Sunday 21 April 2013

Gove’s attack on teachers is an attack on everyone’s working conditions

Teachers – and many parents – have been shocked by Michael Gove’s announcement at last week’s ‘Spectator’ Conference that he wants to lengthen the school day and shorten school holidays.

Whatever Gove might pretend, these proposals have nothing to do with improving education. There is no real evidence to show that making students work for longer will improve their learning. Forcing teachers to work even longer hours certainly won’t help to produce high-quality education either.

It’s not just teachers who are exhausted by the intensity of an education system distorted by an obsession with targets and test scores. Many young people are also tired at the end of the school day but now Gove wants to make those days longer. Like all of us, young people need proper breaks to work efficiently. They also need their own free time and holidays to develop their interests and personality outside of school and to spend time with family and friends.

Gove tried to portray our school terms as some outdated ‘nineteenth century’ relic, arguing that we need to learn from Hong Kong and Singapore where school holidays are supposedly shorter (although even that 'fact' is being disputed by some researchers). As a supposed advocate of ‘facts’, Gove should study the evidence which shows that, in comparison to most countries, Britain already has some of the shortest holidays. For example, schools in Finland, consistently at or near the top of international educational rankings, have a 10-11 week summer break from early June to mid-August !

Gove should think twice before basing his education plans on countries like Hong Kong or he may end up with more than he bargained for. Last year, 90,000 marched against the HK Government’s new national curriculum in a protest against ‘Government brainwashing’! (

The xenophobic comment from ‘a Whitehall source’ quoted in the Daily Mail report on Gove’s speech reveals what these plans are really about: 'We can either start working as hard as the Chinese, or we'll all soon be working for the Chinese.' (

These plans aren’t about helping students learn, they are about helping British bosses to compete for profits. Instead of investing in a future workforce through genuine education expansion, instead of investing in new technique that could help to reduce the working-day, this Government just wants to compete on the basis of cheap labour, where all workers – not just teachers – are forced to work for longer hours with shorter holidays and reduced pay. 

Gove clearly wants that ‘work-until-you-drop’ culture to be drummed into children too. With Tory Childcare Minster Elizabeth Truss incredibly now complaining that toddlers 'are running around with no sense of purpose' in nurseries, it shows just what kind of regimented and stultifying education system they have in mind. Performance-related pay, with teachers having to 'teach-to-the-test' to protect their livelihoods, will further narrow the curriculum.

Teachers are in the immediate firing-line. With existing contracts failing to properly limit the hours required for planning and marking, even official figures show that the average teachers’ working week is already over 50 hours. The TUC estimates that this equates to £7 billion of unpaid overtime every year. The NUT is fighting for a legally-binding 35-hour working week – but Gove wants to rip up even the existing open-ended teachers’ contracts.

At the same time, Gove is also forcing through his plans to cut teachers’ salaries by introducing performance-related pay (which really IS resurrecting the failed nineteenth-century policy of ‘payment-by-results’!). Both attacks are also driven by the Con-Dem agenda to break trade union opposition through deregulating conditions as well as to drive down costs so that big businesses can make money out of privatising schools and other public services.

Teachers have every reason to be angry but parents must also support teaching unions to oppose these attacks. Gove just wants to turn schools into a joyless child-minding service to assist employers to force all of us - teachers and parents alike - to work even longer hours.

Far from being ‘family-friendly’ as Gove claims, this Government is breaking up relationships and damaging children’s lives by its attacks on benefits, jobs and conditions. If the Tories were serious about supporting working parents, why won’t they reverse the cuts that have already axed so many youth services and holiday play-schemes? Why not introduce a 35-hour working week without loss of pay to help create jobs to reduce unemployment? What about investing in breakfast and after-school clubs instead of forcing existing staff to work for longer?  What about forcing holiday companies to keep their prices down instead of fleecing parents in the peak-holiday season – which could now be even shorter of course?

Education shouldn’t just be about child-minding. However, the fact that the so many employers rely on schools looking after their workers’ children gives teachers enormous potential power. It means that when teachers go on strike, it isn’t just schools that have to close; many other workplaces are affected as well. Now teachers have to use that power not just to defend their own pay and conditions but to defend education as a whole from this Government’s attacks.

Gove is playing a dangerous game. Emboldened by the delay in teaching unions calling strike action to oppose his attacks on pay, he is racing ahead with attacks on conditions too. But even the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), who have been going along with some of Gove’s plans up to now, can see the anger that this latest attack will provoke.  The NAHT responded by saying that “we have no wish to participate in such a polarised and destructive debate. We will not support such moves ... we cannot see how such comments will help attract and retain teachers”.  

The main teaching unions, the NUT and NASUWT, need to be confident that, with a clear call to action, combined with a bold public campaign to expose Gove’s real agenda, a solid campaign of escalating regional and national strikes can be built which can defeat these vicious attacks on teachers’ pay and conditions.

A joint plan of strike action was, at long last, agreed between the two unions, starting with a regional strike across the North-West of England on June 27th. Further regional strikes are planned for September and October with a national strike due in November. As a minimum, that strike plan has to be confirmed, with further dates set for 2014 to force Gove to retreat.

Every area, not just the North-West, needs to be calling urgent reps’ meetings to build for action. Local campaigning, rallies and demonstrations must be built, supported by teachers, parents and the wider trade union movement.

However, it’s strike action, the withdrawal of labour by Gove’s would-be ‘child-minders’, that can really put the pressure on this Government. And teachers aren’t alone in facing attacks on their pay and conditions, jobs, services and pensions from this Government of the rich. Strike action shouldn’t just be co-ordinated between teaching unions but as widely as possible across the private and public sector. November’s national teachers’ strike could be built into a 24-hour strike co-ordinated right across both the public and private sectors.

If Gove’s announcement proves anything, it’s that the more that trade unions hold back from action, the more this Government will attack our pay and conditions, our public services and our communities. It’s time we stood firm and took action together. Our children and families deserve no less from us.

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