Sunday 24 November 2019

Ofsted try to ignore teachers' contracts (again!) - vote to scrap Ofsted on 12 December!

A very useful set of advice on the latest Ofsted inspection framework has been circulated to NEU members this weekend. The advice reminds members of their contractual rights - rights which Ofsted either don't understand or, more to the point, want Heads to ignore.

The advice follows reports of the difficult experiences suffered by NEU members during Ofsted inspections since the new framework was introduced earlier this year. 

As the NEU advice explains, under the new arrangements "inspectors are doing ‘deep dives’ into subjects, agreed in the pre-inspection phone call with the head teacher … and, as part of the ‘deep dive’, inspectors meet with subject leaders". 

The problem with this structure is that it's based on the assumption that staff are being paid and contracted to carry out those roles as subject leaders. However, especially in primary schools, that often isn't the case. 

Many primary staff - and sometimes experienced 'Upper Pay Range' staff in secondary schools as well - have been pressurised into leading on subject areas without any additional responsibility payment (TLR). Just as significantly given the intolerable workload on staff, many have also not been given any additional non-contact time to carry out these additional responsibilities. 

If left unchallenged, Ofsted's new framework will make these abuses become even more common than they are already.

Ofsted - trying to override teachers' contractual conditions

The statutory conditions set out in the School Teachers Pay and Conditions' Document (and a very similar document applying in Wales) leave a lot to be desired, failing in particular to clearly limit teachers' overall working hours. 

However, on this issue they are crystal clear: “Teachers are expected to contribute ... to curriculum development by sharing their professional expertise with colleagues and advising on effective practice. This does not mean that they can be expected to take on the responsibility of, and accountability for, a subject area or to manage other teachers without appropriate additional payment. Responsibilities of this nature should be part of a post that is in the leadership group or linked to a post which attracts a TLR [payment]” (2019 STPCD Section 3 para 48).

Paragraph 52.6 of Section 2 on "Management Time" states that such a teacher with leadership or management responsibilities is also entitled to additional time for discharging those responsibilities.

NEU advice - "Act now, and act together!"

The NEU, correctly, is advising members to stand together as a union group and refuse to be bullied by management and/or Ofsted into overriding their contractual rights. 

The NEU advises that, during Ofsted inspections:

  • If you have not been given the necessary non-contact time and other support to undertake the responsibilities of subject leader, you should not attend meetings with inspectors without the presence of a senior member of staff who will contribute to the discussion of the curriculum, its delivery and monitoring, throughout the school.
  • If you do attend a meeting with inspectors, with or without a senior member of staff present, you should make it clear to inspectors that the NEU, your union, has advised you that you cannot be held responsible for the quality of the curriculum in the subject deep dive, because your school has been unable to give you additional time or to pay you for that responsibility. 
  • If you are in a small school where there is no-one else who could take on the responsibility of, and accountability for, a subject area or to manage other teachers, the school leader should write to the lead inspector in the region to state that the school cannot implement a part, or parts of the Quality of Education judgment requirements, because it does not have the resources necessary to provide staff with the time and payment to undertake those responsibilities fully.

Time to abolish these Ofsted bullies!

From Labour's Manifesto for 'Real Change'
Unfortunately, Ofsted, and the threat of Ofsted 'failure', has been used to bully school staff into taking on unreasonable workload for far too long. 

That's why teachers will be heartened to see Labour's General Election manifesto saying the following:

"Schools are being subjected to intensified testing, inspection, league tables and competition. These aren’t improving pupil achievement or narrowing the attainment gap, but are contributing to a growing teacher recruitment and retention crisis" … " We will replace Ofsted and transfer responsibility for inspections to a new body, designed to drive school improvement". 

Every NEU member needs to make sure that this latest bullying behaviour is the impetus we need to say "enough is enough". Act together to stand up to the bullies and Vote together for the abolition of Ofsted on 12 December! 

Saturday 9 November 2019

Cuts and crisis: stop Tory school havoc!

Tory austerity and education policies have damaged the education of millions of young people. This General Election gives young voters, their parents and school staff a chance to throw Boris Johnson and his Government out of office.

This article has been written for the next issue of 'The Socialist', the weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party. You can also read it here

Significant damage has been inflicted by school spending cuts. UK Education spending in 2020 is projected to be as low as 4% of national wealth (or GDP). That would be the lowest figure on record since 1959.

Courtesy of
The Conservatives have utterly failed to keep the promise in their 2015 manifesto “to protect school funding”. In reality, funding per pupil has fallen at the same time as the demands on school budgets have grown. Figures from the trade-union backed ‘School Cuts’ campaign show that rises in pupil numbers alongside the extra costs of pensions, pay and inflation have left an annual shortfall of over £2billion in English schools alone. Schools in Wales, although funded separately to England, face significant financial pressures as well.

Stop School Cuts 

Those cuts mean schools have fewer teachers, fewer teaching assistants and larger class sizes. Staff cuts have particularly hit music, design, arts and language posts in secondary schools, contributing to a further narrowing of the curriculum.

Cuts mean thousands of youngsters with special educational needs and disabilities are not having their needs adequately met. Schools are catering for complex needs without adequate staffing and resources.

Rising child poverty, a direct result of Tory austerity, also has inevitable emotional and behavioural consequences. Yet, with budgets for youth, child and adolescent mental health services all being slashed, underfunded schools are being left to somehow pick up the pieces.

