth as a whole. Instead, it seeks to ‘rescue’ a select few while leaving class divisions as entrenched as ever.
Gove’s proposal in the new draft schools admissions code to allow Academies and Free Schools to prioritise children on free school meals (FSM) has to be seen in this context. Just as the privatised American schools in the ‘Knowledge is Power Programme’ (KIPP)’ have done, this is about picking the ‘low-hanging fruit’ - those highly motivated low-income students who can produce good exam results at minimum cost. The fact that they will come with the extra ‘pupil premium’ funding attached to FSM pupils is an added bonus.
When combined with the additional capital funding and boosted school budgets allocated to Academies, Benn dubs it as Gove’s “canny political con trick” - “the swift but steady transfer of resources from the needy to the better-off, in the name of the disadvantaged”.
Of course, this educational counter-revolution has an important economic context. At a time of post-war growth, the expansion of comprehensive education chimed with the economic need for a better educated workforce. Benn explains how a series of official reports in the late 1950s and early 60s came out against selection and, by 1964, 90 out of 163 local education authorities, both Labour and Conservative, had submitted plans for comprehensive reorganisation.
In many areas, comprehensive reform was uncontroversial and successful. But the old prejudices in favour of grammar schools were never far away. Reform was piecemeal and hesitant. Benn correctly describes the Labour Party’s own ambivalence and hesitancy in forcing through change as “yet another missed opportunity”.
Politicians also had to take note of growing parental opposition, particularly from middle-class families whose children had failed the ‘11-plus’. Recognising that Tory support for selection had helped them lose the 1964 General Election, even ‘Milk-Snatcher’ Thatcher, Education Secretary in the 1970 Conservative Government, signed-off large numbers of further plans for comprehensive reform. By 1974, 60% of school-age children were attending them. But the “anti-comprehensive juggernaut was already starting to roll.”
As capitalism contracted, it wasn’t just financial pressures that lay behind calls for education cuts. More fundamental questions about the need to educate the majority were raised. As Benn puts it, “the oil crisis of the early 1970s, the three-day week and the general sense of economic insecurity of that period, led many to question the price of equality”.
A civil servant quoted in an earlier book “Thirty Years On”, written by Clyde Chitty and Melissa’s mother, Caroline Benn, put it more chillingly: “There has to be selection because we are beginning to create aspirations which increasingly society cannot match ... When young people cannot find work at all ... or work which meets their abilities or expectations ... then we are only creating frustration with perhaps disturbing social consequences ... people must be educated once more to know their place”.
Benn charts how, from Labour Prime Minister Callaghan’s 1976 ‘Ruskin speech’ that echoed the media attacks on progressive education, through the governments of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown, the educational gains of the post-war boom were steadily reclaimed.
Despite Blunkett’s promises, Blair’s administration did nothing to abolish the remaining 164 grammars which “have increasingly become the preserve of the better-off”. However, no government has yet sought to restore an openly selective system. The damaging legacy of secondary moderns was all too clear – blighting the self-esteem of many young people and, as statistics for those Authorities that have retained the 11-plus still demonstrate, depressing examination results overall.
So, by 1996, 90% of children were taught in ostensibly ‘comprehensive’ schools. However, those schools now operated in a competitive environment created by the new neo-liberal consensus. This emphasised the need for ‘choice and diversity’ to allow the ‘market’ to weave its magic on public services.
The Tories’ 1988 Education Reform Act had introduced Grant-Maintained Schools and City Technology Colleges along with ‘open enrolment’ and ‘local management of schools’. All were meant to undermine the powers of local authorities and to encourage schools to compete for pupils in order to attract the extra funding that came with a bigger intake.
Benn explains how the 1988 Act also introduced the national curriculum, followed in 1995 by school league tables and SATs. “Schools now became like shops, with league tables, a kind of shorthand indicator of desirability”. A whole series of Acts followed under Labour, including the introduction of City Academies, paving the way to Gove’s present onslaught.
Benn explains how this competition quickly created ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ as schools sought to make “their comprehensive ‘mix’ a far more favourable one, attractive to middle-class parents: results could be boosted, league-table positions improved, and the virtuous circle set in motion. Meanwhile, community schools in areas of deprivation ... were struggling to deal with large numbers of children on low incomes, many with poor English and/or behavioural problems linked to difficulties in family or home life. Here ... a vicious circle was all too often in place, despite the best efforts of heads and teachers”.
The 11-plus may not exist in most authorities, but school admissions policy is still a key battleground in every area. Academies, faith and foundation schools have become their own admission authorities with limited checks on whether they are following the ‘admissions code’ in practice. Benn quotes research from Anne West of the LSE suggesting that in ‘own admissions’ schools nearly half were operating some sort of covert or overt selection.
Benn lists a whole series of ruses used by schools ranging from the overt selection of 10% of pupils by ‘aptitude’ allowed in ‘specialist’ schools or the complex criteria set down by some faith schools to engineer a favourable intake, to the selective choice of the ‘right’ sort of family from a waiting list or the promotion of the school by leafleting in the ‘right’ area.
Selection is not only about the pupils schools let in; it’s also the pupils they push out. Benn points to the official statistics confirming the higher exclusion rates in academies. She also points to a study showing an astonishing 15% annual drop-out rate in the US KIPP schools.
This polarisation means that many ‘comprehensive’ schools are, in effect, already ‘secondary moderns’ that inevitably struggle at the foot of the ‘league tables’. This will be shown up even more starkly now that the Coalition has abolished the publication of Contextual Value-Added measures which, for all their faults, at least went some way to recognising that home background remains the main influence on exam outcomes. Yet Gove’s latest proposal is to take advantage of this supposed ‘failure’ by using new powers to force schools that fail to meet his imposed ‘floor targets’ into becoming Academies.
