A series of strikes at an east London school has lifted the lid on an ugly culture of bullying in education.
NEU union members at the London Design and Engineering free school are demanding the reinstatement of their rep, Sharon Morgan (see below). But Sharon isn’t the only one victimised after organising at work.
NEU rep Louise Lewis was suspended from North Huddersfield Trust School in October. And John Boken, an NEU rep at Shrewsbury College, is facing disciplinary action.
When bosses dismissed John’s complaints about bullying and racism, he could have “kept my head down and carried on”.
But John told Socialist Worker that, as a union rep, that wasn’t an option. “How could I expect other workers to come forward with complaints if I didn’t myself?” he said.
John, who works in the IT department, had also raised concerns about safety during the pandemic, and has been “a very active rep”.
But this activity appears to have made him a target.
“The department’s attitude towards me has always been negative,” he said. “They complained about me always being on strike. There’s a toxic environment.”
John described email trails where he and another worker had been denigrated and bullied. When he contacted his boss “she defended the bullies”. And the pandemic saw workers’ lives get harder still.
“During lockdown I was looking after two children under the age of four,” said John. “I was struggling to do marking at the same time, deal with emails. Nothing I ever did was good enough.”
When workers returned to the college, John was told a complaint had been made about him. He was forced to wait weeks to hear the outcome of an “investigation” by a senior member of staff.
“They just delay and delay, and it makes you feel really stressed,” he said. “One moment I’m OK and the next I’m in despair.
I’ve got a wife and two young children, and my wife is pregnant. We’re going into the Christmas period and we’ve got this hanging over our heads.”
But John said NEU members at the college, who are currently balloting for strikes, are “100 percent” behind him. And hearing about his victimisation has led to other workers raising issues too.
The culture of bullying in education has been encouraged by a Tory drive to weaken unions. The strikes should be a focus for the whole NEU and the trade union movement
“As education secretary Michael Gove made it a lot harder for union reps in education,” said John. “Since Covid-19, union reps have found their voice again. And managements are panicking.
“They don’t want to go back to a situation where teachers had some say over what happens in education. I need people to vote for strikes because we need to stop this.”
LDE free school strikers are fighting for a ‘better school for staff and students’
NEU union members at the LDE free school in east London are fighting for the reinstatement of sacked NEU rep Sharon Morgan and better contracts.
They have struck for six days so far—and plan a further six days next term. Strikers see the walkouts as their only chance to make the school better for staff and students.
Several strikers told Socialist Worker that, when they first came to the school, things were very different. They described having specialised, first class equipment for design and engineering.
“I came to work here because there was a vision that was really in the interests of students,” said one. “It was giving them opportunities they wouldn’t get anywhere else in the borough.”
The striker said there was a “broad curriculum” and good conditions, such as a no homework policy and 50-minute lunch break.
This changed after the Ofsted schools inspectorate said the school “requires improvement”. Management then brought in more hours of contact time and cut the lunch break to ten minutes.
Homework was expected for every class.
Everything started to be monitored. And there was no consultation about the changes.
Earlier this year, management brought in new, heavier timetables. “That’s when I joined the union,” said one striker.
Others joined too, and the union group elected Sharon as their rep.
But when they tried to discuss their issues, management began to attack Sharon, then dismissed her.
Conditions got worse during the pandemic.
Teachers were told to open windows. But triple-glazing was installed as the school looks out onto City Airport.
In an already overcrowded classroom with design technology equipment, not hearing instructions is a safety issue.
No discussion of this and other issues related to Covid-19 was tolerated.
Bullying and intimidation have made it harder to organise. The majority of NEU members voted to strike, but not all of them are out.
One striker said, “There are people who feel very vulnerable, they want to support us. We have to be their voice.”
But the strike can also give people confidence. “I was anxious but we’ve had a couple of meetings where we all came together to reaffirm why this strike is necessary,” one teacher explained.
“Things are stressful enough with the pandemic—we don’t need extra pressure.”
The school has made some changes since the action began, such as slightly improving contracts. But much more is needed.
The NEU has agreed a further six strike days next term, starting on 13 and 14 January.
Sharon told pickets last week that it’s worth fighting. She thanked them for their “support and bravery”. And she said, “We can get them to listen to us to get a better school for all staff and students.”