Pre-election soft soaping can't hide
Teachers' anger at New Labour
By Kevin Ovenden
TONY BLAIR famously summed up his priorities as "education, education, education" when New Labour came to office. Four years on the reality is attacks on comprehensive education, insults about "bog-standard" schools, rampant privatisation, increased selection, staff shortages and mounting workloads on teachers.
Frustration with the government's record boiled over at the conferences of the main teachers' unions which have been taking place over the last week. As delegates gathered for the conference of the largest teachers' union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), a shocking survey revealed that almost two thirds of teachers in England and Wales now work at least 56 hours a week. The government is aware of the alienation its policies have stirred up among teachers, and is seeking to win them to back New Labour in the election. Tony Blair went out of his way to sound conciliatory at the conference of Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Torquay last week.
When education secretary David Blunkett then spoke to the NUT conference he echoed Blair's unusually modest tone, accepting "there was still a lot to do". But most delegates at the NUT conference saw through the pre-election rhetoric. Blunkett was heckled throughout his speech. And when NUT president John Illingworth responded to Blunkett's speech, delegates cheered his comments to the rafters.
"You have put relentless pressure on teachers," he told Blunkett. "We know we're doing a good job. We don't need you to tell us that. What we need you to do is to start listening to us."
Blunkett claimed the choice at the general election was between New Labour and the Tories. No one at the NUT conference wanted the Tories in, but most were unenthusiastic about New Labour. A significant number were keen to discuss how the Socialist Alliance is launching a challenge to Blair.
Some 120 delegates attended a lunchtime meeting backing the Socialist Alliance, one of the largest and most exciting fringe meetings at the conference. The Socialist Alliance message is simple, and can strike a chord with teachers and parents across the country:
- Defend comprehensive education.
- Kick the market and selection out of our schools.
- Give teachers the resources, and proper pay and conditions, they need to give our children a decent education.
Frustration over hours
DELEGATES AT the NUT conference unanimously backed a call for a government inquiry into pay and conditions to limit the working week to 35 hours. They backed a campaign of industrial action in the autumn term if New Labour does not give an inquiry.
The same motion was passed by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, and is due to be passed by second largest teachers' union, the NASUWT, at its conference next week, and then by the UCAC Welsh teachers' union next month. This unprecedented unity between unions inspired delegates at the NUT conference. But there was also frustration that the NUT executive had, by a slim majority, suspended the campaign of refusing to cover for vacancies.
Most delegates could not understand why union leaders had called off action in return for limited talks. But there was also a strong desire for united action with other teachers' unions. So delegates voted last Saturday by 60 to 40 percent against reimposing the no-cover action. In that debate the move to reimpose no-cover action was seen by many to clash directly with passing the joint union resolution. However, most delegates then voted on Monday to introduce an emergency debate on no-cover action. Unfortunately the majority fell short of the two thirds needed to get it discussed.
Delegates' feelings both that a fight was needed and of frustration with their union leaders found expression in a later vote. The conference defeated the union executive to call for a ballot on a boycott of a key aspect of the government's divisive payment by results scheme.
- More conference reports page 15