"We will strike to save education"


PARENTS, TEACHERS and school students have united to fight New Labour's cuts and closures, such as this protest to save Birkdale School in Dewsbury at the end of last year

ALL THE bitterness and disappointment at two years of New Labour welled up at teachers' union conferences which have taken place over the past week. Teachers slammed education ministers, rejected the government's proposals to bring in performance related pay and voted for industrial action.

Education secretary David Blunkett received an immensely hostile reaction from delegates of the largest teachers' union in England and Wales, the National Union of Teachers. Teachers passed unanimously a motion calling for a ballot for industrial action, including strikes, against his new pay scheme. Blunkett struggled to get a five second smattering of applause from about 10 percent of the audience. The opposition to Blunkett and New Labour, particularly over performance related pay, went way beyond the established left in the NUT.

Teachers who gave Blunkett a standing ovation just 12 months ago were furious at what he had to say this year. Blunkett claimed the government was "fully consulting teachers over performance related pay". But he started his speech by abusing the teachers for being "negative". Speaker after speaker from the conference floor pointed to a positive vision of properly funded comprehensive education and a desire for a collective, caring society.

Sarah Catterall from Merton, south London, was speaking about how primary school children learn to read when Blunkett entered the hall. She won cheers for an inspirational speech which defended a "broad and balanced" education for children against "the narrow and prescriptive approach of the government's literacy hour which puts children in sets". Blunkett attacked her. The gap between a view of education which puts the needs of working class children at its centre and one driven by scapegoating and market forces could not be plainer.

There was a deep sense in the conference that something was fundamentally wrong with society. Many delegates applauded Andy North, a physics teacher from Birmingham, when he said, "My school and every other school I know lack basic equipment. I do not have a laser in my department, which is needed to teach children about key ideas in physics. But there are billions of pounds available for the laser guided bombs which are pounding the Balkans."

Union forced to act

THE NUT conference reflected the scale of opposition from all teachers to the government's proposals. That pressure has led NUT leaders to sanction industrial action. Delegates voted for a motion from the union's leaders calling for a ballot after the Easter holiday to boycott appraisal of teachers by their managers. The ongoing appraisal of teachers is central to the performance related pay scheme. Delegates also backed the call for a ballot for a one day strike in the summer term.

Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the NUT, is desperate to avoid a gloves off fight with the government. He berated conference delegates for not applauding Blunkett and called for a "dialogue with the government" over its pay plans. Blunkett responded by telling journalists, but not the conference delegates or McAvoy, that the only dialogue he was offering was "over the technical proposals for implementing the scheme. The principle of performance related pay is non-negotiable."

Delegates at the NASUWT union conference this week gave education minister Estelle Morris a rough ride. They were unimpressed by a tiny concession from the government over the timing of the appraisal system.

'Children are not robots'

"IF WE, a traditionally moderate union, are prepared to consider industrial action, then the government should be worried." That is what Swindon teacher Phil Baker told the conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Harrogate last week. The ATL is the third largest teaching union in England and Wales. It has previously sought to attract members by saying it was less likely to take industrial action than the NUT. But its conference last week backed overwhelmingly a call to oppose performance related pay with a "ballot for industrial action" if necessary. That is an indication of the depth of opposition among teachers to the government's plans.

Education secretary David Blunkett made a highly conciliatory speech at the conference. But delegates were unimpressed. Blunkett received the coolest response of any politician to speak at the ATL in the last ten years. Delegates shook their heads in anger and disbelief as Blunkett failed to answer their questions. ATL general secretary Peter Smith's call for a delay in introducing the scheme was rebuffed. He predicted that "would considerably raise the stakes of protest".

Sarah Fryer from Buckinghamshire told the conference, "I have been teaching for two years, but I'm going to be leaving at the end of this year." She said, "I came into teaching because I care. But the constant pressure of league tables and the threat of performance related pay mean I haven't got time to care." She was bitter about the way comprehensive education has been undermined. "Children are not robots. If taking a ballot for industrial action is the only way, then so be it," she said.

Delegates attacked nearly every New Labour policy on schools. Anger surfaced in a debate on workload where delegates also voted overwhelmingly for a ballot for industrial action. Barbara Windor from Blackburn called for a halt to privatisation which has already created chaos in FE colleges over the last six years. David Gillman from Brent, north west London, slammed the reintroduction of selection in inner city areas. "The idea of creaming off the top 10 percent sticks in my throat. Just think what we could do with the £350 million the government is offering for that if it was spent on all children," he said.

Some delegates also pointed to a different vision of education from the mechanical one New Labour believes in. Two music teachers spoke inspiringly of how creative subjects, which have been all but squeezed out by cuts, lifted the confidence of children and led to greater achievement in other subjects as well.

Destroying comprehensive ideal

PERFORMANCE RELATED pay is about dismantling comprehensive education and extending the market in schools. It will destroy the teamworking on which education depends as teachers vie with one another for a bonus. The government wants to link pay for teachers to their pupils' results and headteachers' opinions. It will lead to a desperate scramble among teachers to concentrate only on those children who stand the best chance of getting good grades.

The pay proposals are of a piece with the further selection for inner city schools Labour announced last month and the way all schools are forced to bid for resources. The government's pay plans mean every teacher's pay will be linked to exam results and "appraisal". Only a select few will get some extra money in exchange for longer hours and more stress. The government could spend the £1 billion it has set aside for the scheme on a £2,000 pay increase for every teacher this year. That would go a long way to solving the worst teacher recruitment crisis for 20 years. Instead Blunkett is threatening to withdraw that money unless he gets his way.

Mostyn Philips, a leading "moderate" figure on the NUT's executive committee, described performance related pay as "the greatest threat to teachers and education in my lifetime". He told the conference, "We are prepared to go to the barricades over any link between appraisal and pay."