Staff and students at Stoke Newington school in Hackney, London, were united on the picket line yesterday (Wednesday 28th June), as teachers in the NUT went on a day’s strike in protest against proposed cuts at the school.
As we have reported elsewhere recently, schools everywhere are under attack as a result of years of Tory austerity, with plans for further education cuts to come. Already, a grassroots movement of teachers, staff, students, and parents is organising across the country, under the banner of Fair Funding For All Schools, supported by the education unions, with demonstrations seen earlier this term and a “Carnival Against the Cuts” to follow in London on 16th July.
The strike at Stoke Newington is in response to a raft of austerity measures outlined in a “consultation” document being put forward by the school’s Board of Governors aimed at implementing the cuts required to balance the budget. The proposed measures include: forced redundancies of support staff; wage cuts as a result of annual contracts being reduced to term-only contracts; and the burden of extra responsibilities for teachers, including lunchtime and afterschool duties - i.e. an extension of the working day for staff already under immense pressure.
As one teacher reported to us, however, there has been very little actual consultation between management and rank-and-file staff, with teachers and support workers feeling aggrieved at the lack of communication or opportunity for feedback to the suggested cuts. As one leaflet on the picket line stated: “The staff at our school are our most valuable asset - the fact that the teaching staff feel the need to strike raises alarm bells that communication with the governing body has broken down.”
Yesterday’s strike culminated in a demonstration outside the front gates, with militant speeches from staff and parents outlining the dire and detrimental impacts of these cuts and the need for a fightback. The protest then continued into the meeting of the Board of Governors, who were discussing and voting on the proposed cuts.
What was notable from the discussion amongst the governors was the passivity with which these cuts were discussed, with the decision being presented as an unfortunate fait accompli. The argument was, in effect, the same “dented shield” approach as that of Labour councillors who are administering Tory austerity locally: “We’re very sorry to do this, but our hands are tied! What can we do other than implement the cuts?”
A point was raised by one of the staff representatives, for example, that the current crisis within the Tories (and their deal with the DUP) means that Westminster-planned education cuts may be off the cards, temporarily, buying schools some time to pursue other strategies. This suggestion was rejected out of hand by the headteacher, however, who disingenuously claimed that leaving the cuts for another day would only create uncertainty and anxiety amongst staff. But as one teacher noted in conversation with us, surely unemployment creates even more uncertainty and anxiety!
The political question raised is the important one to highlight. The Tory government is “weak and wobbly”, forced to form a “coalition of chaos” in a desperate bid to cling onto power. At the same time, we have the possibility of an anti-austerity, Corbyn-led Labour government coming to power in the coming period.
As the strike leaflet correctly noted, “In the Queen’s Speech, the government backed off scrapping free school meals and plans to expand grammar schools…[meanwhile] senior Tories are now putting the government under pressure to reverse these cuts as they understand that the proposals are deeply unpopular and many Tory MPs lost their seats as a result.”
Rather than implementing cuts, therefore, school management (and Labour councillors alike) should be standing up to the Tories and their austerity, demanding that the rich - and not staff and students - pay for this crisis.
Teachers at Stoke Newington are planning a series of further strike actions for the rest of term, depending on what cuts are finally proposed. Education workers in Unison are considering joining in with any further days of action, presenting a united front of teaching and support staff.
The task ahead is for unions across the board - from education and healthcare, through to the civil service and the fire brigade - to mobilise and organise in order to bring this Tory government down and put Labour into power on a socialist programme. With bold, co-ordinated, and united action, there is no reason why this fragile Tory-DUP alliance could not be broken within a matter of weeks.