Monday 31 August 2015

Rising shortages, plummeting morale – How can teachers turn the tide?

Marching for education, Lewisham, April 2015
As teachers go back to a new school year of excessive workload and imposed targets, what are the chances of winning any improvement in our working conditions – and children’s learning conditions?

On the positive side, the widespread support for Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity challenge – and for local campaigns such as the anti-academy battles in Lewisham – give a glimpse of the real public mood. If teachers are prepared to take action to improve their conditions, linking their campaign to the need to improve education through improving turnover and morale, they can win wider support.

The beginning of term has coincided with a number of good press articles confirming the extent of teacher turnover and growing teacher shortages and calling for a change in Government policy. As Zoe Williams correctly argues in the Guardian, "Teachers, like any other bold professional innovators, will work best if they’re allowed to work together. League tables, Ofsteds, all the artificial ways in which schools are pitted against each other, militate against this cooperation".

Another Guardian article highlighted that “Department for Education figures show that in the 12 months to November 2014 almost 50,000 qualified teachers in England left the state sector. That is almost one in 10 of all teachers – the highest rate for 10 years and an increase of more than 25% over five years”. Teaching unions should be able to take advantage of shortages and turnover and the fact that schools are having to compete to recruit and retain staff. While limited in its effect, the March 2015 ‘Ofsted clarification’ letter “to dispel myths that can result in unnecessary workloads” reflected concerns amongst some of those managing the system that teacher workload has to be addressed.

On the other hand, we face a Tory Government determined to force through more cuts and further fragmentation of conditions and education. Some of them are only too happy to see teachers divided and demoralised – it’s all part of the wider ‘Global Education Reform Movement’ agenda. This destructive approach is replicated at a local level by too many bullying school regimes, especially in academies. While deteriorating conditions mean there is widespread discontent, confidence to struggle is inevitably affected by the fact that, while teacher unions have won some local successes, the 2010-2015 Government largely succeeded in imposing its attacks.

Workload, Pay and Pensions

Despite all her promises, Nicky Morgan’s ‘workload challenge’ delivered next-to-nothing and intolerable workload continues to drive teachers out of the profession. The thousands of heartfelt stories that teachers wrote at the time of the ‘Workload Challenge’ remain the harsh reality in most schools – along with working weeks of 60 hours and more.

The latest letter to the Public Sector Review Bodies from the Treasury makes clear that they expect more divisive ‘targeting’ of pay - so that not all teachers would get even an annual pay award, let alone progression up the pay spine. NUT figures suggest that already there are considerable numbers of teachers being told they won’t be progressing to the next pay point this September. That will only get worse as schools tighten the screw of ‘performance management’, imposing unrealistic pupil progress targets. The threat of ‘capability’ and ‘teachers experiencing difficulties’ procedures will continue to be used to push teachers out and keep others fearful they could be next.

Despite the hopes at the time of the powerful co-ordinated national action in 2011, the pensions changes have been imposed with increased contributions cutting take-home pay. A diminishing number of ‘protected’ older colleagues will still be able to retire at 60 with their full pension but many of the rest will struggle to work on until 67 or more and will retire ‘early’, at a hefty cost to their final pension.

More generally, spending cuts are helping to drive these attacks on pay and conditions. School budgets are getting tighter with employer pension contributions rising in September. However, with some local exceptions, notably sixth from colleges (and of course central services which have already been cut to the bone), there haven’t yet been significant forced teacher redundancies. NUT Conference voted for a campaign on funding including a ballot for national action. However, pay and conditions would seem to be more immediate concerns for teachers as things stand at present.

National Action still needed

Although defeated at 2015 NUT Conference, the wording in the LANAC amendment on ‘a strategy to win’ still seems to me to set out a balanced assessment of the union’s campaign since 2011: “In drawing up a balance-sheet of the campaign so far, Conference recognises the successes we have achieved, particularly in opposing the further deregulation of working conditions originally proposed by the previous Secretary of State. However, Conference also recognises that, despite our efforts, the Government has succeeded in imposing its damaging legislative changes to teachers’ pensions and pay arrangements. Teacher workload has also continued to worsen, at the expense of teachers, their families and education as a whole. Conference therefore recognises that, up to now, our campaign has failed to sufficiently protect teachers and education in the way that the Union and its members would have wanted it to”.

Need things have ended up this way? LANAC have argued for a strategy of escalating national strike action that we think could have achieved a better outcome. However, the debate now needs to look at where things stand today. LANAC’s general strategy remains true – for the NUT to make clear demands on the Government and then to go out to members, using all of the organising tools of the Union, to win support for the action required to win them. That is still the best ‘strategy to win’ – so as to achieve national changes to pay and conditions that would have to apply to all teachers nationally.

National strike action is also the best way to give confidence to the whole membership, in whatever school they work, to take united action together – preferably alongside other unions too. However, that confidence also needs to be built and a campaign fought to win support for such a strategy.