Sixth Form class sizes are mushrooming in a sector that traditionally always had smaller student numbers per teacher. Of course, those students won’t escape the funding crisis if they continue to higher education. However, they’ll have to pay for the privilege by racking up tens of thousands of pounds of debt for huge tuition fees and rising living costs.

Toll on staff
Underfunding is also exacting a terrible toll on staff. Salaries for teachers have fallen by over 15% in real-terms since 2010. That’s been made worse by schools trying to limit their pay bill by refusing annual progression up their pay scales, further adding to staff demoralisation.

Support staff and teaching posts have been cut, adding to the demands on the staff remaining. Government promises to act on teacher workload have proven to be worthless. The average working week for a teacher in England remains a staggering 50 hours, with a quarter working more than 60 hours a week.

Those pressures are deepening the ongoing crisis in teacher retention, with the Government’s own figures confirming that a THIRD of newly qualified staff now leave teaching within the first five years. Small wonder that schools continue to be blighted by constant staff turnover, especially those supporting the most disadvantaged communities where pressure on staff is greatest.

In short, the Tories have wreaked havoc on our schools, staff and education. They have to go!

Corbyn Promises Change: building a ‘National Education Service’

On becoming Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn pledged to transform education through a ‘National Education Service’. The General Election gives him the chance to carry out this vital transformation.

Corbyn’s initial proposals highlighted genuine ‘lifelong learning’, including scrapping tuition fees, investing in Early Years ‘Sure Start’ centre provision and reversing cuts to the adult skills budget.

There was a welcome confirmation at September’s 2019 Labour Party Conference that a Corbyn government would indeed abolish tuition fees, cap the cost of school uniforms and provide free nursery education for all two to four year olds.

Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner also committed to ending the Ofsted school inspection regime, replacing their reports with “health checks” organised through local authorities.

Jeremy Corbyn had also previously announced that Labour would scrap ‘Sats’ exams in English primary schools, including the new baseline assessments for four year olds. Correctly, Corbyn has criticised the pressure Sats put on young children and the way they narrow the primary curriculum as schools concentrate on boosting the test scores on which they will be judged. Of course teachers would continue to rely on assessment to inform their work – and to inform, children, their parents and carers – but the failing of children through high-stakes testing would cease.

Reversing Blair’s Marketisation
Abolishing Ofsted and SATs - and their Welsh counterparts Estyn and National Testing in Wales - would be significant first steps towards ending the pro-market consensus that existed between all the main parties under the capitalist Labour leadership of Tony Blair.

Under ‘New Labour’, neo-liberal education policies were imposed, as they were across the globe at that time. They were designed to cut costs by making schools compete in an education marketplace.

Schools ‘failed’ by Ofsted or found at the bottom of SAT League Tables could then be blamed for their poor performance – rather than putting the blame where it really lies, on government failure to tackle poverty and fund schools properly.

Ofsted outcomes have been used to bully staff and undermine schools. After receiving ‘inadequate’ ratings, over 500 primary schools have been forced out of local authority control into the hands of unaccountable, publicly funded but privately run ‘multi-academy trusts’.

This has accelerated the fragmentation of education in England. Of course, academisation hasn't improved education - only the bank balances of those private profiteers who control them.

In reality, SATs results and Ofsted gradings have always owed more to child poverty than teacher performance.

Recent research has confirmed that schools where a high number of pupils are entitled to free school meals are far more likely to be deemed ‘inadequate’ than schools without those levels of poverty. Reversing austerity more generally is essential to improve educational outcomes too.

Reversing Tory Cuts
With polling showing that school cuts are an important issue for voters, it’s not surprising that all the main parties are promising more money for schools. But who can be believed?

The Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition was responsible for year-on-year cuts in the proportion of UK GDP spent on education from 2010 onwards. Until recently, the Tories largely denied that school cuts were an issue. In 2018, the then Tory Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, had to apologise when he was reported to the UK Statistics Authority for making false claims about government school spending!

Knowing a General Election was on the cards, Johnson promised schools would have “£14 billion additional funding over the next three years”. However, once inflation and triple-counting is taken into account, the pledge is actually more like £4.3 billion a year.

That’s not even enough to reverse the cuts suffered since 2010, let alone to increase spending to genuinely improve education. 83% of schools would still have less money per pupil in real terms next year than they had in 2015.

Angela Rayner has promised that “A Labour government will fully reverse Tory cuts and give our schools the funding they need to ensure every child gets a good education”. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has pledged that schools will receive some of Labour’s proposed £150 billion ‘social transformation fund’ for upgrade work.

These are policies which every parent, school student and member of staff will be hoping – and expecting – a Labour government to carry out.

Standing Firm for Education: how to defend reforms

Education will be one of the key issues that could determine the outcome of the General Election. If Labour boldly campaigns to reverse school cuts and end tuition fees, SATs and Ofsted, it could help convince both working-class and middle-class voters to back a Corbyn government. 

But the real test would then follow – to stand up to big business and implement Corbyn’s manifesto commitments.

Where’s the money?
Corbyn’s has previously proposed to pay for greater education spending through a small increase in corporation tax from its present very low 19%. It’s not a radical step. Even back in 2010, the standard rate was 28%. In 1979, it was 52%!

Nevertheless, any attempt to divert more wealth towards “the many not the few” will be resisted by the capitalist class. Already, financial institutions - who will be piling on the pressure against the background of a likely world recession - are saying it would result in lower investment in Britain, and so fewer jobs and lower growth.

