By Liam Conway, Central Notts NUT
The big news from the conference of the 230,000-strong National Union of Teachers (NUT) at Easter was a decision to ballot for a day of strike action against excessive class size.
It follows several weeks of high-profile campaigning by FACE (Fight Against Cuts in Education), a grassroots organisation of parents and school governors. Won against hard-fought opposition by the NUT Executive, the vote on class-size action also linked the NUT at a national level to the FACE activity, for the first time.
FACE has grown out of protests in areas with big cuts in education spending into a national organisation. Successful one-day strikes by teachers campaigning alongside FACE have been organised in Oxfordshire, Leicester, my own area (Notts), and elsewhere. The national FACE demonstration at the end of March attracted some 20,000.
When I moved the amendment calling for a strike ballot I presented the Notts, Oxfordshire and Leicester actions as a model to be replicated on a national level.
The move for industrial action by teachers linked to demonstrations and campaigning by parents and governors represents a new departure. It also has a powerful mobilising potential:
l The issue — oversize classes — is about the quality of education children receive in schools.
l FACE has the potential to draw a wide range of groups into activity.
l Many more NUT members will be willing to vote for national action than for local action, as it points the finger at those responsible for the crisis: the Government.
But NUT members are going to have to fight hard against the Executive to make sure that the strike ballot takes place and then that members vote for a ‘yes’ vote. Nevertheless, the chance of a strong campaign in defence of public-sector education is greater now than it has been for a number of years. The fight is on!
The Tories’ agenda for education
The Tories’ new regime, making schools compete for students and money, is pushing education further towards a two-tier structure, where an increasing number will go into higher education but many children get little more than institutional childminding.
In 1991, it was estimated that one in five of those aged 21 (nine years old when the Tories came in) was innumerate, and one in seven was illiterate. Schools now have a financial incentive to exclude students who cause difficulty, and more and more are excluded: some 10,000 last year. Money for adult education has been cut. Fewer than ten per cent of people aged over 25 do any study.
The logic is to scrap any idea of education as a basic right for every child and every adult to equip them to understand the world and develop their talents. Instead some children will get minimal childminding, to prepare them for life on the dole; some will get basic rote learning and a dose of discipline, to prepare them for low-wage jobs; a minority will get cheap-and-quick higher training, to prepare for more skilled jobs; and a smaller minority will be trained to rule in the elite universities.
The proportion of students from clerical or manual worker families at the old universities is actually lower than it was before the expansion of the 1980s (at just one-third).
For millions of children in schools in the poorer working-class areas the Tories are turning education into what Patrick Pearse called “the Murder Machine”. For a large part of their school years, what they are taught, essentially, is that they are failures. With the number of decently paid and secure “unskilled” jobs declining and the chances of progress from those jobs to better ones ever smaller, their future is bleak.
Further Education, an educational “second chance” for working-class youth, is being battered by market forces. Colleges have been taken out of local authority control and turned into units competing in a marketplace. Lecturers have been sacked or had their work conditions drastically worsened. College bosses plan to get rid of 250,000 part-time lecturers and replace them by agency staff with no job security.
Straightforward spending cuts compound the damage.
Local authority nursery places have declined while private-sector under-fives places have increased fourfold since 1979.
In mainstream schooling real spending per pupil fell by an average of 1.8 per cent per year between 1980 and 1988. Education spending as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product fell from 5.5 per cent in 1979 to 4.8 per cent in 1992.
Over the same period, the number of teachers in UK schools dropped by 30,000. In 1994 alone, 5,500 teachers were made redundant or pushed into early retirement. In 1989 the government estimated that 30,000 primary schools were without a qualified maths teacher, and only one in seven had a qualified science teacher.
Classes over 30 are one-quarter of the primary school total and include over 1.1 million pupils.
In contrast, the Tories have boosted private provision. For example in 1980 they brought in the Assisted Places Scheme by which public money was used to send middle-class children to private schools. The private schools have kept the tax exemptions they enjoy by being “charities” and gained from changes in the way school property is assessed for rates. The number of pupils in private schools has grown to total 8% of all 11-15 year olds.
Other aspects of Tory education policy interconnect.
A National Curriculum was introduced to provide a syllabus to be tested. The tests (SATs) provide results to be entered into the League Tables. The League Tables, in turn provide the framework for funding for schools. The Tory theory was that parents would choose schools on the basis of positions in the League Tables. The act of choice would create an “internal market” for schools. Rising or falling pupil rolls would determine the amount of funding a school would receive. Good education would be produced,Á according to Tory dogma, because the necessity of competition would impel schools to improve their “product”. The theory does not work, of course. Schools in middle-class areas get more and schools in working-class areas lose out. We see the return of the Secondary Modern and ‘sink’ schools.
Labour has talked about scrapping or rejigging some of the Tories’ measures, e.g. improving the League Table. That is not good enough. The basic minimum we must demand from the next Labour government is:
l Reaffirm the principle of comprehensive schooling for all and education as a right, not a privilege or a financial “investment”.
l Restore all schools and Further Education colleges to elected local control.
l Local authority nursery places for all under-fives whose parents want them.
l The right of all children to classes under 30 and properly-qualified teachers.
l Expand adult education.
l Find the money by taxing the rich and cutting military spending.
The fight for action
There is a real chance the NUT Executive will sabotage the strike ballot. Even if it takes place they may not recommend a ‘yes’ vote. In his closing speech to NUT conference, General Secretary Doug McAvoy declared war on the pro-strike delegates, condemning them as ‘unrepresentative’.