Benn explains that results from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that the UK now has one of the widest gaps “between the reading abilities of our quickest and slowest learners ... Most of the differences [are] explained by differences in the socio-economic background ... in short, we operate a kind of educational apartheid”.
Yet, the proponents of Academies and Free Schools want to ignore these facts. Instead of the unspoken prejudices about innate ‘intelligence’, many of the attacks on comprehensive education now come from the opposite side of the ‘nature or nurture’ debate. While presiding over cuts and growing child poverty, they try to argue that, if children really do have equal abilities across the class divide, why should it matter if some schools have a more privileged intake than others?
Benn quotes Blair’s remarks about ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ and Free School campaigner Katherine Birbalsingh’s accusations of a ‘culture of excuses’ that ‘keeps poor children poor’. This propaganda – looking to blame teachers, trade unions and local authorities for the problems created by a divided society and education system – can attract support from frustrated parents. It is backed by a media campaign deliberately presenting a distorted picture of indiscipline and underachievement. Its real intentions must be exposed – to introduce an even more polarised and unequal system dominated by the private sector.
New Labour left us with 203 academies. But Benn explains how the Tories were determined to extend their reach far beyond the inner-city areas where they had first been introduced. Academy status was offered to ‘outstanding schools’, then extended to ‘good’ schools and even ‘satisfactory’ schools if they joined in Academy partnerships. “Plainly, the aim was to create a majority of privately managed institutions, leaving a rump of struggling schools within the ambit of local authorities, themselves undermined by savage budget cuts”.
Benn explains how the Tories saw Blair’s caution at launching such widespread change as a mistake, and rushed through their Academies Bill at breakneck speed. Within a year, they had brought the number of Academies up to 600, with plans for many more, including in the primary sector. In September 2011, 24 new ‘free schools’ also opened, again with plans for more to follow.
The Tories claim that their education market works but Benn spells out that the international evidence points to the contrary. “Whether it’s Finland or South Korea or Alberta in Canada, genuinely non-selective systems routinely top the world league tables”.
Evidence from the USA confirms that, on average, privatised ‘charter schools’ do no better than their state-run counterparts. The PISA results for Sweden show a significant fall in their international ranking since the introduction of free schools – at the same time as social segregation between schools has grown. 
There is no doubt that many schools have been attracted towards taking Academy status by the promise of advantageous funding arrangements at a time of shrinking budgets. But even those Heads supporting conversion recognise that those ‘bribes’ to participate in the break-up of state education won’t last forever. The Treasury will demand further cuts.
Of course smaller class sizes and greater funding would make a significant difference. But again, the international evidence exposes the truth. Pupil teacher ratios in Swedish free schools have got worse, not better, as their owners aim to increase their profit margins.
‘School Wars’ leaves its readers in no doubt that the pursuit of profit is a significant part of the ‘state-subsidised privatisation’ of education. Each of the 35 circulars and Acts since 1988 has created more opportunities for private companies to move into the education market estimated by the ATL union to be worth around £100 billion. It includes school inspections, textbooks and software as well as outsourced local authority functions such as accountancy, buildings maintenance and professional development.
But it’s the substantial organisations now running ‘chains’ of academies like ARK, E-ACT and the United Learning Trust, with resources easily able to rival local authorities, that are set to dominate the new school system.  Other for-profit providers like Edison Learning are waiting in the wings for the government to lift the ban on running schools for a profit.
These chains are already free to ignore national pay and conditions for staff. One of the principal aims of the schools revolution is to atomise the workforce and undermine trade unions. Parents will also find their rights “significantly diminished, with governing bodies largely appointed and controlled by the sponsor”. Instead of a Local Authority overseeing provision of places, admissions and special needs, at least in principle in the interests of the population as a whole, individual schools and chains will be trying to put their interests first.
Benn doesn’t dodge the difficult arguments – such as how to explain the apparent success of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney where 83% of students achieved five A*-C grades in 2010. Its Head, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has just been appointed the new Head of Ofsted. She argues that it “can be put down to three key elements, none of which are intrinsically bound up with privatisation”. These are its huge emphasis on test preparation, a tough discipline code but, above all, that the school has a genuinely comprehensive spread of students. But such a balanced intake will prove to be the exception, rather than the rule.
Every teacher would accept that students need an orderly environment in which to learn, but the underlying culture of some of these schools is reminiscent of the harsh discipline instilled under the Victorian ‘payment by results’ system where schools were similarly financially dependent on narrow exam scores.
Some Mossbourne pupils refer to its ‘chilly atmosphere’. Benn points out that KIPP schools also boast of their authoritarian ‘no excuses’ culture, describing reports of ‘chants, songs, ritualised greetings and public humiliations’. The regime is no easier for teachers. Just as in Sweden’s Free Schools, as the teacher Sigbritt Herbert writing in The Socialist ( explained, teacher turnover is high.
Benn warns of a future where private providers will seek to cut costs by cutting back on qualified teachers through the use of standardised computer-based learning, already a trend in Sweden pointed to by Herbert.
