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Why teachers have had enough

The two main teachers’ unions, representing about 500,000 teachers, today begin a series of rolling strikes culminating in an all-out national strike for one day before the end of the year. They have simply had enough and it’s easy to see why.

Nowhere is the lack of democracy that is a feature of our age more apparent than in education. Education secretary Michael Gove has shut his ears to the education experts, the teachers themselves, their unions and most parents too. 

In line with what is happening in most other workplaces, Gove wants every teacher to take on more duties, work longer for less pay and agree to lower pensions. And he plans to dismantle the national pay bargaining system which is a direct attack on the unions.

Head teachers will get more power (and money) while the teachers themselves, at the sharp end, get pay cuts. They are expected to toe the government line, swallow their principles, and carry on teaching in a set-up that most of them think should serve all children better.

And they are not consulted or listened to. Such is the arrogance of this Tory Party. They know best.

The Labour Party’s answer? Shadow minister Stephen Twigg’s speech at the recent party conference was almost pure waffle. There was nothing on the pay and conditions of teachers, nothing on performance-related pay, so impractical and unpopular with teachers.

And, of course, there was no commitment to return the new academies and free schools to local authority control — which would restore some fairness to the system. No surprise there as New Labour introduced academies in the first place. On the role of teachers to help work out Labour policy on education, there was not a word.

“Our vision of one nation is one of high aspirations for all,” said Twigg. “The Tories will tell us that we shouldn’t aim high for all. That’s what makes them conservative. Out for the privileged few. Wrong choices, wrong priorities. But as the progressives of British politics, we reject their defeatism. One nation is about high aspiration. On childcare. On the forgotten 50%. On higher education. Opening up power wealth and opportunity...”

Blah, blah, blah.  

Labour would make a few tweaks to the education system here and there, and some small policy changes such as wrap-around-care of pupils from 8.00am to 6.00pm, but would not challenge the Tory grand plan.

Gove’s ambition is the fragmentation of state education into competing schools, some with fancy new names and extra money, and some destined to become “sink schools”. Some would be able to select their intake of new pupils, others would end up with the so-called problem children, mostly the poor, and those on free school meals.

Most would have to teach to the narrow and prescriptive national curriculum, while the new academies and free schools, like the public schools, can ignore it.

The idea of having a co-operative family of schools in a region or of providing a good community school in each catchment area, is simply not on the agenda of the three main parties. It is the “global race”, the necessity of keeping UK PLC competitive and more profitable than the next country, that drives everything, including education policy.

Private schools are the model the Tories are heading towards. They, together with high-achieving state schools, can select the future entrepreneurs and scientists that the capitalist economy needs. The rest can join the race to the bottom.

There are other models of education, of course, that can be developed through practice and discussion. In a different world, they would set out to develop the talents and aspirations of all children, not for capitalism or the nation but for themselves and humanity as a whole.

Peter Arkell
1 October 2013

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