Increased tax rates would also be met with further tax avoidance and evasion by big business. Of course, the best way to combat that, and to genuinely control the economy, would be to nationalise the main firms and financial institutions under democratic workers’ control and management.

It seems likely that the Labour election manifesto will pledge to end fee-paying 'independent' schools’ spurious 'charitable status'. A further route to provide additional resources for state education would be to implement the policy also agreed by Labour Party Conference to redistribute their resources across state education.

To be carried out successfully, a Labour government would need to assure staff in independent schools that their jobs and conditions were secure.

However, as it provides such a challenge to the privileges so fiercely guarded by the wealthy, it may well remain just a paper policy unless the workers’ movement pushes for its implementation.

If Corbyn is serious about introducing a genuinely transformative ‘National Education Service’, he will need to ensure that, as with the NHS, it is not continually undermined by the existence of a parallel private sector available only to those who can afford it.

Local democracy, not academies
A more immediately pressing education policy agreed by Labour’s 2019 Conference is also facing resistance from the right of the Party. This called for an end to academy schools, with all publicly funded schools to be placed under the control of their local authority through "reformed, democratically accountable local education committees with stakeholder representation". 

Without this urgent step being taken, ensuring control lies with school staff, parents, students and the local community, any ‘National Education Service’ will fail. A national system can’t operate if half of England’s pupils continue to be educated in schools controlled by over 1000 different unaccountable Multi Academy Trusts, with their own policies and competing interests.

The struggle to reverse academisation is part of the struggle to make sure Labour becomes truly a party that acts reliably in workers’ interests. Shamefully, too many Labour MPs and Councillors still share Blair’s ideological support for the marketisation of schools. 

Parents and trade unionists must demand that Labour’s Conference policy is put into practice and fiercely campaign against any further attempts to widen academisation if any new administration seeks to implement such a policy after the Election.

Trade Unions decisive
Whoever wins on 12 December, school staff unions need to organise to demand a National Contract that guarantees improved pay, working and learning conditions. That’s essential if we are to reverse the damage done by years of staff turnover and start to provide the stability and resources needed to meet every student’s needs.

The best result for education would clearly be a Corbyn-led majority Labour government. However, even in that best case scenario, mass pressure will be needed to counteract the pressures that will be put on a Labour government to accept the diktats of big business – not least via the Blairites in his own party. If it’s a Tory-led administration, then there will be no choice but to fight - and to fight hard.

Already around half of academies are in deficit, and about a quarter of local authority secondary schools are too. Even more will follow once they have spent their remaining reserves.

Labour councillors and school governors should stand with parents and staff and refuse to implement any more cuts, backing unions taking strike action to defend education. They should follow the successful example of Valentine School where a campaign led by the National Education Union (NEU) won a two year cuts freeze.

Resistance is already growing. Strong campaigns based on strike action, such as those in Newham, East London, have shown academisation can be defeated. 

This month will see NEU members in sixth forms and University and College Union (UCU) members in higher education taking strike action in separate disputes over pay, working conditions and other concerns. Earlier this year, Scottish teachers organised by the EIS union were successful in winning significant pay rises through the threat of national strike action.

Whatever the result of the General Election, trade unions need to prepare for decisive action, linking up with parents and school communities, to defend education.

Sunday 27 October 2019

'No Outsiders' - how can we build unity against racism and homophobia?

After over a decade of intensified attacks on workers’ living standards, and without the labour movement organising decisively to oppose them, it is almost inevitable that the growing anger and alienation within working-class communities can instead be misdirected towards chauvinism and division. It is the task of socialists, without ever conceding to discriminatory views, to find a way to overcome those divisions and help bring workers together in the united struggle needed to solve the problems that they face.

These dangers have been only too obvious in the protests that erupted in Birmingham earlier this year outside two primary schools. Both have developed teaching programmes designed to help educate youngsters about equality and diversity, including same-sex relationships. However, some local parents have objected that children are being taught ideas that they see as being inappropriate and unacceptable.

While the controversy has hit the headlines in Birmingham, the issue could be one that emerges in other cities too. Similar protests have already been held in Nottingham. After all, the two schools were only teaching the kind of ‘Relationships Education’ that many primary schools will also have in place and, under new Government regulations, becomes a compulsory requirement from September 2020. 

Is it inappropriate teaching? Well, the curriculum programme that received most of the publicity, “No Outsiders”, can be easily accessed on the website of Parkfield Community School in Saltley, Birmingham, where they were developed, led by Andrew Moffat, its assistant head teacher. Most education staff looking at these materials will be impressed by their content and the proposed learning intentions.

Under the heading of ‘No Outsiders for a Faith Community – Everyone is Welcome In Our School’, the resources include well-known books that help young children discuss and celebrate differences, like the story of Elmer, the multi-coloured patchwork elephant. Other lessons encourage children to challenge racism and discrimination and to make ‘outsiders’ feel welcome. 

However, in contrast to the new Regulations which remain vague about the exact requirements on teaching primary school children about LGBT+ relationships, the ‘No Outsiders’ programme also includes teaching content about children with same-sex parents. For this, it uses as a resource “And Tango Makes Three”, a children’s book about two male penguins that raised a female chick together in a New York zoo. This is a book that has faced censorship in Hong Kong, Singapore and some US states. Another suggested resource is “Mommy, Mamma and Me”, another children’s book about a toddler with two mothers. This book was apparently highlighted by some of the protestors as, in their view, unnecessarily introducing young children to the idea that some people are LGBT+. 

