Teachers have unanimously called on their NUT union to call a one-day strike against education funding cuts next term.
Delegates to the NUT’s annual conference in Cardiff passed an amendment to a motion on the cuts. It said the union must "take immediate steps to identify regions where national strike action could be called using the existing funding ballot and to call a one-day strike in those regions before the end of the 2016/17 academic year".
It also instructed the union to take immediate steps alongside others to "organise a national demonstration" to defend education.
James Kerr from Lewisham, south east London, moved the amendment. He said the fight over cuts was a "national dispute" and that the union needed "a strategy to win".
Jess Edwards from the national executive committee spoke in favour of the motion as amended. She was applauded when she described comparing the music provision students receive at Eton compared to children in state schools.
"It makes me sick to the pit of my stomach," she said. "Every year I have to fight for children in my school to have access to orchestras and choirs and the things that make life worth living."
Paul Phillips from Waltham Forest in north east London moved the main motion. He said the Tories were imposing "the biggest onslaught on our education system in decades".
"This doesn't have to be the case as long as we're prepared to fight," he said.
Paul McGarr from east London seconded another amendment calling for coordinated action and hailed the union's plan for a lobby of parliament on 6 June.
"Let's make that a mass lobby," he said. "And we need strikes. Strikes work. In my school we voted for strikes and stopped compulsory redundancies."
The cuts threaten to snatch £3 billion a year from English schools by 2020—and they will hit the poorest children the hardest. Meanwhile the Tories are handing the rich £4 billion in tax cuts.
Sonia Ali is a teacher in Waltham Forest. “I’ve got two kids and their head teacher has sent a letter to everyone spelling out the impact of the cuts,” she told Socialist Worker.
“Classes will be larger and we may not have as many teaching assistants. We have to strike and protest to say we will not put up with this.”
John Rogers from Havant on the south coast told Socialist Worker, “I would be in favour of strikes and I think most NUT members would be. If we do nothing, nothing will happen.
“Ultimately the only thing that will really get public attention is when children are sent home from school.”
Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell spoke to conference on Friday evening. He said he was "proud" to support NUT members on picket lines and set out his vision for a radically different kind of society (see below).
Several delegates were impressed. North London delegate Emma Jones told Socialist Worker, “I think his fundamental principles are in line with what a lot of members think.
“We need to work with the opposition to create an alliance.”
Emma said strikes were a “valid tool” to use in fighting the cuts. But she worried that there isn't enough awareness about them. “The government keeps saying they aren’t really making cuts and that they are ring-fencing education spending,” she said.
“If we strike, we have to make the public aware of why we are striking.”
In many places where teachers have struck against the cuts, such as in Hackney and Lewisham in London, they have won support. And the growth of parents' groups across England to oppose the cuts means there is potential for teachers to win much broader support for strikes.
Jean Evanson, divisional secretary of Shropshire NUT, spoke at a Socialist Teachers Alliance fringe meeting on Friday. She described how the fight to stop cuts had taken off in a "very Tory area".
"People said, 'You can't have a march. Not in Shrewsbury, not in four weeks.' But we did. Everyone was united by a sense of injustice—it just took off."
Jean described how a protest expected to be 250-strong ended up involving up to 1,000 people.
"It's left people wanting to know what they can do next," she said. "There's a lot of parents on our side—we mustn't waste that."
'Don't be afraid to strike', Durham teaching assistant tells teachers
Delegates to the NUT conference heard from other school workers who have already fought cuts. Teaching assistants (TAs) from Derby and Durham, who have struck against Labour councils’ cuts, told a Socialist Teachers Alliance fringe meeting about their struggles.
TAs in Derby have held 73 days of strikes against a 23 percent pay cut.
Jill from Derby said, “I lost £5,000 a year. I went from the top of the pay scale to the bottom. Labour councillors ran away from us. But we showed them that we’re not weak.”
Jane, also from Derby, said school workers can be made to feel guilty for taking action that disrupts children's education. “Strikes weren’t an easy option to take,” she said. “But I felt it was justified. I needed to take a stand and I stood against Derby City Council.”
Megan, a TA from Durham, added, “Some things are so important that you’ve got to fight. If we all stand together, they have to take notice.”
She urged other school workers to take action too. “Don’t be afraid to strike if you have to,” she said. “Strikes were the thing that made the difference. Don’t listen when people say there’s nothing you can do.”
Two NUT reps from Broadmead Primary Academy in Croydon, south London, told the meeting that the threat of strikes can be enough to win. NUT members at the school voted for strikes after several teachers and the deputy head were victimised.
They were also prepared to defy the Trade Union Act to defend workers.
NUT rep Amanda told Socialist Worker, “We cancelled our first strike for talks but said we’d strike the week after. We were told that would be illegal, but we were going to go for it anyway.
“We won by being very vocal in our opposition—getting into the local paper and things like that. And we were very collective. We didn't let them divide us.”
Delegates applaud John McDonnell's vision for socialism
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell won several rounds of applause and a standing ovation when he addressed delegates on Friday.
He brought a message from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said Labour's priorities included opposing cuts to education funding and challenging funding for grammar schools.
McDonnell said he had spoken "proudly on picket lines" of NUT members. He promised his support for the teachers' battle to stop funding cuts, but also spoke about many other changes needed in society.
To applause he said, "In the first 100 days of a Labour government, we will scrap the Trade Union Act." He also pledged to end tuition fees and austerity, bring in a living wage of £10 an hour, and stop Tory tax cuts for the rich and corporations.
McDonnell said neoliberal economics stood in the way of a fairer system and a democratically planned education system.
He was applauded again when he called for a society "that's radically fairer, radically more equal, radically more democratic. What do I call it? I call it socialism."
Unfortunately several Labour councils are imposing cuts in education and other services. But the response to McDonnell's speech showed the desire among teachers for something very different.