As Benn asks “Is this a model that we in the UK seriously want to follow?” Yes, she argues, we can learn from Mossbourne’s close attention to individual progress, but do we just want schools to be exam factories that can most efficiently churn out test scores?  In contrast, Benn describes her visit to Wellington College where, for the small price of close to £30,000 a year in fees, students enjoy fantastic extra-curricular opportunities and a curriculum which includes lessons in emotional education or ‘roundedness’ as well as academic success.
Why shouldn’t the education offered to our ruling elite be applicable to the rest of us? To the unnamed civil servant, it’s undoubtedly because we’re meant to be taught to ‘know our place’. Instead, Benn raises examples of what a genuine comprehensive education could look like, freed from the constant ‘levelling’ of children’s work, providing a broad curriculum that doesn’t push children down a particular pathway at an early age, bringing diverse communities together instead of segregating them on class, ethnic and religious grounds.
‘School Wars’ proposes not an NHS, but an NES, a National Education Service based on well-designed, well-equipped neighbourhood schools with balanced pupil intakes. Instead of competing for pupils, there should be collaboration between schools overseen by some kind of admissions forum. Benn raises the question, without reaching a definitive conclusion, about how a fair balance of abilities and social composition might best be achieved. How can we overcome the social isolation of a school serving just one deprived estate? What are the benefits of banding arrangements, catchment areas or random ‘lottery’ allocations? These are debates that parents, trade unionists and socialists need to take further.
To her credit, Benn doesn’t overlook that most blatant divide in British education – the separate education of a privileged caste in our fee-paying ‘public’ schools. She rightly pours scorn on the idea that we should continue to subsidise supposedly ‘charitable’ private schools to the tune of £100 million a year and criticises the 1945 Labour Government for failing to seek their abolition at a time when they were most vulnerable.
The demand for abolition of the public school system is as valid today as it was in 1945. But where is the political party that’s going to call for it? Which of the main political parties is even prepared to stand with trade unions and campaigners like Melissa Benn and fight against the privatisation and dismantling of what remains of our comprehensive system?
This is one of the weaknesses of ‘School Wars’. While Melissa Benn is prepared to criticise New Labour, and particularly Blair’s educational treachery, she still tries to contrast Labour successes against Tory failures when there is so little of substance to choose between them. For example, the book opens with talk of “generous increases” in funding under Blair, but very few schools saw this translated into significant increases in resourcing. The improvements in exam outcomes that Benn cites were, above all, the result of the ‘exam factory’ culture that she rightly criticises and an unsustainable increase in teacher workload.
The book is also unashamedly written from a middle-class perspective, discussing the guilt (or lack of it) of well-paid acquaintances who opt for private education or a selective school for their children rather than their local comprehensive.  As Benn states, what chance does a working-class family have to afford school fees or to access “the shadowy world of tutoring and exam preparation that powers children into highly selective grammars”?
It is those working-class families that need to be participating in this debate and, as in the ‘school wars’ of over a century ago, mobilising to demand a free publicly-run comprehensive education system under the ‘management of elected representatives of the people’. This was at a time when directly elected ‘School Boards’ were indeed given responsibility for local education. These elections led to some of the first electoral successes for independent working-class representatives, helped by the ‘plumping’ system of voting that aided minority representation. These victories helped convince the Tories (with the support of Sidney Webb) to abolish the School Boards in the 1902 Education Act.
Benn argues that we should respond to criticism of how local authorities manage schools by calling for a modern equivalent of ‘School Boards’. She argues that such directly elected ‘Local Education Councils’ could involve representatives of political parties, community activists, school students, professionals, business representatives and parents.
Benn’s concluding chapter sets out the frightening prospect of a complete fragmentation of state education, with the hundreds of existing academies perhaps soon to be joined by the thousands of church schools that may come on board to protect their privileges. She asks if people will “stand by as one of our most vital public services passes into hands of venture capitalists, hedge fund managers and a growing array of faith groups?”
Referring to campaigns against new Academy conversions being fought right across the country, she raises the hope that there can be a “counter-revolution, spreading up from the new privatised classrooms of the twenty-first century, demanding a return to first principles on the purpose and methods of our children’s education”. However, she seems pessimistic that such a response will only follow after impending defeat, and that, for now, “the game might well be up”. Is Benn being unduly pessimistic or making a realistic assessment of the balance of forces?
The lack of a workers’ party to challenge the neo-liberal consensus is certainly a weakness. But shouldn’t anti-academy campaigners be standing in local elections to provide such a challenge just as trade unionists successfully stood in the elections to School Boards?
What about trade union and community action? Individual school campaigns have scored some successes but many schools have converted to academy status with only limited opposition. The rapid speed of conversion and inadequate consultation allowed under the new legislation have certainly presented real difficulties.
The NUT hopes it can regroup around a remaining ‘bulwark’ of schools that will stand firm against academisation. Certainly, if the budgetary ‘bribes’ dry up, the benefits of academy conversion will be less obvious to school governors.
A new battlefront will open up in opposition to the ‘forced’ conversions of schools that have failed to meet floor targets. Unlike the ‘voluntary’ conversions, there is much greater potential for a joint campaign by governors, heads, staff and parents in opposing an Academy and also to organise co-ordinated strike action across affected schools.
A reassessment of campaigning strategy is certainly needed. The arguments so clearly set down in Melissa Benn’s book can certainly help to build that anti-academy movement.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Sweden - the market leads to poorer education

