Teachers on strike: much more than a pay campaign?

April 9, 2013 — 1 Comment


On June 27th the two largest teachers’ unions, the NUT and NASUWT, will commence a campaign of strike action opposing government policy on pay, pensions and workload. It represents a significant escalation of a campaign of ‘action short of strike action’ that has already been in place for some time.  The campaign is focused in particular on the proposals presented by the School Teachers’ Review Body that effectively abolish any national framework for teachers’ pay whilst simultaneously embedding performance-related pay even more deeply into the system.

A high-risk strategy . . . ?

Stepping up the campaign against the pay proposals represents a high-risk strategy by the teacher unions.  This is largely because this is a fight that Michael Gove has prepared for, and is ready for.  Indeed, I would go further and argue (and have argued previously) that it is a fight that Michael Gove has engineered.  The Right has long recognised that more than anything it is organised labour that stands between where they are now, and the privatised version of a welfare system to which they aspire. They believe that at times it is necessary to force a confrontation in order to inflict a defeat and thereby accelerate the pace of restructuring (both the miners’ and teachers’ strikes in the mid-1980s highlight previous examples). In my view, Michael Gove sees the current dispute in comparable terms.  The broad thrust of the STRB’s proposals, if not their detail, were almost certainly conjured up in Sanctuary Buildings and there is little evidence they reflect the priorities of the vast majority of headteachers.  The speed with which they were confirmed, and the obvious contempt for any meaningful consultation, also points to this being the case. Ever since that time, Michael Gove’s contributions have been a mixture of intransigence and provocation. He has offered to talk to the unions, but not to listen, whilst he simultaneously dismisses any differing views from within the profession as those of the ‘enemies of promise’.

The DfE is apparently on a ‘war-footing’ and teachers and their unions should not underestimate this.  The power of the state will be mobilised on a grand scale for this dispute, and it will be supported enthusiastically by a media whose political loyalties are transparent.

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT, informed conference delegates in her closing address that they faced a major campaign. She was not wrong, and any teacher union activists who underestimate the scale of it will be making a grievous mistake. Is it therefore a risk worth taking?

Calculating risk . . .

Any assessment of whether to mobilise a campaign needs to assess three factors – the importance of the issue to teachers, the broader political context and the capacity of unions to mobilise their own members. I draw here on mobilisation theory (usefully discussed here) which when applied to an education context can be used to pose three key questions – do teachers experience a sense of injustice (sufficient to take some form of action)? Can government address this injustice (ie is a solution possible?)? Finally, can union action create sufficient pressure to compel government to address the issue?  Each of these issues is discussed below:

Identifying the issue:

Campaigns of industrial action tend to focus on a single issue (and legally need to be based on a ‘trade dispute’).  Most industrial disputes are based on pay.  This is not because pay is the only issue, but because pay often acts as the trigger issue around which a much wider set of grievances coalesce.  This is almost certainly the case with teachers at the current time.  A large number of issues face teachers (imposed curriculum reform, increased workload, increased pension contributions and punitive and politicised inspections), but pay is the common experience for all teachers and one they feel acutely.  Year on year pay freezes when combined with increased pension contributions have a downward pressure on real and take-home pay.  Such pressures build up over time, and at some point the potential exists for this pressure to seek a release.

It is quite likely, given trends in the value of teachers’ real pay, that teachers’ grievances on this issue have increased and that a trigger point has been reached. Although teachers’ experience a sense of grievance about a wide range of issues in their work, these become crystallised around a single, simple but fundamental issue – pay.