Of course, this is where the controversy lies. While, to an education professional, ‘No Outsiders’ looks like a well-constructed curriculum model, to a local parent who has not been involved in the development of the materials, it could instead look like an attempt to impose ‘ outsiders’ ’ beliefs on their community, particularly to the disadvantaged and predominantly Pakistani communities that these inner-city schools support.

Caught in the crossfire, local Headteachers have complained that the Conservative Government’s refusal to set down clear statutory requirements has left them unsupported. Firmer legislation would help make sure that all children had access to fully rounded health, relationships and sex education. Partly in response to the controversy in Birmingham, this year’s Annual Conference of the National Education Union backed an urgency motion calling for the government to make lessons about LGBT+ relationships mandatory in both primary and secondary education.

However, while stronger regulations would enable Heads to point to their legal responsibilities for teaching what they know might be unpopular with some parents, relying on legislation does nothing to address underlying prejudice nor to help win parental support for an inclusive curriculum. Neither can the list of protected characteristics within the Equality Act help resolve the divisions that arise when people who identify with a particular characteristic – in this case religion or belief as against sexual orientation – perceive that they are in conflict. That requires a different approach.

The Birmingham protests began at the beginning of 2019, soon after a Parkfield School parent started a petition complaining that ‘No Outsiders’ contradicted Islamic faith. Demonstrations then started outside the school with some parents withdrawing their children from lessons. There are now fears that a growing minority of children across the city are being permanently ‘homeschooled’, withdrawing them entirely from receiving a full curriculum and the support of fully qualified teachers and school staff.

Parkfield School decided to withdraw ‘No Outsiders’ temporarily to allow senior staff to discuss with parents, but then felt able to reintroduce the programme in the summer term after several months of consultation. The biggest and most hostile protests then emerged outside another Birmingham school, Anderton Park community primary, in Balsall Heath. 

The spokesperson for the Anderton Park protestors, Shakeel Afsar, described in the press as a ‘local property developer’, argued that parents “weren’t consulted by [the Headteacher] about her LGBTQ agenda, and are upset that they’re being ignored. Their four-year-old kids are coming home confused asking about two mummies and two daddies, and boys being girls and girls being boys. That’s too young.” (The Observer, 21 September 2019).

Opponents of Afsar point out that he is not a parent of a child at the school. However, his sister is an Anderton Park parent and he and other protest organisers were clearly able to mobilise significant numbers from the local community to protest rallies outside the school gates. The largest protest on 24 May, called to “show the media that we are united and will not compromise on our faith principles”, numbered over 300. 

The protest leaders deny they are being homophobic. They seek to draw a distinction between respecting someone’s right to be LGBT+ and schools teaching children that same-sex relationships should be accepted as being as valid as any other consensual relationship. However, that distinction clearly still fails to accept LGBT+ equality. Some on the protests were undoubtedly motivated by more deeply held homophobic views, including Christian fundamentalists who joined the 24 May protests. 

It’s also clear that, whatever the motivation of the protestors, the publicity around them has encouraged homophobia. West Midlands Police have described “a huge spike in homophobic hate crime reports” since the protests started.  

With children and staff having to walk past frequent noisy demonstrations, Anderton Park School successfully obtained a temporary court injunction preventing protests at the school gates. However, the legal action will have only added to the discontent amongst the protestors and Afsar vowed that demonstrations would start again outside the “exclusion zone” once children went back to school this September. The numbers so far have been much smaller but the tensions have not gone away.

Some of the protest placards have raised concerns that children are being sexualised at too early an age, a concern that many parents might have some sympathy with. However, Anderton Park’s headteacher has explained that, unlike some other primaries, they have specifically chosen not to teach sex education at all. Neither is their relationships education, nor Parkfield’s ‘No Outsiders’ programme, predominantly about LGBT+ equality. They teach about supportive relationships and challenging stereotypes more generally. Clearly sex education always has to be age-appropriate but needs to be included in the curriculum, certainly at secondary school, if not earlier too. Teaching about relationships, including LGBT+ relationships, is needed throughout schooling.

Other placards raise issues that are harder to resolve. “Say no to undermining parental rights and authority" was one demand that goes to the heart of the conflict. Who has the final say on what a school should teach - Government, local politicians, staff and their unions, schools or parents?

Unfortunately, in Birmingham, the final decision-making has effectively often been with the unaccountable leaders of the Multi Academy Trusts that have been given control of so many of the city’s schools. The ethos encouraged by successive Governments that community schools can be turned into academy schools and then run by self-appointed leaders without local communities having any say may well have contributed to the tensions that have emerged.

Socialists would argue that all schools should be democratically accountable and, to use the current jargon, all “stakeholders” should have a say in how schools are run and what is taught within them. The motion agreed at Labour’s recent Party Conference calling for an end to academies and for all schools to be under the control of their local authority through “reformed, democratically accountable local education committees with stakeholder representation” is an important step in that direction. 

This policy could, if acted upon, be developed into building inclusive bodies that would allow genuine democratic control of schools through elected representatives of the local community, parents, staff and their trade unions and older school students. Those kind of committees would provide the forum for discussing areas of controversy and to gain the authority needed to arrive at decisions that would win general acceptance. That would need to include policies over sex, health and relationships education as well as provision for students and staff with different faiths.

