Where are they now?

January 1, 2017 — Leave a comment

Keleti Station

I took this photo at Keleti Railway Station in Budapest on 10th September 2015. This was the time a wave of refugees came into Budapest looking for a route through to other parts of Europe. I posted the picture in a blog on 1st January 2016 – and posed the question that is the title of this blog. I often wonder where they are, and if they have found what they were searching for. A year later, at the start of a new year, I am posting the picture again. I obviously have no idea who they are, or where they are, but they are a reminder to me that those who put themselves through what this family were experiencing do not do so out of choice. They do it out of desperation. They deserve support and solidarity, not condemnation and hostility.

One year later the world feels like a darker place, and although we hope 2017 will be better, there is an obvious and real danger it will be worse.  It is up to all of us to keep on trying to make it the better place we want it to be. Hanging in there is my 2017 New Year resolution.

Other photos I took that day are here.

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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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Egitim Sen offices – Ankara

Earlier this year, on the night of 15th July, there was an attempted coup in Turkey. The coup was quickly defeated and immediately afterwards the government imposed a State of Emergency. The government claims the State of Emergency is intended to defend and stabilise democracy. In reality it provides cover for hugely undemocratic actions aimed at shutting down the government’s critics. Opposition politicians and many journalists have found themselves attacked and sometimes imprisoned, but thousands of educators, in schools and universities, have also found themselves in the front line of this attack. (This BBC radio documentary is an excellent account of the issues – I am not sure how long it is available for, or whether it is available outside the UK, but well worth a listen if you can).

The coup attempt is blamed on the Hizmet movement, associated with Fethullah Gulen.  This movement in Turkey has supported many schools, and the teachers had their own union.  Immediately after the coup the schools were closed down, all the teachers dismissed and the union was banned.

This is not the place to debate the role of particular groups in Turkey, and whether or not they were involved in the coup. What is important to recognise is that long before the coup Turkey’s human rights record was dismal (my own account of earlier ‘Gezi Park protests’ here), and that since the coup the crack down on opposition groups extends far beyond those accused of plotting the coup.  In particular, the State of Emergency is being used to attack any groups associated with defending the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish population.

I recently visited Turkey as part of a research project, looking at the work of teachers’ union EĞITIM-SEN. The union represents educators in schools and universities and has a proud record of defending secular education (currently under attack from the government), opposing privatisation and advocating for the rights of the Kurdish community. It is well used to attacks from government, and in the past several EĞITIM-SEN leaders have been imprisoned.

Whilst in Turkey I was informed of the scale of the attack on educators. Some figures illustrate:

  • After the coup 33,000 school teachers, and 5342 university staff, were suspended from work. That figures continues to rise as further announcements of suspensions and dismissals are made.
  • Over 10,000 members of EĞITIM-SEN have been suspended.
  • At the time I visited 781 members of EĞITIM-SEN had been dismissed with no possibility of re-employment as teachers or academics. Further dismissals are expected.

Members of EĞITIM-SEN are promoters of secular education. This is a completely different policy position to those blamed for the coup. It is clear therefore that the coup is not the reason why many of these educators are dismissed or suspended. However, the State of Emergency means that the government  provides no reason for dismissal, no evidence to support their action and the dismissed have no right of appeal.  Several people I met whilst I was in Turkey expect the government to try to close down EĞITIM-SEN itself at some point in the future.

Whilst in Turkey I met a dismissed teacher at a local branch office of EĞITIM-SEN in downtown Ankara. He told me how his colleagues contacted him and said his name had appeared on a list of dismissed teachers on the government’s website.  He was dismissed with immediate effect, after 16 years as a teacher and four years excellent service in his school.  He will not be able to work again as a teacher. He still does not know why he was dismissed.

I also met a university academic who was ‘under investigation’. He was a signatory to a petition critical of government policy in relation to the treatment of Turkey’s Kurdish population (organised by ‘Academics for Peace’). As he sat behind his desk, describing his plight, he said stoically ‘I am under investigation, I will be dismissed’. He will not be able to work in a university again and current restrictions forbid him leaving the country, and so he cannot seek work elsewhere. He told me how he joined the union when it was illegal, and how he has lived through periods of dictatorship in Turkey, ‘but things have never been as bad as they are now’.

In the cafes of Ankara it is possible to imagine that life is normal. But talk to the teachers in their staff rooms and the level of fear and intimidation is palpable. Several talked about ‘spies’ in schools who will report anyone who expresses views critical of the government. With no due process, there are no checks and balances to the arbitrary application of state power to dismiss or suspend. Everyone is afraid and suspicious. The State of Emergency also makes any form of visible protest virtually impossible. In Turkey, protest is an act of extraordinary courage.

What is to be done? It is clear that there is little prospect of an immediate improvement in circumstances. The government uses fear and the State of Emergency to further tighten its grip on power every day. For teachers, and the union, the watchwords are support and solidarity.  The union does its best to argue the case for dismissed members, and it also supports them financially. Many members organise regular collections at their workplace to support dismissed colleagues (although some fear that if it is known they are giving they too will be suspended – one small example, from many, of how fear is being used to try to sap collective strength).