 I was pleased to be able to contribute to a feature on 'Free Schools' in this week's copy of 'The Socialist' newspaper.

Alongside my article, is this report from Sweden:

20 years of the market has led to poorer education

Sigbritt Herbert, Teaching Swedish as a second language in Sweden since 1975
In 1992 the Swedish conservative government launched the "right to choose" reform in the Swedish school system. That meant that all children got a price tag, a set sum of money that they (or their parents) could use to shop around among different schools to get the best possible education that 'suited their needs'. That was one of the explanations for the new education system that was introduced.

Another explanation was that teachers that felt 'stifled' by the oppressive monopoly system must be freed to use the teaching methods that they preferred. That all sounded good. Now, after almost 20 years, we have begun to see the result of the 'reform'.

More and more schools, especially sixth form colleges, have been started, or taken over, by profit-making companies, some with their headquarters abroad.

These companies have realised there is easy money to be made. They get a set sum of money for each student. That sum is the same for each student irrespective of his or her needs. The free schools have the right to say 'no' to a child whereas the council schools can't do that. 

League tables

In order to get students, the schools must try to prove that they are a "good" school. Each year the newspapers show tables listing the 'best' schools, ie the schools where the students have got the highest grades.

So an easy way to show that you are a good school is to give high grades to your students. There are set criteria for each grade, but these are free to interpretation. Karl Ågerup, an ex-free school teacher has written in his book Barnens Marknad (the Children's Market) about a maths teacher in his school who showed the results in maths in one class to the headteacher. "There are too many 'not passed'. You have to increase the grades," he responded.

It is not just by giving high grades that you can attract students. Many free sixth form colleges also offer laptops for their students. They also offer popular courses that don't cost much money to run, for example song and dance or sports. 

Making money

How do the free schools make money? One way is of course not to accept students that require more resources, like children with disabilities or whose first language is not Swedish.

Another way is to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio. Last summer I read a statement from the managing director of one of the biggest free school companies. He explained their lower pupil-teacher ratio by saying that their teachers could spend more time with their students as the company had set computer-based lessons. For me, computer-based lessons would mean that teachers can't adapt the lessons to the needs of their students or to the composition of the different classes.

Another managing director, Johan G-tefeldt for Pysslingen AB, told the magazine Skolledaren (for headteachers): "We have more efficient premises and are working more efficiently with costs, less caretaking, less bureaucracy and fewer secretarial posts for instance." That company last year handed out more than four million Swedish crowns (£400,000) to their five shareholders.

The free schools can reduce other costs as well. Many free schools don't have a school library or a school nurse. If the students are in need of transport, because of distance, the free school has no obligation to provide this because the parents have chosen not to use the nearest council school. Yet the council schools have to fund taxi or bus journeys. 

Working conditions

The working conditions for the staff in the profit-making free schools are worse than in the council schools. More time with the students can mean less time to do a good job with lesson preparation.

The teachers don't have school holidays, but only five weeks holiday. Is it any wonder that profit-making schools have a higher rate of unqualified teachers, pay lower rates and have a high turnover of staff? Karl Ågerup describes the first question he got asked as he walked into a class: "How long are you staying? We don't want to change teacher again."
With the 'freedom of choice' the Swedish schools have become more segregated, with free schools having more unqualified teachers.

The working conditions of all teachers have deteriorated over the last 20 years, with more work and pay that has fallen behind other professions. The number of students applying for teacher training is now, in some subjects, lower than the number of spaces at college.

The official theory was that competition is good and that the horrible state monopoly schools would improve if they met competition. That should benefit all. What is the outcome after nearly 20 years?

PISA is an OECD measure of the educational attainment of 15 year-olds in the main industrialised countries. The latest report shows that the educational standard of Swedish students has dropped considerably.

It now worries even the traditional free market proponents. SNS, a business-funded think tank in a report on 7 September dismissed the free school system. The author Jonas Vlachos, has found that students who entered sixth form from free schools performed worse than students from council schools with the same grades.

The reasons behind the failure of Swedish students are many. PISA 2009 had some interesting things to say:
School systems that offer parents more school choices are less effective in raising the performance of all children.
Segregation leads to lower quality results.
The quality of teaching is key to educational outcomes.

Every politician has over the last 15 years promised better schools, but the result is the opposite. The reason is that no one wants to address the real problem, lack of funding and the spurious 'freedom of choice'.

Even an ex-minister of the Social Democratic party has been on the board of Pysslingen AB. In spite of all evidence about the drawbacks it will take a lot to make the established parties reverse the situation. They are too anxious about losing the votes of middle class voters in the big cities.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Don't Close Blackheath Bluecoat School!

UNITE and NUT banners were waving outside Woolwich Town Hall tonight in a lively protest against the proposed closure of Blackheath Bluecoat School.

