This is a guest post written for The Third Estate by teacher, writer and activist David Rosenberg.
What is the job of a teacher? The pressure from government backed by the media in recent years has been to make sure that teachers not only drum endless literacy and maths lessons into their classroom charges but also show they are moral guardians of the children they educate. To ensure that children know right from wrong, and become honest citizens who treat their peers fairly.
What would it be like, though, if the morality that teachers taught children matched the morality of the government in the way it treats teachers?
For levels of responsibility teachers take on and daily management requirements, teaching is poorly paid. Most teachers didn’t enter the profession to get rich, but they could at least feel satisfied that they had a relatively good pension scheme in place. Recognising the demanding and stressful nature of the job where problems and crises that families and communities endure are expressed through alienation and conflict in the classroom and playground, teachers have been able to retire on a full pension at 60 and get a reasonable deal for stopping at 55.
That is changing rapidly. The coalition government has not so much shifted the goalposts as totally dismantled them, with a plan to make teachers work much longer, pay far greater contributions into their pension and yet receive less at the end of the day. The most militant teacher union – the NUT – has a useful tool on its website: the “pensions calculator” so that members can actually work out how much they are set to lose, and weep.
The teacher unions have taken a battering from successive governments. The Tories, with their Lib-Dem fig leaf, did not have to invent a new philosophy to undermine progressive educational practice and comprehensive schooling. They could pick up where New Labour left off but do it more quickly, more viciously, and with a brazen class conceit.
The teachers’ weakness has been their disunity – divided into several competing unions, but this government has actually helped overcome that problem. Their pension plans have even antagonised that most cautious of unions, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) who last balloted for a one-hour lunchtime walk out about 30 years ago. Just recently the ATL’s ballot for a one-day strike on June 30th to protest this assault on pensions was supported by 83% of those returning their ballots.
In the NUT the result was even more resounding – 92% on the highest level of participation of any NUT national ballot for 20 years. With the UCU and the PCS also coming out on June 30th, there is a great opportunity for a serious show of strength among public sector unions, refusing to pay the price of bailing out the bankers. The NUT voted for “discontinuous action” – which means they can announce further strike days without re-balloting. They are prepared for a long battle, but one they sense they can win.
The bigger battle over education, though, will be much harder, and, less amenable to workplace militancy and strike action because of the straitjacket of trade union legislation. This is the battle to save the remnants of comprehensive schooling and democratic local education authorities from being dismantled by the creation of a critical mass of unaccountable, privately sponsored, institutions for private profit, aided by central government cash, that are misnamed “academies”.
Power hungry headteachers backed by enclaves of middle class parents with sharp elbows are relishing this opportunity. They are doing the government’s dirty work for them, but Michael Gove has his sights lower down the food chain, announcing that the 200 “worst performing” primaries will be forced to become academies, barely bothering to conceal that this is a punitive measure.
In the inner London borough where I teach, governing bodies of three local primary schools have just voted on whether to seek academy status. In one, a well-run local campaign defeated the more gung-ho governors, but in the other two it was bulldozed through. One of these, William Tyndale school, was once renowned as a bastion of progressive education.
Even if we win on pensions, academy status will allow schools to ignore national pay and conditions policies and the position of teachers within these school will become more precarious. Let’s make 30th June a day for us to remember, and one the government wants to forget but be aware that the bigger struggles on education are only just beginning to be fought over.