The ‘war on teachers’ – part 2 . . .

December 16, 2012 — 1 Comment

A number of items I have read recently relating to the STRB’s proposals on pay have confused the abolition of national pay with the abolition of national bargaining. This is a common misunderstanding, but an important one.

The latest example was an article by Richard Seymour in the Guardian, which later appeared on the School Improvement Net blog.  In the opening paragraph Seymour states  ‘Days after the government hit teachers with the abolition of their collective bargaining rights, Michael Gove has written to headteachers urging them to dock teachers’ pay as punishment for participating in a “work-to-rule” action.’

Teachers’ negotiating rights were abolished in 1987 – 25 years ago.  Significantly, they were abolished immediately following the teachers’ industrial action of 1984-86. Also significant, was that in 1988 the government introduced its Education Reform Act – the law that more than any other single piece of legislation set the school system on a path towards marketisation and privatisation.  In an article in Forum in 2011 I argued:

It is important to recognise that the 1988 Act could happen only because organised teachers had been weakened by over two years of hard-fought but energy-sapping industrial action, and their subsequent defeat.  What now appears likely is that the commitment to ‘take on’ organised teachers and defeat them was a decision no less calculated than the decision to confront and defeat the National Union of Mineworkers at broadly the same time. Certainly the timing of the introduction of the ‘Great Education Reform Bill’, so soon after the defeat of the teacher unions and the removal of their negotiating rights cannot be considered coincidental’.

The full article downloadable 3_Stevenson_Howard_FORUM_53_2_web-5 – it is already somewhat dated, but that tells its own story about the rapidity of policy change and the drive for a ‘single-term revolution’.

Why is this significant? It is significant because the teacher unions have no easy way to challenge the STRB proposals.  The removal of negotiating rights was always a necessary pre-condition to achieve the much longer term objective – namely breaking up a national system of education (of which national pay and conditions are a key element) as a staging post to privatisation.

This inability of unions to be able to negotiate over their own members pay is made clear by the DfE in its own factsheet produced once the proposals were published:

Q: Are these changes being negotiated with the unions?

A: The recommendations are being made by the independent STRB following evidence and representations from a range of statutory consultees, including the teacher and head teacher unions. The Government is now consulting with those statutory consultees on its proposed response.

[It is important to note at this point that this approach of not negotiating basic contractual issues with teacher unions is most exceptional by the standards of most democratic countries].

When 2012 is traced back to 1987 then the long term trajectory of policy is transparent.  This has been a long journey, but the direction of travel is clear.  The DfE has apparently been placed on a ‘war-footing’ in anticipation of a dispute with the teacher unions. My argument in my previous blog is that any ‘war on teachers’ is a conflict contrived in Sanctuary Buildings. There is no indication that more than a handful of headteachers want the ‘pay flexibilities’ being imposed on their schools.  The motives for these reforms have everything to do with an attack on teacher unions and the drive for privatisation, and nothing to do with improving the school system.

Two thoughts in conclusion:

  1. In 1987 a lack of teacher union unity allowed the government at that time to turn a temporary suspension of collective bargaining into permanent abolition of negotiating rights. The interests of some individual unions were placed before the interests of teachers, and teacher unionism, more widely.  That loss of collective bargaining rights has since proved costly because, as I have argued here, that step was a necessary pre-condition to achieving what is now being sought – the ending of national pay. The recent actions of Michael Gove suggest the ‘war on teachers’ is entering a new and decisive phase.  Teacher unions must put the collective interests of teachers before what they perceive to be the individual interests of their own organisation.  Such unity will be difficult to achieve, and some might argue that aspiring to it represents the triumph of hope over experience.  But if there is no hope, then the certainty of who will triumph is clear. The challenge is to translate hope into reality through experience.
  2. The attack on teacher unions has been a long-term strategy, going back far beyond 1987. Its roots lie in the ‘producer capture’ analysis of the New Right in the 1960s and 1970s. Those who challenge this trajectory of policy need to think similarly long-term.  The immediate is important, and short-term objectives are crucial.  But the re-assertion of teachers’ independent and democratic voice in education needs a long term strategy. In 1870, when state education was established as a fragmented and divided system, the challenges were far greater than those faced today.  It took many years of patient organising to establish a more coherent and democratic system in which teachers could also claim professional pay and conditions. It may be that those lessons of patient organising have to be re-learned. The context is hugely different, in countless ways. But the fundamental issues remain the same.  The challenge is to act in the now, but think for the future. If teachers are to have an independent, democratic voice on all aspects of education (from students’ learning conditions to teachers’ working conditions) then they will have to organise to defend it.

Finally therefore – the value of an independent and democratic voice for teachers on all issues of professional concern is priceless. The education system is a much more dangerous place when professional opinion is replaced by ministerial imposition (as is being witnessed currently on issues from students’ exams to teachers’ pay).  That is why it is important teachers take collective responsibility for defending their independent and democratic voice. That voice must be collective, because when it isn’t, it is simply inaudible.  In recent years politicians have deliberately sought to silence teachers’ collective voice and the education system has been impoverished as a result. Now is the time to stand up, speak up and for teachers’ to re-discover the power of their voice.


One response to The ‘war on teachers’ – part 2 . . .


    Sadly, this feels like a battle that is already lost. The academy programme has already removed a huge number of teachers from the national pay scales, unless they accept a curtailing of their careers and stay in their current jobs. Furthermore, since academies were invited to employ unqualified teachers, there is a serious risk to the whole profession as public perception of the skills required to teach will diminish (the numbers already in schools is quite disturbing As academies’ funding will likely be cut in the future, the need to reduce costs will likely cause the a reduction in pay for teachers who join academies in the future and an increase in the numbers of cheaper, unqualified teachers. Whilst the government continues to attack the teaching profession, the unions appear divided on many issues, and there is continuous disregard for education research within the department for education, the future for the teaching profession and the education system in England looks bleak.

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