Thursday 27 November 2014

Debating the way forward in Oldham

Thanks to an invitation to speak at their excellently organised NUT General Meeting, I had the opportunity tonight to compare views and experiences with teachers in Oldham.

Not surprisingly, the problems facing colleagues in Oldham were the same ones facing teachers across the country:
Paying more for a worse pension – with many teachers not expecting to ever receive their full entitlements as they expect to have been forced out of teaching long before their pension age of 67 or more.
Being bullied and threatened by performance-pay, observations and Ofsted – facing the ever-present threat that they will be singled out as ‘inadequate’ to be denied pay progression or unfairly face the threat of ‘capability’ proceedings. 
The crushing workload that is turning teaching into a soulless drudgery – unsustainable workload that few with a family can adequately manage and even many without such responsibilities can only take for a few years before they can face no more.

I compared the Government – and too many of our Headteachers – to factory managers that demand ever more by speeding up the production line. They want to ignore the reality that teachers can do only so much to counteract the growing problems that most impact children’s lives – like poverty and social inequality. 

To really produce better outcomes, politicians need to stop their ‘austerity’ agenda and invest in providing more teachers, so we can have more PPA and smaller class sizes. Instead of gimmicks like making private school pupils play football with state schools, Tristram Hunt would do well to remember Gordon Brown’s promise that Government would match the spending per pupil in private schools in the state sector.

However, the real debate that I hope that I opened up was not to agree about the problems we all knew we faced – but to discuss what strategy can defeat them. 

As discussion during and after the meeting confirmed, in Oldham – as elsewhere – teachers are questioning how the Union can turn the tide.

I remain confident that teachers will stand up for themselves and education. There’s a limit to how far you can continue with ‘speed-ups’ before the workforce can take no more and revolt! However, if we don’t organise collectively, then there is the risk that teachers respond only by fleeing the profession – leaving conditions as bad as ever.

Teachers remain a highly unionised workforce – if divided into different unions. Signs that unions might be starting to overcome those divisions would be a real encouragement, as discussed tonight in Oldham. When we take action, we can have a significant impact yet have the backing of many parents for our stand.

The NUT also has a good network of determined officers and school reps, although the pressures on them are immense as they try to defend the many individual teachers who fall victim to the unbearable conditions in so many schools.

Our first national strikes raised spirits and showed teachers we could demonstrate our anger through action. However, teachers (and indeed trade unions as a whole) have also learned that winning victories against a determined opposition needs more than just protest actions. That’s why teachers are questioning where our campaign goes next.

We do face a determined adversary in this Government. They are trying to drive through a neo-liberal agenda of cuts and privatisation, applied to schools through the GERM, the Global Education Reform Movement. They want to open up education to big business, lower costs and turn education into a marketplace. That means attacking school staff conditions and their unions too.

However, our campaigning has helped put the pressure on a Government who want to appeal to teacher voters alienated by Gove’s hard-nosed approach. Nicky Morgan has been brought in to make more sympathetic noises – but Government policy has not fundamentally changed. 

That’s why most teachers in the meeting seemed to share my view that, while we must always hope for the best, the likelihood is that Morgan’s ‘Workload Challenge’ is unlikely to lead to many real gains, certainly unless she fears a determined response from the NUT if our demands are not met. Those demands, set down in our Workload Action Programme, are clear. They include abolishing Ofsted, ending the grading of lessons, stopping performance-pay, cutting working hours and increasing teacher numbers.

Oldham members commented that this meant we needed to be ready to take national action quickly in the New Year. We had a window of opportunity to force real change before the Election – and we mustn’t waste it.

I also asked teachers to think about what a successful programme of ongoing national strike action would need to look like. As LANAC had consistently argued, teachers – and politicians – needed to know that further action would follow if the first action didn’t bring results. In other words, we needed a clear ‘calendar of action’. We should also consider taking two-day extended action to up the ante from previous strikes.

The proposal was taken seriously but I was pleased that it was also honestly questioned in the meeting. Would teachers be prepared to make that financial sacrifice? In response, I just asked teachers to consider that, if ongoing action was needed to win, then we had no choice but to prepare for it financially, saving for extended action and appealing for hardship funds.

Of course, alongside national action, school-based action on workload would also be vital. It was good to hear that Oldham NUT’s experience had mirrored Lewisham’s in having a well-attended recent training day where reps made plans to tackle excessive workload. 

As a result, a motion was unanimously agreed at the meeting tonight requesting Reps to convene meetings to prioritise areas of most concern and meet management to seek to negotiate workload reductions in those areas. If this was not successful then, like Lewisham NUT, Oldham NUT was encouraging reps to coordinate any necessary strike action across local schools.

The meeting also passed, as three of their allocation of six for NUT Annual Conference, motions backed by LANAC on ‘A Strategy to Win’, ‘Teacher Workload’ and ‘An Effective Teaching and Learning Environment’ – all in line with the strategies I was putting forward for discussion tonight.

Finally, in my closing remarks, I asked the meeting to leave thinking about the ‘elephant in the room’ – political representation. It was absolutely right that we all took every opportunity to use the General Election period to expose the damage being caused by the ‘GERM’ and to put forward the NUT’s alternative. However, whatever their particular political views, most teachers knew that we could not rely on the next Government, whatever its make-up, to defend teachers.

How long can trade unions continue to make-do with the ‘lesser evil’ of Labour, particularly when Tristram Hunt’s education policies hardly seem ‘less evil’ at all?! Isn’t it about time that unions stood their own candidates – and gave our communities a chance to vote for the anti-austerity policies that most teachers and parents actually support?

It was an excellent meeting – and I hope we all left with things to discuss further. Thank you Oldham NUT!

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