Tens of thousands of marchers filled streets across Britain last week in an outpouring of anger against Tory education secretary Michael Gove. The protests, on Wednesday of last week, took place on the day of a national teachers’ strike by NUT union members.
Teachers are in dispute over attacks on their pay, pensions and conditions.
As striker Nadine Mincoff explained, “I’m paying £70 more a month into my pension. And the contributions are going up for a third time next month.” But the anger runs much deeper than the specific dispute. Teachers are furious at government changes, such as tests at the age of four, that leave children worse off.
Ejaita Tialobi is a special needs teacher who used to teach in nurseries. She told Socialist Worker that very young children can’t remember what they are taught because they’re too young for formal learning.
“I’ve heard children in nurseries saying, ‘I can’t do it’,” she said. “They are being made to feel like failures from the start. It’s appalling.” Teachers are told they must worry about childrens’ “levels”.
And even when those levels are deemed to be good, they can face criticism for children not making enough “progress”. Rob Pryce teaches in a secondary school in south London. He said the focus on testing affects parents as well as children and teachers.
“I had a parent on the phone recently who was upset because of problems in the home,” he said. “But they could see that their child’s levels had gone down. So on top of being upset and stressed about other things, they were saying to me, ‘sorry about the levels’. Ultimately it’s bad for the children. Children say to me, ‘Get me my C’. Education should be about more than that.”
The extra bureaucracy has driven up teachers’ workload.
“I’ve had forms with 117 boxes to tick for each child—in a class of 30,” said Marilyn Evans, a retired teacher who joined an 11,000-strong march in London. “I was 64 when I retired. I could not have gone on any longer.”
Part of the problem for teachers is that they are constantly expected to change how they teach. Habib Hussain, a teacher at Penfields School in Birmingham, told Socialist Worker, “I’ve only been in teaching about seven or eight years, and already in that time I’ve seen so much change for the worse.
“There’s no consistency when every few years you get a whole raft of changes brought in.”
Secondary school teacher Qamrul said he noticed a change when the Tories came to office. “As soon as this government came in the pressure started to build up. There are constant observations. And in the test results they want to see progress. So if a child gets a B but there’s no progress, you get criticised.”
Carl Bridges teaches at a primary school in Tottenham, north London. He told Socialist Worker, “Ofsted came to inspect our school recently. I thought we’d do well as we’ve done a lot to improve things in the school.
“But they gave us the same rating as last year. I was really angry about it. It’s absolutely crushing. It seems to me that they judge before they come in.”
Carl said that he hadn’t struck during previous walkouts as he didn’t want to lose a day’s pay. “Now it’s different,” he said. “The government is making it so the toffs at the top get a good education and the rest get nothing.”
The NUT has held several regional strikes with the NASUWT union over the past couple of years. The NASUWT has now retreated from action in favour of talks with Gove.
Yet Gove is intent on ramming through his attacks. And his disdain for teachers is such that he isn’t even bothering to attend talks with unions —instead he is “monitoring their progress” from a distance.
For many of those striking, the idea of putting faith in winning Gove round with talks is implausible. David Gleave is a secondary school teacher in Birmingham. He told Socialist Worker, “It’s like some sort of battle with Gove. It feels like he’s just against teachers.”
The government tried to scare teachers into thinking that they would be unpopular for striking back. It was another lie. In London people lined the route of the teachers’ march.
A Hamleys toy shop worker raised a fist in support of strikers as they passed. Others applauded or waved NUT flags. An Usdaw union member who applauded the march told Socialist Worker, “I get very annoyed with teachers being criticised for having good conditions. We shouldn’t criticise workers for having good conditions—we should fight for good conditions for everyone.”
If Gove gets away with the attacks, education will look very different for children in the future. Rich parents will be able to buy quality education in private schools. But the right of working class children to a decent education will mean very little.Teachers have a real opportunity to stop this attack.
The success of last week’s strike, and the scale of the protests, shows the anger that exists. But it will take more than anger to stop Gove.
NUT general secretary Christine Blower spoke at a rally in London, but she said little on the future of the dispute. “There is very much more to do,” she said. “We need to make sure the campaign continues.”
The NUT’s national executive committee will put proposals to its annual conference this month about how to take the dispute forward. Teacher after teacher on the protests said the union must not squander the momentum of the strike and must escalate the action.
“There needs to be more,” said Qamrul. “And instead of one-day strikes we should look at other things that could have more impact.” Hackney teacher Francesca said, “We don’t want them to think they can just blow this off as a one-off strike”.
“We need more action,” agreed striker Pedro Pereira. “Today won’t be enough.”
“Gove is going for a scorched earth approach,” said Bridget Chapman, an NUT rep in south London. “Unless we fight back now—and hard—he will do permanent damage to children. I’m not prepared to look back in ten years’ time and say I didn’t do anything to stop him.”
The Tories attempted to attack the strike and scare teachers into thinking it was unpopular. David Cameron said that the strike would disrupt children’s education. And the Department for Education said that parents “would struggle to understand” why teachers were striking.
But the strike was popular with thousands of schools closing and big protests across Britain. Over 500 marched in Leicester and over 300 in Oxford. Up to 1,500 took to the streets in Liverpool.
In Manchester over 1,000 striking teachers marched through the city centre .And picket lines got the go ahead from union leaders in the city for the first time. A small group of left wing activists met after and debated how to rebuild the NUT from below.
Abbie, a teacher from Manchester, said, “We need to be like the Chicago teachers. They came out on strike and stayed out until they won.”
MORE VOICES FROM THE STRIKE...
Pedro Pereira, London
‘The attacks on our pensions are like changing the game at half time. When I decided to pay into a pension there was a set of rules. Now that’s changed. Performance-related pay is ridiculous. How do you measure it? Observations are subjective—you get different results depending on who is observing you. This government is going for everyone. Society as a whole should get together and fight austerity. It’s a much bigger problem than just teachers.’
Rachel Jones, Rugby
‘I’m striking because of the unacceptable workload. I’m exhausted, my colleagues are exhausted. We can’t cope with the pressure we’re under. There’s constant inspections and observations. I love this job but I’m worried it will make me ill. I work 60 hours a week. People are going to leave. I don’t see what’s in it for young people now, and if you don’t get committed workers coming in the whole education system will suffer. Our school is a forced academy so we’re at the eye of the storm. But it’s bad for everyone. And if we don’t stand up it will get worse.’
Marinda Shingles, Birmingham
‘I’m really worried about education. I’ve got one child aged three and another aged five and I’m really worried about the future, what schools will be like. I’m worried about businesses running schools. These academy chains, they don’t seem to be accountable. It’s worrying that we won’t know who’s teaching our children. After a strike people want to see an impact. We need to keep momentum up.’
Dereje Benyam London
‘The blame for everything that happens in schools is being shifted entirely onto teachers. You open the newspapers and there’s always something negative about teachers. We are educating the next generation. But Gove has contempt for the profession. Some think teachers have it easy. But I don’t find any teacher who works less than ten hours a day. School officially ends at 3.30pm but we carry on with revision lessons. And the work carries on at weekends and during holidays. The children appreciate what we do. politicians are the problem.’