The Government also understands the threat that national strike action can make to its austerity program. That’s why it is pushing through its planned Trade Union Bill. The new ballot thresholds would be a challenge to a union organised across so many different workplaces nationally. Even at a school level, they would mean firm organisation would be needed to prepare for a ballot – and for days of action that might see schools trying to use agency staff to break strikes. Campaigning with parents and the local community to win support for teachers’ action will become even more important.

A National Charter - what are the key demands?

The argument that the Union needs to have a clear set of demands to mobilise members around seems to have been generally accepted. Kevin Courtney has raised the idea at the National Executive of developing a ‘National Charter’ to fight for at both a local and national level. Judging what those demands should be is important – they need to be pitched sufficiently strongly to be seen to be worth winning, key points that will make a real difference to teachers. At the same time they need to be demands that reps and their colleagues judge to be achievable – a balance needs to be struck.

National Demands have to address the key issues that Government can legislate for. The agreed final 2015 NUT Conference motion on a ‘Strategy to Win’ set out a set of demands as the basis for our national dispute. These points - with wording sharpened up for campaigning purposes - could easily form the basis of a National Charter that should get general agreement across the Union. The headline demands could then look something like this – although it would be good to also develop the demands on limits to working hours and the size of a catch-up pay award to specific amounts:

  • The replacement of Ofsted/Estyn by a new school accountability system;
  • A requirement for all schools to limit workload related to marking, planning, data, meetings and observations;
  • An end to performance related pay;
  • An immediate target to reduce working hours and a phased introduction of binding limits on teacher working time;
  • Increase teacher numbers in order to increase PPA time to 20 per cent and reduce class sizes;
  • The restoration of the national pay spine and pay portability and a catch up pay award;
  • The reversal of the changes to the teachers’ pension scheme.
Publicising and popularising such a National Charter amongst teachers – and explaining to the public how it would improve education – is an important campaigning task for the immediate period. Of course, that campaign would also spark a debate about the national action needed to be taken for such a Charter could be won.

Reducing Teacher Workload – what binding limit should be placed on working hours?

Alongside (and linked to) performance-pay, the most pressing issue for many teachers remains workload. Overall working-hours have never been limited by legislation. On top of the annual 1265 ‘directed hours’, the STPCD has always stated that ‘a teacher must work such reasonable additional hours as may be necessary to enable the effective discharge of the teacher’s professional duties’. While the STPCD also still states that Heads must ‘lead and manage the staff with a proper regard for their well-being and legitimate expectations, including the expectation of a healthy balance between work and other commitments’, in practice working weeks of 60 hours are typical – and the stressful nature and intensity of those working hours gets ever harder too. A binding limit to overall hours – allowing the teacher to say ‘NO’ to further demands – would be a huge step forward.

Perhaps in the past, teachers have felt wary about complaining when they know that the issue of ‘teachers’ long holidays’ will be thrown back at us. However, even assuming (completely wrongly) that teachers only work during term-time (and never in their holidays) then a 60-hour week for 39 weeks a year amounts to 2340 annualised hours. Someone in a different job working as much as 40 hours for 46 weeks a year still works only 1840 annualised hours. That’s broadly equivalent to teachers working the supposed ‘legal maximum’ 48-hour week for all 39 weeks of term-time. If the worker was contracted for a more reasonable 37 hours a week for 45 weeks a year, that would come out as 1665 hours – equivalent to a teacher working 43 hours over 39 weeks. A more detailed analysis of hours and holidays across different employees would help to clarify these numbers and help arrive at a specific figure for negotiators to use – nationally and locally.

The NUT has developed a model National Contract based on the demand for a 35-hour overall working week, made-up of a maximum of 20 hours pupil-contact time, 5 hours non-contact activities, 5 hours PPA in the working day and a further 5 hours additional preparation time outside the working day. It’s an excellent proposal for allowing teachers to have a genuine ‘work-life balance’ – but a very long-way from where we are at present. The STPCD does make reference to Heads having to at least abide by the 1998 ‘Working Time Regulations’ that set a 48-hour weekly limit on working-time. The issue is complicated by the Regulations stating that workers have to calculate their average hours over a 17-week ‘reference’ period, which would then include holiday periods. However, even including holidays, surely most schools are breaching the Working Time Regulations in the demands they are putting on teachers over all but the summer break?

Putting legalities to one side, then the idea that 48-hours is the most anybody should be expected to work still has a more general currency – and rightly so. How can any worker be sufficiently refreshed and ready to do their work – whether teaching children or other employment - when they’re working 50 or more hours a week? Should we use the Working Time Regulations to at least set an immediate demand of no teacher working more than a 48-hour week? If this is setting our sights too low, then perhaps another figure like 43 hours should be our starting-point for a binding limit (based loosely on the comparison with annualised hours above). That could allow teachers to refuse to do work at home at all during the week – and just a few hours at the weekend. Now that would be starting to win back a real work-life balance at last!

