Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

Easter Weekend saw the annual gatherings of the two largest teacher unions, the NASUWT and the NUT. Both unions are preparing for the election of their respective general secretaries, so it was a time of particularly acute reflection upon union strategy and tactics, in the face of the savage attacks on education by the coalition government and the forces of capitalism. Siôn Reynolds, delegate to the NASUWT conference, reports.

Easter Weekend saw the annual gatherings of the two largest teacher unions, the NASUWT and the NUT. Both unions are preparing for the election of their respective general secretaries, so it was a time of particularly acute reflection upon union strategy and tactics, in the face of the savage attacks on education by the coalition government and the forces of capitalism.

The conferences were also especially crucial because they would be these unions’ last chance to meet before the next General Election campaign begins in the spring of 2015.

The principles of education

Meeting in Birmingham, at a moment when public education is under mortal threat, NASUWT Conference several times recalled the founding principles of liberal education, as embodied especially in the 1870 Elementary Education Act.

In his speech to conference, for example, Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt paid tribute to Joseph Chamberlain and his “radical allies” on the Birmingham Education League, noting that without their efforts we may never have had Forster’s Education Act of 1870. He emphasised the need for our pupils to leave formal education “work ready”, saying: “We need our education system … to deliver those attributes and aptitudes which the world of work and further education requires: character, resilience, self-discipline, emotional intelligence and grit.”

This harked back to Forster’s argument that free elementary education for all was required in order to ensure Britain’s continued economic growth: “upon the speedy provision of elementary education depends our industrial prosperity.”

This rather liberal, reforming note had been struck from the very beginning by NASUWT President Geoff Branner, who said that the “moral purpose of public education” is being overlooked in favour of targets and testing, ignoring the vital work schools do to “give our students the confidence and the tools by which they can become the authors of their own life story”. This sense of moral rescue, again chimed with the values embodied in the founding of the British system of State Education, as espoused especially by Carlyle, Mill, Arnold and Ruskin.

Crushing uniformity and regimentation

Mr Branner, a special needs teacher in Oxfordshire, illustrated his point by sharing his experience of working with Leon, a student who was suffering the impact of parental neglect, which had left him isolated throughout his school career and unable to read or write. Evoking Joseph Chamberlain’s dictum, "it is as much the duty of the State to see that the children are educated as to see that they are fed,” Mr Branner recounted his own work to help Leon develop practical skills to overcome the neglect he had suffered.

He then lambasted Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove: “shamefully, some politicians choose to cherry-pick data to criticise public education whilst they try to chase the same prize – being top of the international league tables, a trait that to some degree afflicts all Education Ministers across the UK. And in their desperate quest they have brought on punitive inspections systems which had led to a narrowing on the curriculum, over-prescription and tick-box accountability regimes.”

In a motion calling for the “curriculum entitlement for all pupils”, Paul Degranges (Executive) pointed out that Ofsted does not take any account of breadth and balance in its judgements (even though, by its own rules, it should!). Indeed, curriculum entitlement, such as the need for a coverage of Spiritual, Social, Moral and Cultural (SMSC) Education, remains empty rhetoric. This is evident in the fact that one school, not too far from Portsmouth, recently received an Outstanding Ofsted Grade despite making Religious Education (RE) optional, and an option only available to pupils in Key Stage 4 at that!

Worse still, in many secondary schools the subjects of Citizenship and Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) have now been taken off the timetable altogether! And it is well known that more creative subjects are being squeezed out of the curriculum. Drama, Art, Dance, Craft, Design and Technology are all having to fight to remain on school timetables, to the disappointment and dismay of many pupils who see these creative outlets as one of the few reasons to continue to attend school each day. Eccentric children “have no place in the education system today”, lamented Andrew Gallagher (Leeds). One-size-fits-all, and success is measured exclusively by league-table indexed subjects, particularly English and Maths, in an increasingly monolithic culture of crushing uniformity and regimentation.

Deeper economic forces

Timothy Ramsden (Executive) pointed that there are deeper economic forces at work. He was referring to the international tendency of capitalism to interfere, increasingly, in education. As Marxists we are well-acquainted with this movement, spearheaded by privatisation, aiming to standardise the curriculum so that schools become little more than exam factories in the pursuit of profit. The corollary aim of these “schools” is the regimentation of children and young people, to make them “fit” and “resilient” for capitalist workplace relations (that is, to make them “work ready”, as the phrase goes).

As a consequence of this ultra-capitalist tendency, qualified, experienced teachers are being driven out of the classroom by so many senior management teams. Often, they are being replaced with unqualified teachers, who are cheaper and are significantly less able to exercise the professional autonomy needed to stand up effectively to the unreasonable demands of school management teams. Following the charter schools’ movements in the USA and Sweden, the academies’ / free schools’ movement in England is evidently working towards such ends. Deborah Long (Leeds) related the widespread “outrage” that was provoked by a local academy when it advertised for three unqualified Maths teachers.

In this context, Conference welcomed Tristram Hunt’s promise that a future Labour Government would outlaw the use of unqualified teachers. He said that – at “the absolute bare minimum”- Labour would “guarantee that all teachers are qualified”, commenting that “it is bizarre and damaging that the Government’s signature teaching policy is to make us the only country in the world that doesn’t expect its teachers to have a qualification.”

Any Marxist will recognise that with cheaper teachers come reduced wage-costs, and in turn, increased opportunities for privateers to make higher profits at the expense of education. It came to light at conference that large corporations such as Microsoft are establishing tendrils within the academy sector in England, plying these “schools” with their expensive educational resources. Brian Cookson (Honorary Treasurer) noted that whilst education should not be “an industry for profit, we hear Michael Gove’s assertion that there is nothing wrong with making a profit – nothing wrong with allowing selection through the ability to pay.” In this he referred to the growing tendency of schools to charge parents for the use of school resources and facilities. In my estimation, it will not be long before schools are floated on the stock market like the Royal Mail!

