Workers across 23 sixth form colleges took part in a buoyant strike on Thursday. At college after college, strikers reported that new faces had joined big picket lines and that there was an optimistic mood.
Duncan Blackie, a union rep at Longley Park Sixth Form College in Sheffield, told Socialist Worker, “We had the biggest picket line we’ve ever had. Several solid union members who don’t normally come to picket lines were there.”
Nick Luft, a union rep at Sir George Monoux College in north London, added, “People have been joining the union literally in the last few days.”
It was the first walkout for NEU union members in their fight over cuts to sixth form college funding and pay.
Around 40 joined an upbeat picket line at Solihull’s Sixth Form College. At St John Rigby Sixth Form College in Wigan, the NEU has increased its membership by 19.
Strikers from the Addaction service along with trade unionists from Bfawu and Unison joined the picket line there in support.
Up to 30 joined a lively picket line at Islington Sixth Form College. Union rep Pippa Dowswell told Socialist Worker, “No one went into work. Everyone was optimistic and determined. Support from other trade unionists and lorry drivers who hooted their support gave everyone a lift.”
The union has already named two further strike dates next month. Pickets said this made workers confident that the union is serious about the fight.
Rob Behan, a rep at Newham Sixth Form College in east London, told Socialist Worker, “A lot of people came out on strike for the first time. Some were younger members. Others had just not been engaged before.
“People feel empowered by it and are now excited about the next strikes.”
Luisa was on the picket line at St Francis Xavier Sixth Form College in Wandsworth, south London. “It feels wonderful to be supported by our union,” she told Socialist Worker.
“You feel you haven’t been forgotten about.”
Being forgotten about – by the government – is one of the things that has upset strikers. Sixth form college funding has dropped by over a quarter in real terms since 2010. While all sections of education have suffered cuts, sixth form colleges have been the hardest hit.
And workers earn less than teachers in sixth forms in schools.
“It’s just unfair that schools are getting a different pay rise,” St Francis Xavier striker Selena told Socialist Worker. “We’re doing the same thing here, the same work.”
Like many, Selena said there is a class element to the lack of money. “Places like here have more working class kids,” she said. “We need the money more. But places with more middle class kids get the most.”
Striker Roschelle agreed. “I used to work in a school sixth form,” she told Socialist Worker. “Since coming here I’ve really noticed a difference in class sizes.
“My class has gone from ten to 24. The idea that they want the same outcomes for students, but they aren’t given the same starting blocks. And it’s people that are disadvantaged that get the worst start.”
Concern about the impact of pay and funding cuts on students is driving many workers to take action. Some described big turnovers of staff because people know they can earn more elsewhere – causing disruption for students.
Others said cuts mean students just don’t get the support they need.
“Because of the general austerity, more students have mental health issues such as anxiety,” said south London striker and union rep Rachel. “But there have been cuts to support services. I referred someone recently who isn’t going to be seen until January.”
Luisa said students suffer in other ways too. “We’ve had quite a lot of classes shut down, including drama and computer science,” she said. “And we used to offer two GCSE resits for students, but now they have to pay for a second one.”
Fleur from Varndean College in Brighton added, “Courses that are outward looking – such as philosophy or world development – have disappeared. There’s now a whole generation of people who can’t learn about those things.”
Cuts have taken their toll on workers too. Tracey from Shrewsbury Sixth Form College said the impact has been “massive”.
“We have no work/life balance,” she told Socialist Worker. “The stress is affecting us all.”
Jo from Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College told Socialist Worker, “I’m on an 80 percent part time contract but still work 60 hours a week to support the students. It’s a hard decision to strike but ultimately I’m doing it for my students.”
Fleur added, “Since I started 20 years ago, I’ve seen the amount of hours I have to do grow. Class sizes have grown. The number of lessons I have to do every week has grown. And the amount of time I have to deliver each course has shrunk.”
Strikers from across the country packed into a rally in central London in the afternoon, before marching on the department for education. Ahead of the strike, workers were offered an increase on their previous 1 percent pay offer – to 1.5 percent.
Joint general secretary of the NEU Kevin Courtney told strikers, “We have done nothing like enough, but we have started to move them. We believe there’s more money.”
He added that the fight would “not go away” if a general election is called.
The strength of the strike shows workers’ anger at the savage attacks on sixth form colleges and their determination to resist. And more colleges could join future strikes, as the NEU reballots 16 others that just missed the 50 percent turnout threshold for legal strikes.
The next walkouts are set for 5 and 20 November. Every trade unionist should organise solidarity with them.