This lobby follows a tremendous turnout of staff, parents and students at a meeting held in the school earlier this month which was a clear warning to Council Officers of the fight that they will face if they push ahead with their closure plans.

At a time when pupil numbers are projected to grow across London, Greenwich Council are proposing the closure of Blackheath Bluecoat with staff losing jobs and pupils being scattered across other local schools.

As I said at the Lobby tonight, the NUT will work alongside the school community in opposing this closure - including with strike action if neceessary.

Education Lobby takes pensions message to Parliament

London was hit by heavy showers today - showers that fell heavily on the long queue of teachers and lecturers waiting outside Parliament to take our message to MPs - "hands off our pensions!"

The rain may have dampened shoes, coats and leaflets but it won't have dampened spirits or determination to get our message across. However, it was a pity that the planned march was never finalised and there was no opportunity to get the hundreds of lobbyists together in a joint meeting before going on to the lobby queues.

A joint Lewisham delegation of NUT, ATL and UCU members met with Lewisham East MP Heidi Alexander. Heidi acknowledged the good level of public sympathy for our campaign - even if she tried to counsel against a sustained course of action that she felt might risk losing that support. I explained that we'd obviously work hard to explain to the public why we were taking action, but the Government were leaving us with little choice.

Heidi promised to put a statement on her website following our visit. She also explained that her own father-in-law - an ATL member - had been on strike for the first time in his life on June 30, so she knew how strongly teachers felt about the issue. What then, we asked, did she think teachers felt about Ed Milliband's attacks on our action in June?

Heidi made clear that there had been plenty of discussion within the parliamentary party since June 30 - so let's hope the soundbites will be different on November 30. Let's hope the weather's a bit drier too!

Tuesday 25 October 2011

On the Jarrow March

It was a real privilege to be able to join a leg of the Jarrow March 2011 today - from Coventry to Rugby.

Faith McGrath accompanied me so that we could carry the Lewisham NUT banner out through the suburbs of Coventry and then along the lanes to the final rally at Rugby.

The support gathered along the way was, as ever, tremendous and showed the huge goodwill towards the march and its aim to highlight youth unemployment and the attacks on free education.

A local pub offered a free lunch to the marchers and the BBC Regional News team filmed us arriving with the support of local trade unionists and drummers.

I had a chance to bring solidarity greetings to the closing rally at the Clock Tower in Rugby and called on the local community to support the marchers - and to support our strike action on November 30.

Monday 24 October 2011

Classroom Teacher's 'Countdown to November 30'

The latest issue of Classroom Teacher is out - with a checklist of things to be done to try and ensure that every school is out on strike on November 30:

Friday 14 October 2011

Pensions: It’s still “pay more, get less, retire older”

Kevin Courtney, NUT Deputy General Secretary, reported to the NUT Divisional Secretaries Briefing this morning on the latest news from the talks with Government about their plans to cut public sector pensions. 

There was clearly no point in describing these talks as ‘negotiations’ as the Government is still showing no sign of seriously negotiating an acceptable agreement. Instead, they have announced a ‘cost-ceiling’ which places such a tight budgetary strait-jacket around the schemes that there is no real room for genuine negotiation. As Kevin put it, they might as well be asking us “do you want your left arm or your left leg to be cut off ?”

The cost-ceiling has been set at 20.1% of salary – that’s an average 9.6% contribution rate for teachers (although for some it will be even more) and just 10.5% for employers. That compares to the very similar 20.5% package currently – but that’s 6.4% for teachers and 14.1% for employers.

As we have argued previously, they want workers to pay more, so that employers can pay less. That’s to help them push through public sector cuts and satisfy the privatising vultures who claim that current pension costs are too great for them to make a healthy profit.

Even if the overall cost-ceiling is little changed, the Government claims that rising costs mean that they can only afford to pay out much less on retirement. A small amount  of extra costs can be put down to increasing longevity (although how long before that trend is reversed if we’re working until we’re 70!) but a good chunk has been added by artificially changing the ‘discount rate’ to show a poorer return on the pensions contributions that sit in the Government’s coffers.

Their proposed scheme would mean no full pension until most teachers are 68 or even older, a worse ‘accrual rate’ of 1/65 (compared to 1/60 now) and pensions payments linked to the lower CPI instead of RPI. The Government claim that teachers would still earn a ‘broadly similar’ pension to the one we might get now. Well, for a start, that’s only after we’ve worked for perhaps eight more years – getting our pension at 68 instead of 60 or (for some recent starters) 65. Even then, the union’s figures suggest that the payouts would still be less – even after all those years of extra contributions.  In other words, it’s still “pay more, get less, retire older”.

The Con-Dems want to show that they are standing firm despite the rising discontent. But our pressure IS having an effect on this discredited Government. Tellingly, Kevin suggested that Michael Gove had, for the first time, hinted that perhaps there could be some ‘flexibility’ over the cost-ceiling. Now is the time to press forward and force Ministers to think again.

November 30 needs to be an even more solid strike on than we had on June 30 – hopefully this time alongside even more other public sector trade unionists. Let’s get everyone out together, every school closed by action, every town filled with mass rallies and marches.

