Days ruled by clocks
THE RESPONSE to Estelle Morris was just one sign of the gulf that now exists between the government and most of the half a million teachers in Britain. Members of the executive of the NUT, who have spent much of the last three years trying to reassure union members about the government, now spoke of their bitter disappointment at New Labour's deepening attacks on comprehensive education.
The newly elected president of the NUT, Tony Brockman, is part of the "moderate" majority of the NUT executive. He spoke of education secretary David Blunkett's "latest wheezes" and "irresponsible actions". Other "moderate" executive members spoke in similar terms. Delegates who spoke to the conference went further. George Arthur, a primary teacher from Barnsley, captured the rage at working in an education system which is run like a factory.
"I was a steel worker 20 years ago," he said. "I had to clock on at the start of the shift and clock off at the end. Primary education feels more and more like those days. I clock on at the start of the literacy lesson. Ten minutes later it's the end of the shared reading so we bang the clock and start our whole class word level work. Fifteen minutes later we clock on for group activities and so the clock dominates literacy, numeracy and so on right through the day."
A MEETING called by School Teachers Opposed to Performance Pay (STOPP) attracted over 180 teachers. STOPP organised an impressive unofficial demonstration in February. Speakers at the meeting called for unofficial organisation against performance related pay to continue in schools, no matter what the union's leaders do. Kevin Courtney from Camden identified "a new layer of teachers who are reacting against what the government is doing to education". Rachel Kendall from Bristol said, "I have been teaching for two years and am one of the new teachers who is supposed to be enthusiastic about the government's plans.
"But the new teachers in my school are at the centre of standing up to Blunkett." Fran Postlethwaite from Barnsley said, "This fight is far from over. We need to spread the boycott and other forms of collective action. "The greater the resistance now, the greater chance of it breaking through, and the better the atmosphere in schools if the pay scheme is imposed." Other speakers also argued for a sharp turn towards building the campaign in schools and localities. Local STOPP meetings have already taken place. More are planned, particularly for 5 May, the day after the London mayor election.
DELEGATES threw out the union leaders' report on their work against Labour's Private Finance Initiative because it had not led to a serious campaign to stop privatisation and win public money for schools.
Heartened by parents
TEACHERS HAVE been arguing against attacks on comprehensive education and on their conditions for years. There was more of a sense at this conference that they are not a beleaguered minority. Teachers know that increasing numbers of parents and the public are starting to agree with their arguments.
Many delegates told the conference, fringe meetings or Socialist Worker how heartened they were at the backlash among parents over the national tests children are forced to sit. Speeches slamming big businesses such as Rover and Barclays for destroying jobs and communities were warmly received. There was enthusiasm at the prospect of Ken Livingstone trouncing Blair's candidate, Frank Dobson, in the election for London mayor.
But teachers face the imposition of performance related pay. Delegates were looking for a lead in resisting this divisive scheme. That did not come from the union's leaders. NUT general secretary Doug McAvoy attacked conference delegates for walking out and heckling Estelle Morris.
McAvoy did everything possible to undermine an effective campaign against the government. He pointed to the results of a recent survey of NUT members to claim there is no mood for confrontation. Some 28 percent of NUT members responded to the survey. Just under 60 percent of those favoured a one-day strike against the government's pay scheme.
McAvoy said that was too slight a figure to call a strike ballot. But the survey result was high, considering that the union gave it little publicity and that teachers have responded to dozens of union surveys in recent years, each of which was used by their leaders to justify taking no action. NUT leaders see the strength of feeling among teachers.
But they believe the government is strong and teachers are weak. So instead of building on the backlash against Blair and using that to boost teachers' confidence to take action, they risk spreading cynicism throughout staffrooms by saying nothing can be done.
Call to 'reject capitalism'
OVER 150 teachers attended a union-sponsored fringe meeting on cancelling Third World debt. They heard Angela Travis from the Jubilee 2000 anti-debt campaign support the protests in Seattle and Washington against the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank. She called on teachers to raise the demands of the demonstrators and become part of the growing global rejection of capitalism.
Some 80 people watched a video of the Battle of Seattle and listened to two car workers from Longbridge at a fringe meeting on Sunday afternoon.