What is clear is that the obstacles teachers in Turkey face are too big for them to face alone. The principle of solidarity must be extended beyond the borders of the country.  Education International, its European section (ETUCE), and many individual unions in other countries are already providing support. That support is much appreciated in Turkey and the need for it can only grow. (See EI’s most recent statement on Turkey here).

However, there is a need to extend this international solidarity in ways that mobilise the capacity of individual teachers and union members. In a world with so many problems, events in Turkey can seem a long way off. However, although we may not know these teachers personally, and we are unlikely to ever meet them, they are our colleagues. At the present time they are doing their work, the same work we all do, but doing it in the face of the most extraordinary challenge and intimidation. An attack on their classrooms and lecture halls is an attack on the principle of democratic public education everywhere. We should all feel their pain.

There are a number of practical steps we can all take. First, and most obviously, is to donate to the solidarity fund that has been established by Education International.  Dismissed and suspended teachers have been robbed of their livelihoods.  EĞITIM-SEN is trying to support them, but it cannot do this indefinitely without wider support. Second, is to contact your own union to find out what solidarity action is being organised and to try to build this. Individual actions are important, but collective actions are what make a difference. When individual acts become collective actions then real change becomes possible. That is why it is important to work collectively, in and through our unions, to support our colleagues in Turkey. At the very least teachers in Turkey will know they do not stand alone. This provides a base from which their confidence can grow and new possibilities emerge.

As I left the office of the university academic who expects any day to be dismissed, he said simply ‘We will win. They attack us, but we will come back.’  They must win, and we all have a responsibility to make sure they do.

[One small and simple act of solidarity is to distribute this blogpost to your contacts, as a way of publicising the problems faced by Turkish teachers. If you use twitter etc please use the hashtag #IstandwithTurkishteachers]

In October I presented in Rome at the ETUCE workshop on the European Semester (hosted by FLC CGIL).  I presented twice – on the European Semester process itself, and on the relationship between the Semester and Privatisation in Education. A brief report is here.

The following week I went to Brussels and presented the work that Nina Bascia and I are doing for Education International – ‘Changing unions in challenging times: international cases studies in union renewal’. The presentation was to the Executive Board of EI, and is reported here.

Finally, I blogged for ‘What Matters’ (University of Nottingham, School of Education) about the possible formation of a new National Education Union (NEU) formed from the NUT and ATL.  My blog ‘Time for a NEU Union?’ can be accessed here.

As usual, if there is anything about any of the above that catches your eye, drop me an email and if there are papers or presentations I can share, I will.

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The fifth Smith - but which one?

The fifth Smith – but which one?

Below is the text of an email I received, completely out of the blue, a couple of weeks ago. Feels a bit ‘showy- offy’ to put it in a blog, but in the post-modern world of blogs and twitter this sort of self-congratulatory stuff isn’t just OK, it seems to be positively encouraged. So in that spirit . . . my email from ‘Barry’ (Class of 1987!!):

Hello Mr Stevenson,

This is a blast from the past.

You taught me Economics to A Level in your first year at Hind Leys.

I am now an MD of a UK toy company and had reason to think of you this morning whilst driving into work and contemplating the Brexit effects on our business.  I started thinking of where I got the understanding of the inter relationships between exchange rates, cost of imports and exports, interest rates et al and thought of how you made it interesting and comprehensible back in 1987/8.

I then saw a post about “remember your teacher day” and thought that too much of a coincidence to let pass.  With it being the end of a school year and thinking about my own children’s teachers losing contact every year with their charges, I felt compelled to find you, write to you and thank you. 

Much to my surprise it was very easy to find you despite what I assume to be not a uncommon name on these shores.

So here goes.  I went to the University of Liverpool to study Management and Business Economics after Hind Leys where being lectured to by the likes of Patrick Minford was a real culture shock.  Anyway I had a great time in Liverpool, dj’ing, putting on bands and doing little studying and finally scraping a degree.  I stayed on in Liverpool for a few years after Uni, then moved to Manchester.  Got a proper job in London, moved to Bucks and now live and work in Shropshire.

Hope you have had good life since 1987 and thank you again for the fantastic work you did in that one year with me.  It is greatly appreciated and had a big impact on my life.  

Yours

‘Barry’

P.S you told some of us that you preceded Johnny Marr or Andy O’Rourke in The Smiths, (can’t remember which) in that first year but I now wonder whether that was rookie teacher trying to impress his young sixth formers.  You can tell me the truth now!!!  

