Workers at 34 sixth form colleges across England were set to strike on Wednesday—the third walkout in a fight over pay and funding.
NEU union members previously struck on 5 November and 17 October. The walkouts involved 23 sixth form colleges, and then 25. Now the number of colleges taking action is even bigger after reballots saw nine more pass the Tories’ 50 percent turnout threshold for legal strikes.
Jean Evanson is the post-16 national executive member for the union and works at Shrewsbury College Group. She told Socialist Worker that the last strike was “a great show of solidarity across the country”.
Strikers at many sixth form colleges picketed in the morning, and then went into town and city centres to leaflet the public.
“We had many positive conversations with students, parents, grandparents and concerned members of the public,” said Jean.
“They understand that our public sector has been savaged. The cuts in sixth form colleges have hit teachers and support staff too. Improvements to our pay and conditions will improve the learning conditions for our students.”
Rob is an NEU rep at Newham Sixth Form College in east London. “Students seem supportive of our strikes,” he told Socialist Worker. “They understand that what we’re doing is for the future of education.”
Strikers have suffered real terms pay cuts of 16 percent since 2010—and have now been offered a lower pay rise than school teachers. And the Tories have slashed £1.1 billion from 16-19 education funding.
The impact has been felt most in poorer areas—and workers are furious about the impact on students.
Support staff and tutors have been cut, broken equipment isn’t replaced and students are crammed into ever bigger classes.
Jean said, “People are despairing about the impact of cuts. It’s particularly worrying for students who have mental health problems. Bigger class sizes and increasing workload mean we can’t give students the support they need.”
Newham union member Fran told Socialist Worker, “Students need a better deal. There are many cases where you know that if students had a bit of extra help it would make all the difference.”
Striker Ben added, “Our college does amazing things for people. We have students who can barely speak any English and within a year they are passing English Language GCSEs.
“But everything we’re doing is just being stifled.”
Trevor described how bigger class sizes mean more stress for workers, and a worse education for students. “We don’t have time to plan properly,” he told Socialist Worker.
“And we’ve lost our support staff. Students with special educational needs are suffering disproportionately.” The stress, and the fact that workers can earn more elsewhere, is driving many out of sixth form colleges altogether. But strikers are also optimistic that their action can get results.
“We can absolutely win something from this,” said Rob. “We’re out here to win.”
The union should name more dates for strikes to keep the pressure on the government—whoever is in office after 12 December.
As Jean said, “Members have had enough after nine and a half years of austerity. We’ve campaigned and we’ve lobbied, but the government hasn’t listened.
“Now we’re striking. People are angry, but they’re also pleased that the union is backing this fight with strikes.”