‘Merry Fucking Christmas’

December 20, 2016 — 10 Comments
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Thomas Gradgrind – the new face of school leadership?

Merry fucking Christmas’ – the words in a text message I received from my daughter, as she responded to being told she was ‘no longer required’ as a Teaching Assistant (TA) at the school in the East End of London where she has worked all term. She was one of 10 TAs, all given the same news.

The message was delivered at a meeting, at the end of the school day, on 19th December. The school broke for the Christmas holiday the following day, and that would be the TA’s last day.

The reason given was ‘the budget’ – that the school could no longer afford their services.

All 10 people were employed by the school through an agency.  This means they are poorly paid from the outset, and of course the agency takes its slice. For the school, agency staff are not just cheap, but they are supremely ‘flexible’, which means they can be ‘let go’ with no notice at all, and not even an explanation.

All 10 already faced Christmas with some anxiety. In this gig economy when they are not working they are not earning and the Christmas ‘holiday’ needs to be carefully budgeted for.  The pay may stop, but the rent demands don’t. Now they face Christmas not knowing where they will work in the new year, or if they will be able to get work at all. Indeed, because the school chose to notify the 10 less than 24 hours before the end of term the individuals have been denied any chance to make plans, and to try to find alternative employment.

This completely one sided employment relationship means that the employer gets all the benefits, without bearing any of the costs.  It is supreme, unbridled, employer power.  The workers pay with their low wages and insecurity. Should they in any way try to challenge this, they risk being ‘let go’ – no notice, no explanation.

I have no doubt that the explanation given for these dismissals is the real one. The government, and its continued commitment to austerity is ultimately to blame.  There is no doubt schools face real and deep cuts. Theresa May claims to stand for the ‘just about managing’.  However, as an agency employed TA, working and paying rent in London, my daughter was just about surviving, let alone managing. Theresa May’s support for her rings hollow given the lack of any commitment to provide protections for people in these situations.  But the government is far from the only villain of the piece.

What sort of school leadership have we created which allows anyone to treat employees with such contempt?  I don’t know when the decision was made to end the employment of 10 TAs.  However, I would wager good money it was made some time before 4pm on the penultimate day of term when the TAs were informed. Someone, almost certainly several people, have consciously decided to withhold any information to those affected, until less than 24 hours before the school closes for Christmas and 10 jobs disappear.  Christmas’s have been ruined, and futures made unnecessarily uncertain, because people chose to treat employees in this callous way.

Is this the face of modern school management? Is this what ‘schools as businesses’ has created?  I’m sure the headteacher will wax lyrical about the moral purpose of school leadership, and will make all the right noises about putting children first. However, there is a different reality that is being experienced by those who put the work in, day in day out, working with kids in classrooms. They work hard, build relationships with students, ‘go the extra mile’ – and then they are cast aside, expendable and rendered invisible.

In the brave new world that is the English education system, where we measure and count everything, people count for very little. And those who count the least are the most vulnerable – low paid, casualised staff. They’re expected to care for the kids – and they do, but nobody cares about them.

If school leaders had real moral purpose they’d stop dismissing staff at the drop of a hat and they’d start to beat down the doors at Sanctuary Buildings to demand the funding their schools need. Rather than make the unacceptable work, they’d devote their efforts to making sure all schools got the money needed to make the system work properly. When that happens, I’ll believe what I hear when people talk about  moral purpose and school leadership.

In the meantime, the government condemns the train drivers, airline workers and post office staff who are taking strike action this Christmas. In defending their working conditions these workers are apparently showing ‘contempt for ordinary people‘.  It really does beggar belief.  Real contempt is what ‘ordinary people’ experience every day when their wages and working conditions are attacked, and government continues to erode what few employment protections they have – but heaven forefend if anyone has the temerity to stand up and fight back.

I applaud those who refuse to give in to the relentless race to the bottom in today’s labour market. Until large numbers of people say enough is enough nothing will change. Only when people stand up and stand together will change come about. Making my small contribution to making that happen is my new year’s resolution for 2017.

[Given the topic of this blog, it seems appropriate to dedicate it to the Durham Teaching Assistants, whose example shone as a beacon of hope in 2016, and will continue to do so in 2017].

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10 responses to ‘Merry Fucking Christmas’

  1. 