Of course, it isn’t just the overall hours but the tedious, narrow, results-driven nature of so much of that workload that is driving teachers out of the profession. In campaigning on workload, we also have to campaign against any supposed ‘solutions’ that propose even more prescription and reliance on mass produced planning and delivery materials (which the international edu-businesses backing the GERM would be only too pleased to produce and sell – at a profit of course). Genuine workload solutions have to include giving far more control back to teachers about what, and how, they teach. Instead of the blame-culture endemic at present, they also need to be based on building genuine partnerships amongst teachers and schools, giving space and time to colleagues to work together and learn from each other.

Winning school-by-school, employer-by-employer

Campaigning to win a National Charter through national action must not, and cannot, mean that the Union doesn’t also try to win gains where it can at a local level. However, the present approach, based on using the ongoing Action Short of Strike Action instructions, needs a major shake-up. While some schools have used the guidelines successfully, other school groups have found it difficult to withstand the growing pressures on staff to take on even more workload nor been able to protect those colleagues picked-off through performance-pay and capability procedures. Some of the workload pressures are also too complex to resolve easily through a specific action instruction.

In discussions at the National Executive, the outline of a different approach has started to take shape. The Union should seek to approach Local Authorities and/or Academy Chains and win support for local endorsement of a ‘National Charter’ (or a version of it based on the powers available to local employers – it could also encompass issues like maternity and sick-pay as well). The Union can appeal to employers to point out that, firstly, the Charter will actually improve outcomes by freeing up teachers from excessive workload and improving morale. It will also boost their reputation as an employer particularly where they are having to compete to recruit and retain staff as shortages grow. Obviously, if an employer makes clear that it is not prepared to agree to union demands, then the grounds are there for a collective dispute, taking action across a number of schools, not just a few schools in isolation. Of course, the Union might also be able to win support from individual Governing Bodies/Heads too, using that endorsement to add pressure on other schools to come to a similar agreement.

This would be a major job of campaigning and organising work for the Union – but it is an approach that can give direction to local work and start to win some meaningful gains. It will need some local Divisions to take a lead and see what can be achieved, spreading success stories to other areas. The Union’s organising resources should also be directed to areas where they can best help work with Local Divisions and Academy reps to achieve success.

A Local Charter - what should it include?

To succeed as a national campaign, it’s important that the Union has a national understanding of the common demands being pursued in such an employer-by-employer dispute. Inevitably, this or that concession and agreement might differ in different areas but there needs to be some consistency to make sure that a settlement in one area doesn’t undermine a dispute somewhere else.

A ‘Local Charter’ must be consistent with national demands. There are, of course, some demands that only Government can legislate for – but there are other demands that need to be put more concretely to make sure that policies are in place that offer genuine protection to teachers. To conclude, here are my ideas to help discussion, based on some of the demands already included in NUT publications and policy, as well as the points above. I’d welcome feedback and amendments. However, let's not debate for too long but reach an agreed way forward. We need to turn these kind of ideas into action as soon as we can, before it’s too late.

This school/employer:

1) Fully applies the workload protections in the 2012 STPCDocument specifically the provisions for guaranteed PPA time / leadership and management time, a clear calendar for 1265 hours of directed time over a maximum of 195 working days, and limits on cover, the use of ‘gained time’ and over administrative and clerical tasks for teachers.
2) Applies a binding limit of a maximum 43 hours of overall weekly working-time for full-time teachers and agrees that teachers will not be expected to carry out work which cannot be completed within that weekly limit.
3) Adopts policies on marking, planning, data, meetings and observations which minimise teacher workload including:
i) an agreed marking policy which takes into account overall working-time and does not require teachers to generate written dialogue between them and their pupils;
ii) agreeing that there is no requirement on teachers to provide evidence of the work that they do, outside that which arises naturally, neither to produce detailed lesson plans nor to provide those plans regularly to school management;
iii) a broad, balanced and enriching curriculum, not one driven largely by numerical targets, while minimising and streamlining data collection from teaching staff;
iv) holding an average of no more than one directed meeting/activity outside school session times each week of term-time;
v) following Ofsted’s own practice and desisting from grading lesson observations, nor carrying out more than three observations per year, except in cases of concern.
4) Adopts a pay policy that maintains pay portability and the structures of previous STPCD pay scales i.e. a 6-point main pay scale, 3-point upper pay scale, 43-point leadership pay scale and 6-point unqualified teacher scale, with annual increases to be agreed with the teacher trade unions.
5) Expects to award pay progression to all of its eligible teaching staff and adopts pay and appraisal policies that:
i) ensure that no more than three objectives are set annually and that these objectives are reasonable and achievable in the circumstances in which the teacher works;
ii) ensure teachers will be awarded pay progression following a successful appraisal review and that any proposal to deny pay progression will normally only be considered in the context of a formal capability procedure;
iii) do not expect teachers on the upper scale to have to accept additional responsibilities beyond those for which any TLR may have been awarded.

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