Attacks on comprehensive education

Fury at Blunkett's mad market reforms

by Kevin Ovenden

NEW LABOUR wants to destroy the cooperative culture in schools

THE GOVERNMENT is hell bent on confronting teachers and completing the destruction of comprehensive education which began under the Tories. It is heading towards its first national battle with a group of public sector workers after all three teachers' union conferences in England and Wales voted over Easter to consider industrial action. The largest, the National Union of Teachers, is to begin balloting its 190,000 members for industrial action as soon as the summer term begins.

If teachers are forced to take action to defend themselves and their pupils, the blame for any disruption in schools will lie with Tony Blair and his education ministers. Education secretary David Blunkett and his junior minister Estelle Morris tried to make conciliatory noises at the conferences of the ATL, NUT and NASUWT unions. But their bottom line was unmistakable—the key principles of New Labour's performance related pay plan for teachers are "non-negotiable". This is despite a record 30,000 overwhelmingly critical responses to the government's scheme in an official consultation exercise.

Blunkett is ignoring the depth of opposition to performance related pay because the scheme is at the heart of New Labour's vision of education. It completes the market revolution in schools. Performance related pay sets teacher against teacher, breaking up teamwork and shattering the collective culture which Blunkett says he wants to destroy. It builds on the competition between pupils and schools enshrined in permanent testing, league tables, schools having their own budgets and competing for pupils. The Economist magazine, which applauds the free market, summed it up last week: "Mr Blunkett's education reforms may provoke the first real confrontation between New Labour and the public sector. "Britain's education reforms are best understood as a concerted attack on the mushier version of the 'comprehensive ideal' of the 1960s and 1970s. The introduction of performance related pay for teachers is part of this trend."

The market and big business are so central to New Labour thinking that education ministers have only offered the tiniest of concessions to teachers over performance related pay. Estelle Morris told the NASUWT conference in Eastbourne last week that a new appraisal system for teachers, on which performance related pay depends, would now be fully introduced in September of next year—a year later than planned. But she also said there would be no delay in the new pay scheme itself which is also due to start next September. Crucially, she said the government still intended to link teachers' pay to their pupils' performance, despite the objections of the vast majority of teachers and most governors and local education authorities.

NASUWT delegates were unimpressed. One teacher described it as "this olive twiglet rather than olive branch". The general secretary of the NASUWT, Nigel de Gruchy, tried to talk up the concession. He claimed that the government's green paper on teachers' pay "provided an opportunity for the union to win a new pay structure which will benefit teachers". He made side swipes at the leaders of the other two unions who have more firmly opposed performance related pay. But he was unable to rule out industrial action.

NASUWT leaders moved a motion which "authorised the national executive to conduct ballots with a view to taking necessary and appropriate action" if the government "imposed unacceptable measures". Every delegate, as opposed to executive member, who spoke to the motion emphasised the need to take action against the government's scheme. David Reed from Dover said, "I have urged restraint on the last three occasions action has been discussed, but not now." Eileen Mann slammed performance related pay as "a piecework scheme which is more at home in the 19th century".

Dave Wilkinson from Derby moved an amendment which was more clearly critical of the green paper. Most delegates did not have the confidence to vote for that. But the discussion afterwards showed most oppose the government's plan as a whole and would like to see the NASUWT taking action along with the NUT and ATL unions.

Experiments on poor kids

TEACHERS AT the NUT and NASUWT conferences also slammed other pro-market, anti-comprehensive education polices. The NUT conference voted to oppose New Labour's Education Action Zones, in which private companies are given a say in running schools. The government has invited 100 bids for new EAZs and insists they all push elements of performance related pay.

The union's leaders wanted to stop short of total opposition, piling in half a dozen speakers to try and water down the policy. They argued that the government was too strong for the union to confront it over EAZs. They claimed the only thing the union could do was try to defend teachers' pay and conditions on a case by case basis. Karla Bohn from Essex won cheers when she argued, "Let's realise who the enemy is. This is not a government that cares about education for working class people. We do. We've got to defend it. We've got to have total opposition to EAZs."

Peter Flack from Leicester said, "We oppose opt out schools on principle, but still defend teachers' conditions within them. We should not accept the government 'experimenting' with the education of children in the most deprived areas." Delegates then narrowly defeated the union's leaders on a card vote.

NUT delegates also voted for strike action to defend teachers who are sacked in so called fresh start schools. These are schools which are shut after being failed by inspectors and then reopened under a new name with attacks on teachers' pay and conditions, and on the curriculum offered to children. The NASUWT conference voted for action in those areas of the country like East Sussex where local education authorities, governors or EAZs were imposing a five term school year. Delegates also condemned the enormous increase in workload the government's literacy hour has brought in primary schools.

NASUWT leaders did their best to whip delegates into a lather about "disruptive pupils". Unfortunately many delegates did echo this scapegoating of what are usually the most vulnerable children in society. But there were far less calls by NASUWT members for more children to be permanently excluded from school than at previous conferences. And the most strident voices came from the union's leaders who clearly wanted to use the issue cynically to divert teachers' anger at education attacks away from a fight with the government.

what we think

EVERYONE should get behind the teachers. The stakes are very high. New Labour is fighting on three fronts. It wants to take on teachers to prove to papers like the Daily Mail and Sun that it now occupies the political ground the Tories used to. New Labour wants to break a group of well organised public sector workers—teachers—to intimidate others from resisting government attacks. Above all New Labour is fighting an ideological war against the hopes for a collective, more equal society which comprehensive education embodies.

But the government can be beaten. Despite years of teacher bashing from politicians and the media, most parents believe teachers are doing a good job. Education ministers are going to the wall to defend arch teacher basher Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools. David Blunkett denounced the revelations by Woodhead's ex-wife that her former husband had an affair with one of his sixth form pupils in the 1970s as a "vile" revenge campaign. But this latest scandal surrounding Woodhead has led even more parents to see him as an arrogant bully.

The government fears united resistance by teachers and their unions. Teachers need to organise opposition to the government's plans in schools and among parents now.