Privatisation, profit, and corruption

Conference identified the growing edifice of corruption in public education. Chris Keates (General Secretary) said that “there can be no doubt that on a daily basis public money is being squandered as individual schools pay a premium price for services from private companies, consultants and legal firms that previously they could have accessed much more cheaply through the economies of scale, by schools working together or through local authorities.

“How can 23,000 schools, operating as individual spending units, be considered to be an efficient way of spending public money?

“Where schools do work together in academy chains, money is often creamed off by the chain sponsor to cover ‘administration’. This can average 6% of each individual school’s budget.”

It is typical of this age of austerity that, whilst money is syphoned off to those at the top, swingeing cuts immiserate the most vulnerable - most tragically of all, children growing up in poverty. In a recent survey of 4,000 teachers, recently published by the NASUWT and released at a fringe event held by the Union and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), four out of five teachers said they see pupils unable to concentrate because they are too hungry and are coming to school not wearing adequate clothing.

CPAG’s senior policy research officer Moussa Haddad warned: “Poverty is the biggest single driver when it comes to educational attainment.”

Moving a resolution on the “Coalition Government’s attacks on young people”, Graham Dawson (Senior Vice President) pointed out that 500 Sure Start Centres have been closed since 2010. Further, the “Educational Maintenance Allowance has been replaced with college bursaries, which you don’t know you’ve got until you’ve enrolled. What was a right is now an indulgence.” Whilst university tuition fees have tripled, 20% of graduates are now unemployed, and “those who do find work find their jobs have lower starting salaries than in 2007.”

Pay, pensions, and conditions

Conference resolved to address the worsening pay and conditions of teachers, including a pensions scheme in which teachers will have to work longer, and pay more, to get less. Neil Butler (Executive) said: “For many NASUWT members in their twenties, 70 will be their retirement age. For most in this hall, your pension age will be 68. Under the provisions of the Public Service Pensions Act, the pensionable age can be raised arbitrarily. On behalf of the whole teaching profession, we wholeheartedly reject these attacks on teachers and their families.”

Conference also condemned the unscrupulous practices of supply agencies and umbrella companies.  Suzanne Nantcurvis (Executive) announced the launch of a new website – SupplyAdvisor.co.uk – which allows supply teachers to find, rate and review agencies on a range of factors such as pay, training, support and ease of finding work. It is hoped that the website will shame them into improving their employment practices. The union vowed to secure national recognition agreements with them and to establish collective bargaining. It was decried that the casualisation of the teaching workforce is leading to a two-tier profession in which supply teachers are relegated to the status of second-class citizens with no holiday pay, sick pay (apart from the derisory “statutory sick pay”) nor access to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme.

Solidarity, strikes, and action

On the future strategy of the NASUWT, Mr Cookson called for “maintaining and enhancing, as appropriate, the action short of strike action instructions,” with the option “to escalate to strike action at school, local, regional and national level”.  He also called for the union to build support among parents and the public through the NASUWT’s “Vote For Education” campaign.

Derek Moore (Executive) told delegates that they “should remember” that the Union is adept at “outliving administrations.” Whilst most NASUWT veterans will remember with a shudder the savage attacks of the last Tory Government, Mr Moore reminded us that, since 2010, “we have faced the biggest onslaught” in living memory.

Conference congratulated members in England and Wales “for their solidarity in action which has forced the Coalition Government to retreat on its plans to remove the non-pay conditions and secured a programme of talks with the Secretary of State, including specific meetings on trade dispute resolution.” It was claimed that the Government’s “U-turn” is a victory and a “vindication of the industrial action strategy” that the Union has taken since 2011.

Conference further congratulated members in Scotland “for their courage and determination to protect professional pay and conditions… in the face of the appalling attacks by the Scottish Government and employers.” Members in Northern Ireland were also commended for showing resolve in their seventh year of industrial action in pursuit of pay and conditions.

At the end of Conference National Executive endorsed Chris Keates in her bid to be re-elected as General Secretary.

The NUT Conference in Brighton defeated an amendment calling for a series of strikes later this year, including two separate two-day strikes for the Autumn Term of the 2014-15 school year. The amendment was comfortably defeated after a card vote by two-to-one, but it required the NUT Executive to come to the fore in countering this more militant stance.

The stronger amendment would have replaced wording in a motion drafted by the NUT Executive that had a more moderate plan for a national strike to take place in late June. At the time of writing the NUT are preparing to strike “later this term if the Government doesn’t respond positively to teachers’ concerns”. The Union is also holding a lobby of Parliament on 10 June and conducting local lobbying activities, as well as attending the People’s Assembly at a demonstration and free festival in London on 21 June.

Capitalism’s continued assault – militant fight back needed!

Reflecting on these two conferences, it is clear that capitalism’s continued assault on public education has radicalised teachers and their representatives – prior to 1945, by contrast, teachers mostly held right-wing or even fascist views.

In this late phase in the death agony of capitalism, the UK’s big teacher unions will no doubt have a crucial role to play in challenging the coalition government’s policies in the run up to the General Election, and will continue to march triumphantly in the forefront of the labour movement until public education is liberated for all.

But the unions need to get a grip on the situation – these worthy, liberal, reforming pleas, picked up and dusted down from the mid-nineteenth century when capitalism was on the rise, will be no defence against the gleaming capitalist juggernaut of privatisation and austerity in the twenty-first. What is needed is conscious and resolute action towards a revolutionary socialist future. This is the task the teacher unions must face.