A socialist education system would also need to strike a balance between mandatory content set out nationally for all schools to follow, making sure that no school could opt out from its responsibilities to teach a broad, balanced, inclusive curriculum, and flexibility that would allow for input and variation on a local basis. There can be no fixed formula - the balance would need to be developed and adapted in practice through democratic debate*. However, there can be no equivocation on all children being taught relationships education, including same-sex relationships.
(* the debate about where that balance should lie and the nature of that mandatory content was being so fervently debated by Bolshevik educators developing a new school curriculum after the Russian Revolution that the school year at the start of 1918 had to be delayed by a month!)

Of course, Birmingham’s inner-city communities have no reason to trust any policy coming from this Conservative Government, whether on schools or any other issue. Behind the window-dressing of supporting ‘equalities’, Tory cuts to schools, health services, jobs and living standards have only created ever-rising inequality. It has been the most disadvantaged and discriminated against sections of society, whether it be women, LGBT+ workers or impoverished black or Asian communities like those in inner-city Birmingham, who have been hardest hit. 

It’s no coincidence that Parkfield and Anderton Park, as well as having children overwhelmingly from Muslim families, are also situated in two of the most deprived wards in the whole of England. Birmingham City Council figures estimate that the average adult income in the area is less than £12,000 a year. 

These predominantly Pakistani heritage parents also have further reasons to be suspicious about what the Tories have to say, especially about education. They will know from history that the supposed “British Values” of ‘tolerance’ and ‘mutual respect’ have soon been dispensed with when imperialist interests have been at stake. They will have experienced how the Government’s ‘counter-terrorism’ Prevent Duty has too often been attached to stereotypical fears about Muslim communities. Specifically in this area of Birmingham, they will have seen how that prejudice was evident in the way that politicians reacted to the wildly exaggerated ‘Trojan Horse’ claims of an “Islamist plot” to take over local schools in 2014.

Those who have studied the actual evidence are confident that the letter that supposedly revealed the plot was actually a hoax. The case against the senior staff charged with wrongdoing eventually collapsed in 2017 when it became clear that key evidence had been withheld from their defence. However, this was long after the damage had been done. 

The misreporting around ‘Trojan Horse’ was used by the Government to help justify making ‘Prevent’ a statutory duty on schools in 2015. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan was falsely able to claim that “what we saw in the Birmingham schools at the heart of the Trojan Horse Affair [was] a concerted effort to limit young people’s world view and spread poisonous views”.

It’s not surprising that many British Muslims saw Prevent being used to stigmatise their faith as being prone to ‘extremism’ and that this grievance will have been particularly deeply felt in Birmingham. 

Unfortunately, this does not seem to have been sufficiently understood by Andrew Moffat, the author of the ‘No Outsiders’ programme. Moffat, an openly gay teacher, is clearly motivated to use his undoubted skills as a teacher to challenge inequality. He admits that, when first developing materials ten years ago, that he'd made mistakes: “Number one, I just based it on LGBT, it was single issue. And number two I hadn't engaged with the parents.” Moffat therefore correctly framed his later ‘No Outsiders’ materials on challenging inequality more broadly. The meetings that he has held with parents after the initial protests this year also seem to have helped answer some misapprehensions. 

However, when asked why, after four years of using the materials at Parkfield, the protests suddenly began in 2019, Moffat has no real explanation. Some critics have pointed to the links made in Moffat’s publicity materials between the ‘No Outsiders’ programme and the Prevent agenda as being a contributory factor.

Moffat’s original ‘No Outsiders’ resource book, as published in 2016, was subtitled “Teaching the Equality Act in Primary Schools”. However, his latest 2018 book, “Reclaiming Radical Ideas in Schools”, while also containing materials promoting diversity, does so in the context of promoting ‘British Values’ and meeting the ‘Prevent Duty’. That is a mistake.

The Birmingham protests have shown that LGBT+ equality is not fully accepted by everyone in the local Muslim community. However, nobody should fall for the divisive agenda that tries to portray this as being a prejudice that is inextricably linked with Islam. As with all faiths, conservative and more progressive approaches can coincide. Beliefs can change, influenced by events and class consciousness in wider society. Faith communities are certainly also not the only places where homophobia can be found. The question for socialists is how best to tackle it, wherever it arises.

As with those taken in by far-right racist ideas, socialists needed to distinguish between out-and-out reactionaries and alienated workers who are searching for answers – and who will look for solutions from both right and left. The wrong approach risks driving these workers further towards reaction. 

Some LGBT+ campaigners from the local Asian community have shown a better understanding of what’s needed to overcome the suspicion that many of these alienated parents will have at what could too easily seem like the privileged liberal middle-class lecturing them about equality.

Khakan Qureshi from ‘Birmingham South Asians LGBT’, who has spoken out about the rise in homophobia that has accompanied the protests, explains that the dispute is “damaging for both of my communities” but rightly adds that “this is made out to be a Muslim v gay issue when, actually, this prejudice and fear exists all over England. No one talks about how class or socioeconomics affect these attitudes.” (Observer, 21 September).

In the same article, another local LGBT+ campaigner, Saima Razzaq, explains how the wrong approach could simply widen the alienation felt by these marginalised communities: “The answers have to come from within our community ... It has to be done sensitively, and we have to have those conversations as Muslims, British Pakistanis, as people from Birmingham. It can’t be done through the white saviours who are holding counter-protests at the school. That’s not helping, it reeks of a colonial mindset to me. Did they not think how that looks?”