However, this sense of a tipping point also coincides with a wider set of grievances that reinforce the sense of current pay proposals presenting as a defining issue.  It is not simply that real terms pay has been falling, but that the changes proposed to the teachers’ pay framework  represent a fundamental redefining of the pay system that has existed for some considerable time and that was hard fought for by teachers in the past.  It is difficult to argue that current proposals have anything to do with improving the quality of teaching and learning (for example, there has been no appetite on any significant scale for these changes from amongst headteachers). Rather the current proposals have two objectives; first, is to further embed performance-related pay into the system.  This is often presented as a way of ‘rewarding good teachers’, but rather its real purpose serves to redefine and reinforce a particular view of the ‘good teacher’. This is a view of the ‘good teacher’ determined by the state and reinforced through quantifiable targets.  Current pay proposals are central to the longer term objective of Taylorising teaching by turning learning objectives into quantifiable outputs, measuring teacher ‘performance’ and then linking performance to pay.  This in turn results in a much more fractured teaching force in which pay rises for a few can be offset by pay restraint for the many.  Performance pay divides and reinforces the narrative that only ‘good teachers’ are ‘deserving’. ‘Good teachers’ don’t just have to perform – they have to conform. For those who don’t, increasingly inadequate pay must necessarily be the result of teachers’ own deficiencies (or so the narrative goes . . .). Therefore PRP reinforces a professionalism that is about compliance in the classroom, not creativity. The second objective of breaking up national pay scales is to facilitate a further substantial step towards system privatisation.  A national system of pay scales is incompatible with a fragmented and privatised school system, and more seriously, can be deeply unattractive to the private investors and speculators the government seeks to draw into the system.  Making it much easier for private providers to force down payroll costs and reduce pension liabilities is an essential step towards the substantial privatisation of the sector.

So . . . a campaign about pay is in reality about much more than pay . . .

Political context – a political opportunity?

I have argued that the government has prepared for this confrontation and is ready for it. I would go further, and argue that the Secretary of State has engineered the dispute, as it is one that the government has calculated it can win.  There are a number of reasons to give the government confidence. Not least has been the ability to date to bring about very considerable change in the school system, in a relatively short space of time, apparently without significant resistance. Michael Gove has thus far proven himself to be the ultimate conviction politician who has deliberately eschewed consensus, and who has stated publicly (see here – slide 36) that confrontation with the ‘the enemies of promise’ is an affirmation that he must be doing things right.  It is a type of Thatcherism on steroids.

But this is not a strategy without risks.  It is the case that elements of the teaching profession have allowed themselves to be divided, and this has hitherto allowed the government to make significant progress with key elements of policy (most notably academisation).  But progress on policy should not be confused with support from the profession. In my view support on many of these issues has been at best pragmatic, is often begrudging and is largely residual. Furthermore, with every push forward on the mission to marketise Michael Gove runs the risk of escalating levels of alienation within the profession, and this is now becoming visibly more apparent.  There is increasing evidence that in policy terms the ‘easy wins’ have been secured, and further progress is becoming more difficult.  Academisation offers one example where progress is stalling and the move to forced academisation is bringing forth small, but increasingly well organised parent-led campaigns of opposition.  Such campaigns are already beginning to network and learn from each other and have the potential to grow considerably – and this on an issue (the central state apparently riding roughshod over parent choice) where the political Right are surely vulnerable.  Similar arguments might be extended to the campaign against the EBacc, where the determination to proceed with reforms in the face of overwhelming opposition proved insufficient to win the day.

What these issues highlight is a growing vulnerability, that perhaps hitherto has not been so apparent.  It is a vulnerability that also needs to be located within a wider sense of public concern about the dismantling of the welfare state (now clearly accelerating) and the sensitivities that flow from an approaching general election. All of these wider issues make the current political context quite different to the recent past, and for Michael Gove, much less predictable.

In summary, Michael Gove’s policy successes of the past cannot be taken as inevitable progress in the future.  Much remains uncertain.

Can the unions win?

And finally, the $64,000,000 question – can the unions win?   I have already indicated, it will not be easy, because teachers can expect the extensive power of the state to be mobilised against them. Many of those sympathetic to the broader cause will argue that strikes are not the answer, that they will alienate parents, and the need is to build alliances with parents. They have argued that teacher unions need to fight on a much broader range of issues that are more policy focused (and therefore apparently more likely to win parental support).