Let’s strike together and force these robbers to get their hands off our pensions.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Action neeeded to stop the 'Bullies' Charter'

Back in July, Tory Minister Oliver Letwin made a speech saying that ‘fear’ of losing our jobs was the way to motivate public sector workers. It seems that many schools are already taking that advice to heart through the unjust use of capability procedures.

On Monday, Lewisham NUT alone will be representing four different teachers at capability meetings. Yet too often these meetings have little to do with the abilities of staff but much more to do with managers trying to scapegoat individuals for the pressures facing schools from cuts and the threat of privatisation. This includes the latest threats to force primary schools that don’t meet imposed ‘floor’ targets into becoming Academies.

In a session on ‘capability’ at the National NUT Divisional Secretaries meeting that I am attending this week, colleague after colleague spoke out about the abuse of such procedures: resentment at being labelled inadequate by observers that have long since forgotten how to teach themselves, unrelenting criticism but a complete lack of genuine support, the destruction of confidence and discrimination against older staff in particular, the deliberate undermining of staff by moving them into classes outside their area of expertise, the lack of any chance to appeal against unjust targets and judgements – leading staff to resign rather than risk the chance of dismissal … the list went on.

But we ain’t seen nothing yet. By next September, the Government plans to have ripped-up the current Capability and Performance Management legislation and introduced new guidelines which the NUT has accurately described as a ‘bullies charter’.

The proposals get rid of the initial ‘informal’ capability period, so immediately raising the stakes for teachers facing these procedures. Performance will be matched strictly against ‘professional standards’ – in practice threatening ‘post-threshold’ staff with the sack if their observations are only ‘satisfactory’ instead of being ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. The annual ‘three-hour rule’ limiting classroom observations  will be abolished allowing a never-ending cycle of destructive scrutiny and monitoring of staff.

A further dangerous proposal is that schools could introduce ‘probationary periods’ for all new appointments,  not just newly qualified staff. This would allow ruthless employers to rule through a climate of fear constantly threatening new staff with the loss of their job – just as Letwin suggests.

Capability threats are often also made against staff who are ill. Perhaps unsurprisingly in the present economic climate, we were presented with evidence from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development finding that 28% of employers report an increase in the number of people coming to work ill in the last 12 months. Some Mental Health experts are pointing to the dangers of ‘presenteeism’ rather than ‘absenteeism’ where staff are forcing themselves into work instead of taking sickness absence.

These attacks are already threatening the health and well-being of many teachers. Under the new regulations, things could get much worse. Yet, unlike Letwin’s claims, they won’t improve education, they will destroy it. Demoralised and stressed staff do not make good teachers. High staff turnover with schools driving out experienced teachers will destabilise education even further.

They also threaten union organisation. Their aim is to bully and intimidate staff so that we are too frightened to come together and stand up for ourselves – and for education.

These attacks have to be fought collectively. We discussed unions drawing up a model policy that protects teachers against these new proposals. However, it will take action to make sure such a policy is implemented. That action needs to be national action if we are to successfully oppose this latest threat facing teachers.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Nearly a million youth unemployed - rally in London on Nov 5th!

On the day that the jobless total for 16-24 year olds hit a record high of nearly 1 million, the Jarrow March 2011 continued its journey south towards London. Unemployed marcher Matt Whale spoke out on the BBC News:
I hope trade unionists will be giving the marchers maximum support along the way and especially at the closing rally on Saturday November 5th:
Assemble 12noon at Embankment for the final leg of the Jarrow March!
Rally in Trafalgar Square.

Speakers include:
  • Jarrow Marchers,
  • Bob Crow – RMT General Secretary,
  • Matt Wrack- FBU General Secretary,
  • Paul Murphy- MEP (Socialist Party Ireland),
  • Lizi Gray- Descendent of 1936 Marcher,
  • Stephen Hepburn- Jarrow MP,
  • Young Deacon- Rapper (performing his track about the riots called ‘Failed by the System’),
  • Ed Marsh- NUS (VP Union Development),
  • Day-Mer Youth Speaker.

NUT Conference Motion on Workload

NUT Associations can submit motions for 2012 Annual Conference at a quorate General Meeting held on or before November 15. Please consider passing the following motion on workload:

Conference notes that despite the promises made at the time of the ‘workload agreement’, excessive workload, both in terms of overall hours and the intensity of work within those hours, is becoming worse, not better. This is in clear breach of the “commitment to secure downward pressure on excessive hours” contained in the Pay and Conditions Document.

Conference fears that the government's cuts programme, the so-called ‘standards agenda’ and further attacks such as the worsening of performance management arrangements, will all contribute to a further deterioration in levels of workload and stress.

Conference notes the motions and policies agreed at previous annual conferences recognising that alongside defending pay, pensions, opposing cuts and the expansion of Academies and Free Schools, tackling excessive teacher workload and the resulting stress must remain one of the key objectives of the union.

Conference recognises that the Union has acted on Conference policy by:

(i)                 drawing-up a model work-life balance policy;

(ii)               highlighting key workload objectives in union publications.