_____________________________

Since I received this email I have corresponded a bit more with ‘Barry’. I have confirmed that I was a contemporary of Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke (The Smiths) at St Augustine’s School, Sharston, Manchester in 1974-79. We hung out on Hollyhedge Park during break times and I think he still owes me a cigarette. However my claims to have been the ‘fifth Smith’ involved some poetic license. That said, adding a saxophone break on ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ would surely have made a great song a timeless classic. In my dreams I was the person to add that sax break. Listen and I’m sure you’ll agree there is something missing . . .

On receiving this email from ‘Barry’ I was minded to reflect on a few features of my experience as an NQT in 1987:

  • Things were far from perfect, and many things in schools are done much better now. In the year I taught Barry as an NQT I was observed once. My observer was one of the most wonderful teachers I have ever seen (take a bow Peter Heath) but he watched me once, wrote a one page report and that was it – I’d passed my NQT year. I could have learned much more from Peter, but we weren’t great at doing that then.
  • I’m glad Barry thought I made a decent job of teaching him International Trade. At the time I didn’t think I understood any of it in a way that I could actually teach it (2:1 Economics degree from LSE didn’t equip me to teach what I knew), It took me a PGCE and at least 10 years to get to the point where I thought I was teaching this well. Today, huge numbers of teachers have already left teaching by this point (thanks also to Barry, by the way, for reassuring me subsequently that I had more impact on his economics world view than Patrick Minford – thank God for that!).
  • The school had no uniform and no staff dress code (heaven forefend!), there were no separate staff toilets and students called me by my first name. Hard to imagine, in such anarchic circumstances, how any learning took place at all.  But as Barry’s email testifies – this was still teaching that changed lives. And to think that this was even possible before Teach First arrived  hard to believe really.
  • Hind Leys was a wonderful place to work. As I said, far from perfect, but it did so many things so well. Certainly it was radical, innovative and dynamic – where teachers worked together and schools worked together. The level of curriculum development was far more exciting than anything I see today. This is important to remember. We are repeatedly told that academies and free schools are required to inject ‘innovation’ into our school system.  My memory is that Leicestershire was such an exciting place to teach and far more creative than anything which today claims to be ‘innovative’ (and if putting poor kids in lunchtime isolation is what today passes for innovation I want no part of it) . We were a local authority school (Conservative controlled!) and highly and actively unionised. Neither were an impediment to dynamism – they just meant change was community driven and the teachers’ voice was always heard when change was contemplated. That’s a history lesson that needs re-learning.

Finally, my thanks again to Barry. As teachers we don’t often get to hear we made a difference. It is nice to know, after all this time, that maybe I wasn’t such a tosser after all (which is rather how teachers then, and now, are made to feel as the constant discourse of derision saps collective morale). The email more than made my day. It also reminded me of something I read in a book by Tim Brighouse and David Woods when I was working at Hind Leys:

‘Teachers affect eternity: nobody knows where their influence stops’.

Worth remembering on the dark days when you don’t think you’ve made a difference, when nobody has noticed what you’ve done and the Secretary of State has just imposed another major curriculum reform without asking for your opinion.

[I thought long and hard about this blog title – but on twitter I have learned what is needed to get attention . . . ]

I presented work from our ‘changing unions in challenging times: international case studies in union renewal’ project at Education International in May.

This video from that event:

A report of the meeting here. 

for-coverThe summer number of Forum is now available online. The full list of contents are here.

The editorial is open access, as is the journal’s response to the White Paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere.’

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Jean 1-4Earlier this year the UK government published its plans for school reform in England in a White Paper – Educational Excellence Everywhere (DfE, 2016). Within the UK education policy is a matter for individual nations and so policy paths differ significantly across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  England has long been considered as in the vanguard of the drive towards a privatised system of public education, and the White Paper seeks the acceleration of that process.

The school system in England highlights all the complexities of the contemporary privatisation agenda in public education systems. Private companies are seldom conspicuous in the system, and in law it is not possible for any part of the public system to be provided directly on a ‘for-profit’ basis.  However, in reality private companies are present in almost every aspect of the English public education system, and considerable, and increasing, amounts of public funds are being siphoned out of the system into private hands.

Read the full blog here.

This was first published on the ‘Unite for Quality Education‘ blogsite.

Jean 1The events of the last few days highlight the huge problems now faced in the European Union.  The UK has voted to withdraw from membership and this has triggered demands for similar referenda in France, Italy and Holland. Only time will tell if this is the type of problem that can be fixed in due course, or whether it represents a more existential crisis to the EU itself.

What is clear is that there is an ugly anti-politics emerging in which traditional political institutions, and in particular the European Union, are acting as the lightning rod for dissent and dissatisfaction. These problems are grounded in people’s experiences in the years since the economic crash.  Austerity has driven fierce cuts in public services, and in particular education.  Many are without work, but for those with work wages are at best stagnant, and often falling.  Employment is commonly short-term, casualised and precarious.  These are the conditions in which the free movement of labour, one of the great achievements of the EU, can be seen as a threat and the source of a developing hostility to migrants.

Read the full blog here.

This blog was first published on the ‘Unite for Quality Education‘ blogsite.