Razzaq had also earlier explained that “this community are still bruised from Trojan horse and it is a very deprived area. People need to be sensitive to these issues” adding that “Pointing our fingers from a white middle-class collective is not going to go down well”  (Independent, 30 March 2019).

Socialists would add that those conversations need to be had as workers coming together to defend ourselves as a class, and jointly overcoming the ‘divide-and-rule’ policies designed to prevent that unity. That also means that workers need to rely on their own organisations, especially trade unions, to intervene and support negotiations, not allowing the agenda to be set by unaccountable careerists or establishment politicians.

Shakeel Afsar has used the protests in part for self-promotion, alienating some of his support when he posed for publicity shots with right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins in June. Local Labour MP Roger Godsiff angered his Party colleagues by publicly backing the protests. Jess Phillips, Labour MP for a neighbouring constituency, gained publicity for opposing the protests. However, as her constant undermining of Jeremy Corbyn has shown, Phillips is a pro-capitalist politician whose opposition to inequality will never embrace the socialist policies that are really required to tackle it.

The only way that these prejudices can be addressed is by arguing for equality from the point of view of the needs of working-class communities, rather than from an abstract moral standpoint. The roots of discrimination and prejudice, racism and sexism, are rooted in class society. Socialists need to explain how a wealthy minority can only maintain its rule over the exploited majority through fostering division, but that, through united collective action, workers can fight that exploitation. The recent successful struggles of both the Birmingham bin workers and home carers provide concrete examples that socialists and trade unionists can point to locally. 

We have to patiently explain that the poverty and discrimination faced by the inner-city communities of Birmingham can only be fought against through united struggle, and that’s why it is in none of our interests to allow the wealthy to divide us on the basis of religion, sexual orientation or on any other grounds. Of course, to permanently end exploitation, that united struggle has to succeed in winning a socialist society where democratic decision-making would be at the heart of a socialist plan of production.

The prejudice fostered by capitalism means that the kind of division that has been seen around these Birmingham schools will sometimes inevitably cut across and set back collective struggle. Regrettably, there will be some poisoned by the ideas of identity politics that focus on what they see as their own competing oppressions rather than seeing the need to forge a united struggle to overcome oppression and discrimination as a whole.

However, as in Birmingham, the correct approach of the best campaigners will be to try and bring workers and communities together to resolve differences through genuine open democratic discussion. Those patient discussions, combined with the experience of united workers’ struggles which the trade unions must urgently lead, can succeed in overcoming prejudice and oppression.

This article was written for the November 2019 edition of Socialism Today, the theoretical magazine of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. 

Friday 27 September 2019

Labour votes to abolish academies and private schools

This article was written for - and published - in The Socialist newspaper, 25 September 2019 . I would also add that Labour also need to make clear to staff working in independent schools that their jobs and livelihoods would be protected in the transition to private schools becoming part of the state sector.

John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn march with teachers and striking doctors, photo Paul Mattsson
John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn march with teachers and striking doctors, photo Paul Mattsson

Angela Rayner, Shadow Education Secretary, announced at her party's conference that a Labour government will abolish tuition fees, provide free nursery education for all two to four year olds, cap the cost of school uniforms and end the hated Ofsted inspection regime.

These promises alone could help enthuse young voters, parents and school staff into campaigning to elect Jeremy Corbyn. But conference went further still.

Rayner had been far less clear about how Labour's promised 'National Education Service' would include private and academy schools. However, delegates voted for motions that called for a complete end to both of them!

The growth of academies was supported by both the Tories and Blair's 'New Labour'. It represented a conscious attempt to create a market of competing chains of schools, making it easier to slash education spending, especially on central services previously provided by local authorities, and to undermine national pay and conditions for school staff.

Nearly half of England's pupils now attend academy schools, run by a chaotic array of hundreds of different 'multi academy trusts'. Of course, they haven't improved education - only the bank balances of those who control them.

The evidence about the failings of the academy model has been growing, along with many vociferous local campaigns against them. Yet too many Labour councils have failed to oppose academisation.

Local authority control

The successful motion called for all publicly funded schools to be under the control of their local authority through "reformed, democratically accountable local education committees with stakeholder representation".

This could, if developed fully, allow genuine democratic control of schools through elected representatives of the local community, parents, trade unions and school students.

The motion stated that the committees must be "the default providers of services and appropriately funded". Reversal of education cuts will certainly be vital to allow all children and schools to thrive, supported through central services that can make sure all needs are met.

Labour conference also voted to remove private schools' phoney 'charitable status', to redistribute their wealth to state education institutions, and for a quota that would only allow universities to admit the same proportion of private school students as in the wider population. That's only 7% - but they make up around 40% of successful Oxbridge entrants.

Britain's wealthy have never had to worry themselves about the pressures on state schools. For them, the existence of a separate system of elite private education has allowed them to buy schooling for their children providing far smaller class sizes and a wider curriculum than the increasingly narrow diet enforced on working-class youth.

As austerity bites, the proportion of pupils from state schools attending university has started to fall, particularly in the top 'Russell Group' institutions.

Of course, the wealthy will not allow any of their privileges, educational or otherwise, to simply be voted out of existence. However, the fact that Labour delegates supported the motion is a reflection of the huge anger against growing inequality in society, not just in education but in our workplaces and communities.

If Corbyn can convince workers that he understands that anger, and has a programme to address it, then the Tories can be thrown out of office.

Friday 23 August 2019

School Teachers’ Pay – 2019 Review Body Report confirms crisis – but completely fails to address it

At the end of July 2019, the Government again belatedly released the latest recommendations of the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) for the 2019/20 national pay award for teachers in England.