(iii)             developing a model contract setting out the union’s workload objectives

However, Conference recognises that the Union has to develop a far more effective strategy to make sure that these policies and objectives are implemented in practice. Conference therefore instructs the Executive to draw up an action strategy for implementation over the coming year, which should include:

a)      highlighting the union’s support for school groups wishing to ballot for action where negotiation has failed to resolve workload issues;

b)      seeking to coordinate ballots across schools where possible;

c)      seeking to identify key workload issues which could provide the focus for wider campaigns, up to and including national ballots for both non-strike sanctions and strike action to secure concrete gains around these issues;

d)     approaching other teacher unions to seek to develop a united action strategy;

e)      holding regional reps briefings to energise and make effective such a workload campaign, alongside the other key campaigns being conducted by the Union.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

SERTUC Mobilising Event: fighting for public services and pensions justice

Today's SERTUC Public Services Committee confirmed plans for this important event on Saturday 12 November.

In advance of the almost inevitable industrial action on 30 November, this will be a free mobilising event for reps and trade union activists in the SERTUC Region to prepare for co-ordinated action. Keynote speakers and workshops to be announced soon.

Register with SERTUC, Congress House, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3LS; 0207 467 1220; best of all, email sending in your

Union or Other organisation; trades council, anti-cuts campaign etc

Please specify any disability access and other facilities/needs

Please indicate what sector you work in (to help co-ordinate sectoral workshops)
Local Government
Civil Service 

Monday 10 October 2011

Can workload action help the pensions campaign?

The NASUWT's decision to ballot on both strike action and 'non-strike' workload action has spurred a debate within the NUT about how we should respond.

What seems clear is that united strike action is the key - with a mass strike planned for November 30. I hope that the NUT and other unions can then be in a position to announce further dates for joint-union strike action in the New Year.  If the Government remains intransigent, my personal preference would be to call a 48-hour strike that sharply and firmly increases the pressure on the Government.

However, the idea of 'non-strike' action is definitely worth exploring as an addition to the campaign. Indeed, this is exactly what 2011 NUT Conference Policy on Teacher Workload agreed that the Union should consider. Alternatively, and depending on how many different fronts we think we can fight on, it could also be part of a separate campaign to respond to the ever-increasing demands on teachers - workload which seems to have been ramped up even further this academic year. However, the nature of that action (beyond strike action) still needs to be worked out.

The NUT is very willing to sit down and discuss with the NASUWT about a joint campaign of action. Unfortunately, I fear that the NASUWT 'work to contract' action may be limited to issues like ensuring that PPA is in place, not covering except in emergencies, not invigilating for exams - and other parts of their 'Workload Agreement'. However (and we still need to clarify if this is what the NASUWT are really saying) this would fail to tackle most of the workload that is weighing down on staff.

The NUT is already sanctioning school-based ballots. For example, the NUT has issued an indicative ballot in a Lewisham school today for both non-strike action and strike action. The 'non-strike' action in this school is clear-cut - refusal to attend the after-school 'intervention' classes that are being timetabled outside directed hours which are at the heart of the dispute. The strike action would be in place if pay-docking or other disciplinary action took place and/or to ratchet up the dispute if necessary.

Another Lewisham NUT school group is meeting tomorrow and may well request a similar indicative ballot. There, it appears that the school is calling 'mini-ofsted' rounds of observations on any teacher who is 'satisfactory' (let alone inadequate!) and demanding endless detailed plans from staff. Here, the non-strike action will not be quite as clear-cut but staff are looking at what we might do to refuse to co-operate with these management demands - although it may just be that strike action is needed to force the removal of this draconian regime.

Of course, these separate ballots only scratch at the surface of a national problem. The NUT has issued good advice on directed hours, classroom observations and other workload issues. But too many schools are taking little heed of Union policy. Workload action is definitely needed in many schools - and should be part of a national workload campaign. However, if we did ballot for national workload action, I believe we would need to sanction much firmer action than perhaps the NASUWT are envisaging in order to really have an effect.  But, even then, strike action is the clearest and simplest form of action which will have to be central to both a pensions and/or workload campaign.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Report from NUT Executive - October 2011

Momentum building for united action to defend public sector pensions
October's NUT Executive was the first meeting since the TUC Congress - and that marvellous announcement of the plan for co-ordinated strike action of perhaps three million public sector trade unionists on November 30 (N30). Now every NUT member needs to play their part in making sure that N30 is the massive show of strength needed to persuade the Government to think again about their  attacks on our pensions.

When I spoke alongside other trade unions at the Rally organised by the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) before Congress to call for a 24-hour public sector general strike, there were already signs that we could be optimistic. However, it was only when a  succession of unions reported to Congress that they would all be balloting for action that we knew that staff in schools, colleges, local authority and  civil service workplaces should indeed all be on strike together on N30.

Teachers in the four unions that started the ball rolling on June 30 - ATL, NUT, PCS and UCU - do NOT need to reballot to strike on N30 as our ballots for 'discontinuous' action are still in place. Newly qualified teachers and other new NUT joiners (and our growing membership figures show that there’s lots of them!) are  also covered - even if they didn’t vote in the first ballot. The only NUT members that will need to be balloted are advisers and other central staff who are members of the Local Government Pension Scheme rather than the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. They should be receiving ballot papers from October 20th.

But every NUT member needs to urge staff in other school unions to look out for their ballot papers and vote to take strike action with us:
NAHT - papers now out - ballot closes on 9 Nov.
NASUWT will ballot between 4th and 17th Nov.
UNISON will ballot between 11th Oct & 3rd Nov.
GMB will ballot between 31st Oct & 16th Nov.