    Agree with you entirely and seem to recall these sort of draconian measures happening in Further Education after incorporation around 1993-7, teaching staff being employed on separate contracts or through agencies so they could be laid off at short notice.

  2. 

    How awful for your daughter and colleagues. There is never a good time to lose a job but there are least worst.

    However agency staff can belong to a union who will support you. I know as, before I quit teaching, I did several periods of supply which is agency work. Any issues I encountered in went to the union for support and advice.

    They have campaigned on a range of issues impacting on agency staff for many years.

    I wish them all well and good luck with finding new jobs for the new year. Hopefully this will not take too long as I fully appreciate their situations.

    • 

      Thank you for your comment. My daughter has appreciated the interest the blog has generated and people’s solidarity and support has provided some comfort at a grim time.

      Your point about union membership for agency workers is a good one and I will enquire. I know that the teacher unions have put considerable pressure on supply agencies, and got improved terms and conditions as a result. I am not sure about TAs, who are less well organised, and whose circumstances are different (teachers tend to be union members, and retain their membership, when they do supply work, I’m not sure this applies to TAs who may become union members when they have a (proper) job).

      Certainly my daughter had contacted me a few weeks ago because a co-worker had been ‘let go’ after an incident with a student. I only hear one side of the story, but the incident did not seem to me to warrant what is, in effect, summary dismissal. Of course, this type of agency work makes this all too easy (and worth bearing in mind that many of these agency TAs are relatively young and inexperienced, with no meaningful training). My daughter’s response (to her credit) was to arrange to see the Unison rep – but I don’t know the outcome of that meeting (probably the reason why she found herself on the list of 10!).

      I will follow up the issue you raise – union organising is the only way the just about surviving can fight back against this type of experience at work, and so it is important to know what possibilities for membership exist.

      In the meantime, thank you again. Your interest and concern means a lot.

  3. 

    Absolutely terrible news for your daughter and her colleagues, worsened by the callous treatment she received.

    I am very sure that the Teachers will be disgusted too. Lesson plans would have been created relying on the invaluable support received by TAs. This is terrible, for the pupils, for all the staff and for the school. I have friends who work as TAs and as Teachers and I know how much regard TAs are held in and how important they are.

    I wish your daughter much better news very soon. X

    • 

      You are absolutely right. My understanding is that many teachers are very unhappy about this development – but in schools where this is the management style then it isn’t always easy for anyone to speak up. People, for good reason, choose to keep their heads down and just get on with the job.

      As you say, it can’t be good for pupils. I cannot see how it is possible to care for students, when there is so little care for staff, and why would staff commit to the school when they know they can be so easily dispensed with?

      Thank you for your comment – it is much appreciated.

      Howard

  4. 
    Joanne Hutchinson December 23, 2016 at 8:55 am

    I can sympathise with the whole situation. I am a supply teacher working through an agency. Although I have currently got a job for after Christmas I am not counting my chickens yet as four times in the past two years I have been told I am no longer required at the very last minute-once when I was actually less than 10 minutes away from a school that had booked me in for the whole half term and once whilst lying on a hospital bed. I have always had positive feedback from schools I have worked at and when a reason has been given it has been lack of funding. I always give my all to long term supply, working beyond my paid hours, writing reports etc and yet often I am treated with utter contempt by the SLT. I think it is disgusting that schools can give so little notice to long term supply teachers, and that there is no fine for schools who change their mind at the last minute. Supply staff who work through an agency are on naff money already without being treated in this way. I really think unions need to step in more to support supply staff’s terms and conditions of employment.

  5. 

    Unfortunately, as a teacher I now have a catalogue of stories I could bring to this blog. Teachers have become less valued than the dogshit that used to line our streets. My last head made redundant 13 TAs at the end of term, then employed the chair of governor’s sons, who needed some holiday spending money!! The biggest frustration is how they get away with it.

  6. 

    Hi Howard perhaps you would send this blog to Workplace 2020. It’s the project led by Ian Lavery MP at Jeremy Corbyn’s request. The idea is to collect peoples’ stories about work and ideas about what could be done better in order to inform Labour Party policy. It’s not that wht is in your blog is not known to Jeremy and Ian but that it is a well written authentic voice.
    Thanks

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