STRB share responsibility for the disastrous effects of pay restraint and performance pay

This was the STRB’s 29th Report since it was set up under the Conservative Government in 1991, as part of the neo-liberal ‘education reform’ measures designed to undermine teacher trade unionism and to cut and privatise education. In the succeeding three decades, where teacher trade unions in England have been left without direct negotiating rights over national pay and conditions, the Tories’ original objectives have largely been achieved. Pay levels have fallen overall while teacher workload has risen, a clear national pay structure has been shattered by performance pay and ‘freedom’ for schools to set their own pay scales, and school budgets have been cut with UK education spending as a proportion of GDP falling back to levels last seen in the 1960s.

In all those years the STRB has, of course, proved to be far from the ‘independent’ body that it claims to be. In reality, the Review Body’s various dignitaries have, with very few exceptions, faithfully carried out their role of making recommendations in line with Government policy – i.e. pay restraint and, as was their remit from the outset, to “consider how the pay of schoolteachers might be more closely related to their performance”.

The members of the STRB have to share responsibility for the disastrous effects these policies have had on teacher retention and morale. Ironically, with the greater ‘freedoms’ that academy chains were given to ignore the findings of the STRB altogether, some chains, like E-Act, are now discussing using them to get rid of performance pay in their schools because of the damaging effect it has had on teamwork and creativity.

2019 Report fails to seriously challenge the spending limits placed on them by Government

The latest remit given by the Secretary of State to the STRB in 2018 contained an obvious contradiction. It asked them for recommendations that would “promote recruitment and retention, within the bounds of affordability across the school system as a whole”. But, of course, unless the imposed spending limits are seriously challenged, teacher pay and conditions, and the resulting teacher retention crisis, cannot be seriously addressed.

The Government remit stated that only a 2% increase in per teacher pay was affordable nationally. Faced with the damning evidence that it had collected about the threat of teacher shortages (see below), the STRB recommendations pushed that figure up slightly to a 2.75% increase for 2019/20 and this has been accepted by Government. For the full 2019 STRB Report, see:

A 2.75% pay award is still only equivalent to current RPI inflation. It does nothing to address the 15% fall in the real terms value of teachers’ pay since 2010 estimated by the NEU. The STRB doesn’t challenge this claim, itself accepting that “A decade of relative decline has taken the teachers’ national pay framework too low in relation to the graduate labour market and the wider economy”.

Instead of demanding the additional funding needed to significantly increase salaries, the STRB Report makes clear that their 2.75% recommendation was based without any “assumptions about additional funding being provided to schools by the Government from September 2019”. While the Report accepts that “for some schools, the implementation of a pay uplift in September 2019 will be a significant challenge” their main emphasis is on the ‘autonomy’ that schools have both over their finances and over individual performance pay decisions, and the fact that most schools still carry surpluses from past savings. In other words, when push comes to shove, it’s up to schools to balance their budgets not for the Government to fund schools adequately.

While most schools might still be formally in surplus, the reality, as acknowledged in the STRB Report when reporting on Education Policy Institute’s 2019 research,, is that 48 per cent of maintained primary schools and 60 per cent of maintained secondary schools spent more than their income in 2017-18. 30% of maintained secondary schools are already in actual deficit with an average deficit of a staggering £484,000! (Fig 32).

The danger is clearly therefore that some cash-strapped schools will indeed try to hold back their pay bill in other ways, particularly through denying pay progression. Alternatively, more jobs and resources could be cut to pay for increased pay costs.

Schools should refuse to make such invidious choices and budget for what is needed to fund pay progression and annual increases for all staff, as well as the staffing and non-staffing resources needed to meet needs. In turn, Local Authorities should support schools going into deficit as a result and call Boris Johnson’s bluff. In standing to become the new Tory leader, Johnson promised more school spending. So, rather than make cuts, schools should demand the Tories – or whatever Government might emerge over the next weeks and months – provides the funding needed.

Interestingly, the STRB itself cautions that prioritising short-term savings “instead of teacher supply through an investment in pay” will only lead to “additional costs and reduced productivity across the education system in the longer term”.  It does advise the Government to make funding for teachers’ pay a priority in their forthcoming Spending Review. Of course, what is really needed is a Government that is seriously investing in education and for the future, not just considering the usual short-term objectives of capitalist economics.

2019 STRB Report confirms the depth of the recruitment and retention crisis

As with previous STRB Reports, the data hidden within the 2019 Report reveals the real costs of failing to invest in staff salaries and education as a whole and is in contradiction with its final timid pay recommendation that fails to challenge the Government’s spending limits.

The STRB’s summary of its findings on teacher recruitment and retention presents what it itself describes as “a worrying picture”, made worse by the fact that rising pupil numbers mean more teachers will be needed in future, particularly in secondary schools. They include these facts:

·        The Government’s target for recruitment to postgraduate Initial Teacher Training (ITT) was missed in 2018/19 for the seventh successive year.

·        Retention rates for teachers in the early years of their careers have continued to worsen.

·        Retention rates are starting to deteriorate for experienced teachers, and there has been a marked increase in the number of teachers aged over 50 leaving the profession.

·        Retention rates for head teachers have also fallen in recent years.