Refusing to act on conference motions is nothing new for NUT Executives. So we will need to fight hard to make this ballot happen. We need to use every opportunity to campaign for action: campaigns for left candidates in the National Officer elections at the end of the year and in next year’s National Executive elections need to be connected to the demand for action. The left needs only five more executive places to take control out of the hands of McAvoy and his supporters. Continuing the local action around class size and building FACE will add to the pressure too.
NUT left more united than ever
The situation in the NUT — where a delegate conference can vote for action then the Executive ignores it — shows the need for a rank and file organisation.
A permanent rank and file organisation can make sure there is a fight for motions to be passed and implemented, the leaders are held to account, to replace poor leaders and — where necessary — organise action independently of the union leadership. The organised left should be fighting to build that rank and file organisation. How does the NUT left measure up?
There are two main left campaigns inside the NUT: the Socialist Teachers’ Alliance (STA) and the Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Union (CFDU). The STA and CFDU have co-operated more closely in recent years, but only after a far longer period of bad relations.
The STA came out of a split in the Socialist Workers’ Party’s Rank and File Teacher organisation. The split, in which the International Marxist Group played a large part, was explained as a need to get away from a perceived ‘syndicalism’ in Rank and File and towards a more ‘political’ organisation. The STA has linked together most of the far left groups in the NUT, including, from the mid-’80s on, the SWP, who had given up on Rank and File.
The CFDU emerged in the mid-’80s out of a fight against the NUT leaders’ betrayal of the pay dispute. And it was partly a reaction to perceived STA failures to group together union activists broadly enough to do the necessary work. The CFDU was joined by the non-SWP elements that had remained with Rank and File and — with some success in Hackney, Oldham and some other areas — tried to keep it going after the SWP had tried to close it down.
The STA and CFDU represent different traditions on the left of the union. The STA is a political organisation of socialists. The CFDU wants to organise a broader pressure group based on trade union issues.
The STA’s magazine, Socialist Teacher, carries articles of the sort you would expect in the journal of a left group. It operates almost like a political party inside the union. The STA has been a pole of attraction for new and young members of the NUT, perhaps already identifying with socialist politics. These are the people at the sharp end of the Tory reforms.
The CFDU — the core of which is no less socialist than the STA — has been highly effective, providing detailed and useful material for organising local officers of the union. It has waged a serious fight to win the leadership of the NUT.
Disunity between the two groups has often been caused by the SWP. The SWP were at one time the main force in the STA and have been vocal against the CFDU — often to the point of slander. For example, when Ian Murch (the elected treasurer of the NUT, leading member of the CFDU, but also member of the STA) was witch-hunted by the union’s right wing in 1992, the SWP abstained on the fight to defend him. At the 1993 conference they joined the right wing in opposing moves to prevent such witch-hunts taking place.
The effect on the STA has been plain to see but as more STA members have become unwilling to tolerate the SWP’s behaviour inside the STA on other issues — around candidates for executive elections for example — the SWP have become increasingly marginalised.
At this year’s conference the SWP operated largely outside the STA and hinted at their intention to leave. The STA have written to them saying such a decision would be a correct one, and proposing joint work with the SWP as an external group.
There is undoubtedly much to be proud of in the record of both the STA and CFDU. Ultimately, we need a merger of the two organisations in order to build on the strengths of both. Relations between the two groups may improve still further as a result of the SWP’s decision. However, a merger is still some distance away.
Workers’ Liberty NUT members have been involved in both organisations and have consistently argued for unity. A more possible approach now appears to be one of unity in action, rather than the dissolution of the two groups into one. Certainly we will need the maximum co-operation in the fight to implement the strike policy.
The NUT and the Labour Party
The teachers’ fight for action faces not only the resistance of the NUT leadership and the Tories’ hysterical attacks, but the Labour Party leadership. Both Blair and Blunkett have participated in a media campaign against the idea of teachers’ action.
Only days before the NUT conference, David Blunkett put the blame for poor education on teachers rather than underfunding, when he introduced a scheme to close ‘bad’ schools and reopen them with changed staff. This provocative statement was just one more in a series of policy pronouncements from Labour that have accepted the Tory agenda for education.
There is a close relationship between the Labour Party and the NUT Executive. The Executive have tried to exclude from NUT policy any demands that exceed what a future Labour Government would be willing to concede. For instance, an Executive amendment to conference unsuccessfully tried to remove calls in a motion from Birmingham for the abolition of Grant Maintained Status, the return of opted-out schools to local democratic control, the abolition of Local Management of Schools and the ending of the charitable status of private schools as a first step towards their abolition.
This relationship — which will become increasingly important as we get closer to a General Election — was the focus for a well-publicised stunt organised by the SWP at NUT conference, when they cornered David Blunkett on his arrival at the conference. Ironically, the SWP are the people who have most frequently lectured others on the left about how the struggle is more important than what Labour politicians say!
Whilst we defend the SWP against witch-hunts, we also have to say that stunts like this are of little use. This particular one was a gift to the NUT right wing as well as for the Tories. We need a properly organised campaign to make the both the Labour Party and our bureaucracy accountable.
The NUT is not affiliated to the Labour Party, so no formal structures exist to regulate their links with the Labour bureaucracy. In coming year, however, there will be a ballot of NUT members over the setting up of a political fund. It is now increasingly important for the left to raise the issue of affiliation to the Labour Party.