    Organise a joint union meeting in your school - invite teachers and support staff
    Urge everyone to vote for joint strike action
    Get everyone to sign the joint union petition and agree a delegation for the Oct. 26 Lobby

The joint union Lobby on Wednesday October 26 is backed by all of the main teaching unions - ASCL, ATL, NAHT, NASUWT, NUT, UCAC and UCU. It will be another important event to make sure our pensions  campaign is in the headlines. Our message to the Government will be clear - if you don't keep your hands off our pensions, we'll be on strike!

The Lobby falls in half-term so that teachers and our families can get there. The National Pensioners Convention will also be attending to protest at the way that the change of indexation from RPI to the lower CPI is already robbing pensioners of their much-needed income. Colleagues will travel from across the country - just as they did to the excellent demonstration outside the Tory Party Conference in Manchester. However, just as that event was  particularly built by the North-West TUC, it is the local turnout that will be key. That means we need to get there in half-term from London schools !

The route of the march is still to be finalised with the police but the provisional details are:
ASSEMBLE at midday,  Victoria Gardens,  Westminster, SW1;
MARCH to the Dept. of Education to hand in the mass petition.

Even if you can’t make it to the Lobby in half-term, make sure everyone in your school signs the mass petition. You can download a petition and register who is going to the Lobby from your school on:

What's happening in the negotiations ?
Christine Blower reported to the NUT Executive that unions were waiting for the Government to announce the 'cost-ceiling' which they want to impose on our pension schemes. If, as we suspect, they are still determined to fix a tight budgetary limit, then the Government will have left no room for serious negotiations. It would mean any cut in contribution increases would have to be paid for by cuts in pension pay-outs and/or even higher  retirement ages. In that case, our only answer can be firm action - on N30 and beyond into 2012 too.

Of course the Executive understands that, with pay rises frozen and inflation rising, no teacher can easily afford to lose pay through strike action. But we all need to recognise that we can even less  easily afford to lose £150 every single month from our salaries. Yet these figures showing the latest Government proposals show that this is exactly what we will suffer if we don’t strike together:

Increase from current 6.4% deduction by 2014:
Inner London M1: up to 8.7% = £52 extra a month
Inner London M6: up to 9.4% = £91 extra a month
Inner London U3: to 10.4% = £150 extra a month!

What follows after November 30?
The NUT Executive will meet again in November to discuss what plans are being made for further  action with other unions. The NASUWT are talking about workload action - although their exact plans aren’t yet clear. However, we are certainly happy to discuss joint ‘non-strike’ sanctions. However, it is strike action that will be the key.

I will certainly be calling for the union to name further days for action after Xmas if the Government refuses to retreat. A rolling programme of regional strike action is being considered, as well as national strike days. As I said at the NSSN rally, my own preference is for a clear step-up in our action - by calling a national 48-hour shutdown across the public sector.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Happy World Teachers' Day!

Today is World Teachers' Day - when, across the globe, people are being encouraged to celebrate the work of teachers.

The irony won't be lost on teacher trade unionists like myself who will, once again, spend the day trying to support teachers who are being bullied and undermined by management - the product of a government agenda to cut funding and unfairly compare schools through tests and league tables designed to encourage the privatisation of schools.

But teachers should remember to give themselves a pat on the back today for the work that we do. Teacher trade unionists should also renew our commitment to organise across the globe to stop cuts and privatisation so that our school leavers can have a decent future and our colleagues can do their essential work with decent workload, pay, pensions and job security.

Of course, it is women teachers who often bear the brunt of the attacks and the theme of the 2011 World Teachers' Day is Gender Equality. Here's a link to a new article on "Women under siege in the age of austerity" from the 'Socialism Today' magazine.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Over 30,000 march in Manchester

There was a huge turnout at today's 'March for the Alternative' outside the Tory Conference in Manchester.

This shows the growing mood for mass action on November 30.

Christine Blower got the chance to explain to the BBC what the NUT and the trade union movement was demanding:

October 26 - March details confirmed for Pensions Lobby

On October 26, Let’s deliver a final notice to Westminster:

Join the Joint Union March and Lobby:
ASSEMBLE at midday, Victoria Gardens,Westminster, SW1;
MARCH to the Dept. of Education to hand in the mass petition.

All of the main teaching unions - ASCL, ATL, NAHT, NASUWT, NUT, UCAC and UCU are backing this joint march & lobby on Wednesday October 26. Every school is being asked to try and send at least one representative to give Government a final warning - back off or face the consequences.

The march gives us a chance to dust off the flags and banners from June 30 once more. Media coverage of the event will be a timely reminder to union members that are balloting to return their ‘YES’ vote for action as well!

Even if you can’t make it to London in half-term, make sure everyone in your school signs the mass petition. More details on:

Make sure everyone has signed the petition - and also encourage all staff in NAHT, NASUWT, UNISON, UNITE and GMB to vote for strike action so that we can all be out together on November 30. Remember, NUT and ATL union members already have a legal ballot result carrying over from last term - they do NOT need to vote again.

Winning this battle will mean giving up pay when we take action - but losing it will mean pay being stolen away every single month in extra pension contributions. If we strike together, we can win together!