The STRB Report shows how, in the latest year where there is data available - up to November 2017 - the number of teachers leaving the profession was slightly greater than the number joining (both figures are around 10% of the overall numbers of full-time equivalent teachers in state schools. This translates into a 1 in 10 annual teacher turnover in schools, although in some schools it will be considerably higher, causing considerable instability for both staff and students (STRB 2019 Fig.1).

This fall in the overall number of full-time equivalent teachers is happening at the same time as pupil numbers continue to rise. As the Report also explains, this translates into an ongoing trend of increasing pupil to teacher ratios in both the primary and secondary sectors. Again, this can only be damaging to education.

While the annual leaving rate of around 10% of the profession has been fairly consistent over recent years, Figure 7 within the 2019 Report illustrates a significant change in who is leaving teaching. With an increasing divergence between the two figures over recent years, the vast majority of leavers are now through resignations ‘out of service’ rather than teachers retiring at the end of their careers.

Pay is a significant factor behind the recruitment crisis

Some argue that pay is not a significant factor for teachers. Clearly other pressures, not least intolerable levels of workload, are also significant – pressures which, if the STRB were serious about their concerns, should also be addressed by a recommendation that the effectively open-ended nature of working hours set out under the current Pay and Conditions Document is removed.

Of course, pay and workload are linked, particularly when teachers consider what their hourly rate of pay might be. For example, a Newly Qualified Teacher on M1 in England will now have a monthly gross salary of £2,031. However, if they are working, as many will be, 60 hours a week, that works out at less than £8 an hour! That may well have to cover pension contributions and student loan repayments too.

There is an interesting observation in the Appendix to the STRB Report describing meetings with teachers on school visits carried out by STRB members: “Even when [some] teachers did view their overall level of pay as fair in itself, their outlook changed when workload was factored in. When taking account of the hours worked, these teachers did not consider the level of remuneration received to be reasonable”.

Overall, the STRB’s clear view is that the “steady decline in the competitiveness of the teachers’ pay framework is a significant contributor to teacher supply difficulties”. They evidence that decline by pointing out that:

·        Median starting salaries for other graduate careers remain higher than those for teachers in most areas of England, and the earnings of experienced teachers are lower than those available in other professional occupations.

·        Over the last decade, the position of the national teachers’ pay framework in the earnings distributions for both professional occupations and the wider economy has deteriorated. In other words, more people in more occupations are becoming better paid than teachers (STRB Fig 13).

STRB 2019 Fig 14 shows that the gap between the median earnings of teachers aged 21 to 30 and others in this age group in professional occupations is stark – and getting worse across England.

London Pay

As the chart above confirms, the gap in earnings is particularly pronounced in London. The latest recommendations will increase the effective “London Weighting” for a teacher working in London compared to the rest of England and Wales – but will continue to fail to adequately compensate for the greater cost of living in the capital.

The STRB Report contains some anecdotes that confirm the particular difficulty facing teachers in London. It states that “we were told that teachers in London schools often left at the point when they wanted to start a family as they could not afford housing” and that “all of the NQTs we spoke to in Tower Hamlets said that they had opted out of the Teachers’ Pension Scheme, with one telling us this was because they “needed every penny” to afford to live in the area” (STRB 2019 Appendix C).

Retention crisis includes the loss of experienced teachers as well as newly qualified staff

The STRB had been asked to consider targeting increases towards early career teachers to address the particularly high turnover amongst that group of teachers.

The data provided certainly confirms the scale of the problem, and that it’s a problem that is only getting worse (STRB 2019 Fig. 19)

·        Between 2011 and 2017, the percentage of teachers leaving within three years’ service increased from 20 per cent to 27 per cent, while the percentage leaving within their first five years increased from 27 per cent to 33 per cent over the same period.

·        The leaving rate between 1 and 2 years’ service has increased markedly from 5 per cent for 2010 & 2011 NQTs to 9 per cent for 2015 NQTs. There has also been a notable increase in the leaving rate between 2 and 3 years’ service.

However, the Report shows that it’s not just an issue confined to early career teachers. After all, those teachers who manage to progress onto the Upper Pay Range will find that their salaries are beneath the national average for other professional occupations – and that the relative comparison is getting worse (STRB 2019 Fig 22a).

The STRB concluded that “targeting starting pay risks being ineffective even in its own terms. Those considering joining the profession, and particularly career changers, look ahead to potential future earnings, as well as at starting pay”.

They also provide data (Fig. 23) that starkly shows how the earnings for more experienced teachers fall behind those in other professional occupations across England, particularly in London – and that, again, the decline is getting worse.

The pay differential might not be quite as pronounced for the over 50s but, perhaps linked to the pressure of teacher workload, the rate of leaving has also risen sharply in that age bracket, in both primary and secondary sectors (STRB 2019 Fig. 25)

Looking ahead – what threats to come?

The 2019 Report only confirms that urgent action is needed but that the STRB, while providing some of the data that shows that need, will never seriously challenge the austerity policies that have held down and fragmented teachers’ pay. Indeed, the Report hints at other possible future attacks, perhaps targeting increases geographically or by sector and/or subject according to market pressures, if unions fail to act and a future Government facing economic downturn then feels confident to further drive down pay.

Despite the barriers thrown up by the Trade Union Act ballot thresholds, teachers in England need to take heart at the successes of the EiS in Scotland in winning the first stage of their pay campaign: After all, when labour is in short supply, combative unions have traditionally been able to translate those shortages into salary gains for its members through a clear and determined campaign. Of course, a gain for teachers would also be a gain for education as a whole through tackling the retention crisis.