This afternoon’s regrettably brief debate, over my proposal that the NUT National Executive should respond to Nicky Morgan’s total failure to meet the Union’s workload demands by calling a national strike on 24 March, ended in the strike proposal being rejected, by 24 votes to 13.
I believe that decision means that the NUT has missed a real opportunity to allow teachers across England and Wales to demonstrate their collective anger at the Government’s failure to do anything to address teachers’ completely unacceptable levels of workload. It has also missed a chance for the Union to make sure that the attacks facing education were placed firmly in the headlines in the months leading up to May’s General Election.
Worse, however, the debate showed that the argument was about much more than just a tactical difference over action timetables. Regrettably, some of the arguments used to oppose action revealed much sharper differences over the possibility of successfully organising to oppose the ongoing attacks on teachers’ pay, pensions and conditions.
I would have hoped that everyone on that Executive understood from their own experience, from the support they give to stressed colleagues, from the figures we have publicised about working hours, lack of pay progression and mounting resignations, from the thousands of heartfelt responses to the Government’s ‘Workload Challenge’, that teachers are facing completely intolerable conditions.
I hope that everyone on the Executive recognises that we face the risk of a completely broken profession if we don’t act to turn the tide of mounting workload – particularly now Nicky Morgan has completely failed to meet the Union’s demands. Unfortunately, I did not feel that the recommendations presented to the Executive in any way grasped the urgency with which the Union needed to respond to Morgan’s failure.
Of course we should try to continue with local school-based action to oppose excessive workload where we can. Just yesterday, I arranged to meet members in a primary school next week to see if we can protect teachers against the pressure coming from observations, ‘book looks’ and other excessive monitoring. But, to be honest, local action alone is like trying to stretch a sticking plaster over a gaping wound. The time and effort required for each local dispute takes enormous time and resources. For every school action that we can arrange, there are dozens more that we will be unable to organise.
So do we just concentrate for now on campaign stalls and lobbying MPs? First of all, the workload itself means that it’s hard for teachers ground down by marking and planning to take part. Secondly, members aren’t naïve – they recognise that, whoever wins the Election, it will take a lot more than lobbying to get any real change.
Our demands – for example to end PRP and to recruit more teachers to reduce class sizes and teaching hours - mean challenging a cuts agenda that Parliament voted for last month by 515 votes to 18! As was discussed during the Executive, whoever wins in May, schools face budget cuts after the Election, not budget expansion. Even Labour’s pledge to ‘inflation-proof’ school budgets takes no account of increasing pupil numbers and known budget pressures on, for example, pay and pensions. Some estimates quoted at the Executive suggest the reality could be 7% cuts under Labour, 10% under the Tories.
What we need is a way to get our message across to the electorate, and to the politicians, in a far more visible way. What could have been better than a national strike in the lead-up to the General Election, asking strikers to participate in local rallies and campaigning events on the day as we proposed in the debate? What better way to divert away from the debate from, say, UKIP’s manifesto to the NUT’s manifesto?
If we had agreed to take strike action next month, we would, after all, have simply been carrying out the strategy agreed by the National Executive last year – to act on the support shown in the consultative ballot and to call further action before the Election if Nicky Morgan failed to act seriously on workload – which she clearly hasn’t.
In a nutshell, why are we not now doing what we told members that we were going to do?
I am afraid that failing to act on our earlier decision sends out a dangerous signal that, although Nicky Morgan has ignored teachers’ demands, the Union is unable to respond. Taking action now would have shown this Government that we are far from defeated – and, more to the point, it would have been a warning shot to the next Government too, whoever they prove to be.
Of course, Easter’s Annual Conference will be debating a new strategy for a new Government, very probably based on a new strike ballot. Of course, I and others have argued for such a new strategy to be debated, learning the lessons of our failure to successfully defend pay, pensions or workload under this Government. However, taking action in March would have helped prepare the ground for those battles to come after the Election.
Those opposing the proposal argued that the Union risked being unable to mobilise members to take a national strike and questioned the turnout of members on the last national strike in July 2014. I feel that those fears were exaggerated and that some speakers were in serious danger of downplaying the success of the national action that we have taken. That will do the Union no favours at all!
Yes, there will always be some schools, and some areas, that are stronger than others, inevitably so. But, whenever we have called national strikes, including last July, we have successfully reached national and local headlines and built good local rallies. This time, we would not have been calling action at the end of the summer term but at the end of March – and in the run-up to the General Election – a much better date on which to build action.
Worryingly, given the troubled history of trying to take joint national action with the NASUWT, the argument also resurfaced that, in effect, we could not build successful action without the support of other teaching unions. While united action is preferable, surely we have also learned that waiting for unwilling ‘partners’ can just hold back action altogether – and at the expense of our members’ pay and conditions?
It was argued that there was no ‘clamour’ from teachers to take action. But our members are drowning in the daily reality of excessive workload. They are looking for a lead from their Union. Given the anger at those conditions, I believe that teachers would have responded to a strike call – if the National Executive had given a lead this afternoon.
Why should teachers have to lobby their Executive to demand action? After all, the Union had explained that they were waiting to see what the talks with Morgan would deliver before considering further action. Our demands have been rejected but we are failing to act.
Today’s vote is another setback in defending teachers and education from the attacks that will continue to pile onto teachers – until we act decisively to stand up to those attacks. However, the ever-worsening conditions mean that teachers will increasingly realise that they have no choice but to take that stand. We need a National Executive that’s prepared to give a decisive lead in the battles to come.