My view is that a major campaign about the future of public education in which parents mobilise in large numbers is not likely without an issue that will trigger it.  This is partly because of the atomised and divisive way in which change to date has been introduced, and partly because this government has deliberately insulated schools from the worst effects of its austerity policies realising that cuts that impact large swathes of the population (including middle class Tory support) are the means most likely to generate an active campaign of opposition. This was a lesson hard learned by the Conservatives in the last years of the Major government when education cuts across middle England brought forth the Fight Against Cuts in Education (in which the Conservative’s coalition partners played a significant role). Rather the government has so far directed the brunt of its austerity policies at the welfare budget, and targeted those most vulnerable and isolated.

The teacher unions therefore apparently face a problem – a significant and immediate popular campaign for education in which teachers and parents combine seems unlikely.  Such campaigns need a trigger, and what seems apparent is that the issue most likely to act as a trigger for teachers (pay), is the issue least likely to act as a trigger for parents. Does this mean therefore the teachers’ campaign is flawed, and that failure is likely?  I want to argue that it is not, and for two linked reasons.

First, it is far from clear that teachers necessarily need the support of parents to achieve success in their campaign.  This may seem like a heretical argument, but I think it is a valid one.  First and foremost teacher unions need the support of their members.  In my view it is absolutely vital that those taking action (NUT and NASUWT) can make a valid claim to represent the large majority of teachers.  This is why the teacher unions now need to focus relentlessly on organising and galvanising their membership.  This is the key challenge.  There is no doubt that union membership has been weakened to a point by a frustrating pensions campaign, and is threatened further by the intentionally atomising effects of widespread Academisation.  The current dispute therefore will provide a test of how well NASUWT and NUT can organise and mobilise. But that test, is also an opportunity.  A well thought out, well executed campaign offers both unions the possibility of reconnecting with members and generating new activists and campaigners.  There is the possibility of a union renewal forged through action, and the reinvigoration of an activist profession based on a renewed sense of professional self-confidence.  It is for this reason that the alliance that has been forged between the NUT and NASUWT is so vital.  I suspect this was not an easy coalition to develop, and there will be some in both unions, who are deeply uncomfortable with it. For this reason, like many alliances, it is an alliance that will have its tensions.  However, it is essential.  If there are lessons to be learned from struggles elsewhere, such as the recent and on-going dispute in Chicago, it is that successful campaigns need to mobilise the mass of the profession.  It is very difficult to see a single union securing any positive outcomes from a major national and potentially lengthy pay campaign when it does not represent a majority of the profession. However, when combined with others, that assessment begins to look very different.

A campaign that mobilises the mass of the profession has a legitimacy that is difficult to challenge.  And, in the first instance, it is legitimacy, more than parental support, that is crucial.  This is because what matters more than who parents support, is who parents blame.  We know that poll data demonstrates that parents trust teachers, and tend not to trust politicians.  When large numbers of teachers are willing to take strike action parents may not support the cause, but there is every chance that they will blame the government. After all, if significant numbers of reasonable people are driven to take what is presented in the media as unreasonable action, then whatever one’s assessment of who is right, the one obvious conclusion is that something, somewhere, is deeply wrong.  But who is to blame? At this point, the government comes under pressure.  As I have indicated, there is no question that the government will respond ‘robustly’, but there is every chance the coalition will find itself on the defensive, and increasingly under scrutiny.  This connects with my second argument.

