In an historic alliance, the two biggest teaching unions, representing 95% of the teaching workforce, are engaged in sustained industrial action. Siôn Reynolds from the NASUWT reports on the “work to rule” action being taken by teachers.
In an historic alliance, the two biggest teaching unions, representing 95% of the teaching workforce, are engaged in sustained industrial action. The day after 30 November 2011, one of the largest co-ordinated strike days in British trade union history, teachers in the NASUWT embarked upon continuous national action short of a strike. In September 2012 the NUT joined the action, after an unprecedented unity-pact between the two unions.
The action short of strike, sometimes called a “work to rule,” represents teachers’ attempt to carry out a “quiet revolution within the classroom.” Whilst many teachers say they cannot afford all-out continuous national strike action (what with pay-cuts, pensions contribution rises, redundancies, and blocks on incremental pay), what they can do – with an industrial mandate following national ballots of memberships of both unions – is fight, day-in, day-out within schools to gain control over what goes on there, and in particular, to defend working conditions.
Michael Gove, the Secretary of State, has sent two letters in less than a month urging head teachers to take steps against teachers to stop the action, such as docking pay of teachers, in order to break the action. In some cases such measures have sparked strike action in schools. The whole of the teaching workforce has benefited from the resolute stand of members at schools such as Dunston Primary (Chesterfield), Stratford Academy (Newham), South Shields School (South Shields), Highcrest School (Buckinghamshire), Newton Le Willows Primary (Merseyside) and Sinfin School (Derby). This strong resistance has been a powerful deterrent to employers.
Despite his regular ministerial broadsides against the action, Gove has sought to dismiss its impact. In a letter to school leaders, he said: “The vast majority of schools are currently unaffected. A small number, however, are starting to see a severe impact and where this is the case, I believe a robust response is needed.”
He obviously believes the action is significant enough to warrant using taxpayers’ money to commission the National Foundation of Educational Research to survey teachers about the action. The results of this survey of more than 1,600 teachers were published in January on the Department for Education (DfE) website.
The survey asked: “Do you think the current `work to rule’ by teachers is having an impact in your school?” 60% of respondents answered: “No – because staff are not working to rule.” 76% of these work in primary schools, and 44% in secondary schools. Only 9% answered “Yes” (3% in primary schools and 15% in secondary schools). Whilst over a quarter (26%) of secondary senior leaders felt the action was having an impact, only 5% of primary school leaders said the same. The action is having a larger impact, then, in secondary schools than in primary schools. But even in secondary schools, if you believe the results of the survey, less than half of these are found to have been affected by the action.
It needs stating, however, that the responses are not categorised by union. This means some of the answers may be biased against the action or unconcerned, as the teacher belongs to a union which is not participating or is opposed to it. It is not surprising that a survey commissioned by the Government is flawed and biased.
When the British trade union movement came out en masse on 30th November 2011, the Government called it a “damp squib.” This seems to be Gove’s main propaganda line upon the teachers’ action. Why then, bother to write to head teachers pressing them to make public statements in the local press condemning the action? It is also curious that Gove’s apparatchiks at the DfE have been telephoning school leaders to harangue them about it. It is also nonsensical that Gove has taken time to write to MPs to oppose such a “damp squib.” The biggest mystery is why the Secretary of State is rattled at all!
Presumably Gove is rattled because the action allows teachers to resist the employers’ constant impositions on teachers’ work-life balance; or because it encourages teachers to stand up for their professional integrity and autonomy. Where the action is having an impact, its most common effect, according to the survey, has been teachers no longer covering for absent colleagues (30%). This is significant because when teachers “cover”, they lose time in which they are supposed to have no contact with pupils. This “non-contact time” is set aside for planning, preparation and assessment of pupils’ work. If non-contact time is taken up with “cover” then the teacher’s work invariably gets shunted into early-mornings, evenings, weekends and holidays – in other words into time outside of the teachers’ directed hours. Surveys regularly show many teachers working a 60 or 70 hour week! This is one way for the employers to maximise the exploitation of teachers, and hence it is no surprise that Gove wants “cover” to stay.
The second most reported impact was on monitoring, performance management and fewer lesson observations (21%). The NASUWT have celebrated the fact that “excessive surveillance and monitoring of teachers, masquerading as classroom observation, has stopped in thousands of schools.”
The third biggest impact was found to be fewer meetings (14%). Like “cover”, meetings use up time teachers can spend planning and preparing lessons and marking pupils’ work. Thus by saving time teachers would otherwise have spent on “cover,” or meetings, the action is clearly having a positive material effect upon the lives of many thousands of teachers.
The Coalition Government has continuously attacked teachers’ pay, conditions and pensions since it came into power. This was Cameron’s stated objective – to settle old scores in the sector of employment that is the most highly unionised.
The coalition agenda to “tear up” the teachers’ contract needs to be challenged by every possible means. A further campaign of sustained strike action will no doubt be needed in the near future to ratchet up the pressure. The teaching workforce is building up to a “tipping point”, where they will say “enough is enough.” The next attack by the Government on working conditions or pay or pensions might be the spark. At present, government attacks on teachers are being resisted on a piecemeal, teacher-by-teacher, school-by-school basis. This resistance needs to be generalised. And the resistance needs to be escalated to strike action. Only national strike action can galvanise the teaching workforce against the massive assault that is bearing down from the coalition Government and the employers.
- For teachers’ full autonomy in the classroom!
- For a maximum 32 hour working week for teachers!
- Defend pre-coalition teachers’ pensions, pay and conditions!
- For adequate staffing levels to maintain educational standards!
- No more academies and “free schools” – bring all schools under local democratic control!