Strikes hit some 34 sixth form colleges on Wednesday as NEU union members walked out. The action was the third walkout in the union’s campaign over pay and funding – and the biggest so far.
Workers struck at colleges across England including in London, Brighton, South Yorkshire, Leeds, Hereford and the Midlands.
There were 30 on the picket line at Bilborough College in Nottingham, where Labour MP Alex Norris joined strikers.
Strikers say savage cuts have left students without enough support and resources.
Mike was on the picket line at City and Islington Sixth Form College in north London. “Funding cuts mean we can’t do the things we used to do,” he told Socialist Worker.
“I’m a Geography teacher, and it’s a compulsory part of the course for students to go on trips. Previously these were heavily subsidised. But now students are having to pay more of the costs – and it can be up to £250.”
John, another picket, told Socialist Worker he had seen many changes at the colleges in the 15 years he has worked there. “We’ve won awards for our education, but now we’re just not being given the tools to do the job properly.
“There are not enough cleaners, or librarians. We don’t have money for books or trips. We’ve gone from having four facilities officers, who manage the buildings, to just one.”
Duncan Blackie, an NEU rep at Longley Park Sixth Form College in Sheffield, said workers have a “clear message” for the government.
“Their anger is growing,” he said. “Sixth Form Colleges are on their knees.”
Workers are angry at broader government attacks on education too. “There’s been a narrowing of options for students in the subjects they can choose and in the curriculum,” said Mike.
“Climate change used to have a dedicated four weeks of teaching in Geography. Now it isn’t there as a standalone topic.”
Along with picketing, strikers have also leafletted in town and city centres. Many are keen to make education cuts an election issue.
Jean Evanson is the post-16 national executive member for the NEU, and works at Shrewsbury College Group. She told Socialist Worker, “Striking during an election campaign has made it more possible for us to get our message across to students, the public and politicians.
“Labour’s announcements on the Education Maintenance Allowance and on funding adults to return to learn are great policies.
“The government must fund post-16 education properly, reversing nine and a half years of ideologically-enforced austerity. We must also have a decent rate of pay and a manageable workload.”
Mike agreed. “A big issue for us is being able to afford a standard of living we used to enjoy eight or nine years ago,” he said. “Young teachers are feeling the strain,” added John. “People are leaving.”
Jean said, “We’ve had a promise of £400 million for next year, but we need £1.1 billion and we need it now. The promised money also comes with caveats which are not acceptable.”
Strikers were hopeful that, if Labour is elected on 12 December, the attacks on education could start to be reversed. But many stressed the need to keep fighting.
“We can’t take anything for granted,” said north London striker Marc. “We will have to look at what happens after 12 December, but I’m not saying we should go easy on a Labour government.”
“We’ve got a government that doesn’t listen to us,” said John. “If it’s the same government after 12 December, we will no doubt have to take more action.”
And for Marc, the strikes have a value beyond whether they achieve their immediate goal. “If we don’t support strikes, labour just becomes a factor of production,” he said.
“It’s good to say that it’s normal to strike. And these resistances can grow to involve more people.
“The government knows how the mood can switch – our strikes help to remind them of that.”
This week’s strike is the biggest walkout yet in the campaign, as workers at nine more colleges joined strikes for the first time.
Previous strikes saw 23 sixth form colleges strike on 17 October and 25 on 5 November. Nine more branches met the Tories’ 50 percent turnout threshold in reballots, and so joined the walkouts this week.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, spoke to strikers on the north London picket line and celebrated the results. “The fact that we have smashed the thresholds proves we can do it – and we will do it again,” he said.
He said if Labour is elected on 12 December then “we would not stop the strikes but we might suspend them”.
“We would want to meet Angela Rayner and ask when the money will be coming for sixth forms,” he said. “We have to work through our tactics.
“But whatever the outcome of the election, union strength is going to matter.”
The union should name more dates to keep the pressure on the government – whoever is running it – and to maintain the momentum of the struggle.