As soon as strike action commences education as a political issue will ignite.  Debate will become much sharper, and the focus on government policy much more intense.  What has often hitherto gone under the radar will increasingly be highlighted, scrutinised and critiqued and at this point opportunities open up to connect an inward-looking campaign on pay to a much more outward looking campaign on wider education issues.  Parents may care little about teachers’ pay per se, but they will surely question why the Secretary of State has been willing to provoke large swathes of the teaching profession into strike action by seeking to abolish their national pay system.  What does such a move achieve? Who has asked for it? Why is it being pursued so relentlessly?  And why does he refuse to even talk to the unions without already ruling out any possibility of compromise? Important questions that the media have largely ignored suddenly become unavoidable because parents and the public will want answers.  When this happens the government looks increasingly vulnerable because its isolation will become ever more apparent. The terms of the debate begin to shift very considerably, and as arguments and debate are flushed out into the open, confidence can grow.

Can the unions win? – yes they can.  There are no certainties, but there are certainly possibilities, and there comes a point when doing the right thing is not only the principled thing to do, but it is the practical thing to do too. That time may be now.

Some final thoughts . . .

In the coming months, education will emerge as a national issue.  This will be as a direct consequence of the strike action being taken by members of NASUWT and NUT on pay. The DfE will mobilise against teachers (in myriad ways, but not least by putting pressure on headteachers to use punitive measures against their staff), as will much of the media. But whilst all of this may be inevitable, none of it will go uncontested.  With certainty, such developments will open up spaces for serious debate about the nature and direction of education policy.  From a dispute about teachers’ pay there emerges the possibility of discussing why a broadly fit for purpose payment system needs to be ripped up and abolished and a dispute provoked. Such questions point inexorably to a wider debate about the marketisation of schooling and the growth of the private sector within it – why else are national pay scales being abolished?  At this point, there exists the possibility of parents not only blaming the government for provoking an unnecessary dispute in schools, but actively supporting teachers in their wider campaign for a public education system, rooted in public service values.  Teachers and parents are natural allies, but it is not an alliance that develops naturally. Developing the relationships that are often so strong at school level, into something equally strong at national level, becomes a real possibility when genuine debate opens up. Whether such alliances will form will depend on the extent to which teachers and their unions can frame their grievances in ways that connect with a much broader constituency.  That in turn will depend on whether a campaign against the government can develop into a much more positive campaign for an alternative vision of schooling.

All of the above offers the much broader possibility of generating serious debate, amongst parents, teachers and the wider public, about what a publicly provided democratic education system should look like, and this is the real prize.  Teachers’ pay is unquestionably an issue, and so too is system privatisation, but both of these issues are linked to the much wider and more fundamental question about the role of schools in, and for, a democratic society.  If schools are to educate young people for democracy then schools must model themselves as democratic institutions.  Education itself is a process that thrives on debate, critique and the free flow of ideas.   However, rather than this optimistic and hopeful vision of education we increasingly experience an education system where difference and dissent are not to be valued, but rather are seen as something to be dismissed and defeated.  Teachers, teacher unions, parents, governors, academics, local authorities have all been attacked, often in scornful and disrespectful ways, for having the temerity to disagree with the Secretary of State.  This is deeply dangerous.  There is now an urgent need to expose the illusion that is the emperor’s new clothes of current education policy.

The growing democratic deficit in state education is the real crisis in our schools.  It is the anti-educational crowding-out of professional and democratic debate, and its replacement by DfE prescription, imposition and managerialism. By standing up and taking a stand, and committing themselves to action, teachers are challenging this prevailing logic. They are re-asserting the value of teacher unions as one part of a pluralist and participative culture in schools. That is why there is much more at stake in this dispute than teachers’ pay. Much more.


One response to Teachers on strike: much more than a pay campaign?


    Reblogged this on Gogwit's Blog and commented:
    The second item today that I have reblogged on Gove and the crisis in UK state education. This is a well-argued look at how the escalating industrial action amongst teachers is about so much more than pay. Having been in several teaching unions I know that traditionally the greatest ire is reserved for the other teaching unions. Uniquely, in my experience, we have a government who have unified teachers in a common cause – that of saving universal state education for UK children by trained practitioners!
    It really is about ‘standing up for standards’ – and much, much more.

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