Issue 252 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

The Walrus

Teachers unions 'get on' shock

Teach shortages and a recent victory in Soctland are fuelling a new militancy

Something very odd appears to have been going on in staffrooms over the past few years. For probably the first time in living memory, leaders of all three schoolteachers' unions appear to have decided against rolling about in the playground together over the Easter weekend, and instead have gone all happy-clappy. Even the lecturers in the AUT have been making friendly noises and the usually woebegone tone of the Guardian was lifted for once with a major feature proclaiming a new found unity that promised 'something to make teachers celebrate and governments tremble'.

Given the long and tiresome history of animosity between leaders of the NUT, ATL and NASUWT, it would not be difficult to regard this apparent transformation with some scepticism. With the likes of Difficult Doug McAvoy and Grumpy de Gruchy involved, classroom harmony is never guaranteed. Given their record, it is all too easy to regard these latest moves with nothing but cynicism. But that would be to entirely miss the point that the new cooperative mood has a genuine foundation in the fight to overcome teacher shortages and soul destroying workloads.

A number of different factors can be seen to have fed into this change in the general approach. Probably top of the list is that it simply took far too long before New Labour started to show any real sign of freeing up anything like the resources required to fulfill its election commitment to 'education, education, education'. On the one hand, it could not avoid the reality that two decades of Thatcherism had reduced much of the educational infrastructure to the verge of ruin, and much of the teaching profession to the verge of a collective nervous breakdown. On the other hand, there was no way they were going to be seen as a public sector soft touch either, least of all by tightwad Gordon and his Treasury lickpennies.

Hence David Blunkett's appalling pre conference season admission that there has been no improvement at all in secondary school sizes since the election, and that the picture in junior schools is not much better. Class sizes in state secondary schools in the UK remain by far the highest in Europe, and are more than three times the average (of ten pupils) which is normal in most independent and public schools.

The government thought that it could get away with simply bumping up the image of the profession through glossy adverts without seriously addressing the underlying problems. Instead they have simply multiplied. One symptom of this in England over the past few months has been a series of thumping votes in favour of industrial action over teacher shortages, first of all in London then in other parts of the country. Heads of some schools have been warning that they might need to shut down for one or two days a week if they can't find ways of filling all the teaching posts.

Very often an attempt is made to play down the extent of these problems, mainly on the grounds that cost of living pressures in London or in booming sectors of the economy are not typical of the rest of the country or other industries. The trouble with this argument is that it ignores the knock-on effects these local or sectoral distortions can have on the rest of the labour market. The most obvious and blatant example of how this works is to watch the way that salaries for university chancellors or top brass in the health service have soared in an attempt to keep up with their private sector fat cat counterparts.

For ordinary employees, any such comparisons are frowned upon. Nevertheless, in the past few months, the government has been forced to make a whole series of concessions to public sector workers on pay and other allowances, in a desperate attempt to halt a wholesale exodus of key workers from parts of the public sector and attract new recruits. There's not much chance of success with either if the jobs are known to be comparatively grim and the money poxy.

In teaching the first serious official acknowledgement of the need for a more radical response came last year in the form of an independent inquiry into teachers' pay in Scotland conducted by Professor Gavin McCrone. Among other things, the final report of this inquiry argued for a major uplift on teachers' pay, shorter hours and a phased reduction in class contact time. Unusually, its findings were actually implemented by the Scottish Executive, and teachers' pay now will go up by at least 23 percent over the next three years, depending on grade.

Scottish teachers have strenuously opposed other elements of the McCrone report which effectively increase the workload through the back door. The way they see it, McCrone would only be getting about two or three out of ten for his work. But the teachers' unions in England are not paying much attention to the small print. All they can see is that, after years of getting nearer to zilch, the Scottish deal looks lovely.

Never ones to leap in when they're unlikely to come out looking anything other than a winner, leaders of the teaching unions not only have the precedent of the Scottish teachers' deal to go by. Blunkett is on the defensive because of the series of recent announcements he has been forced to make, such as the introduction of 'golden hellos' of up to 4,000 for teachers in shortage subjects and a 30 percent increase in the London allowance to 3,000 a year. So for once they are probably not just looking for excuses when they say they have called off the previous 'no-cover' campaign in order to pursue a joint effort over McCrone.

Ironically the person possibly most responsible for this sudden outbreak of leniency on public sector pay is the home secretary, Jack Straw. In a characteristically brilliant attempt to silence Ann Widdecombe on the issue of 'fewer coppers on the beat', he proclaimed a doubling of the London allowance for grossly overpaid and underworked Metropolitan Police officers to 6,000 a year. The immediate result was that forces in Essex, Kent and Surrey put in for exactly the same. More to the point, the same demand has subsequently filtered through to the teachers' conferences as well.

The issue of public sector pay has become politicised during the pre-election Punch and Judy. It has created an opening which needs to be taken full advantage of once the election is out of the way. Contrary to the views of some leading academic miserablists, who deny the very existence of collective bargaining in the public sector, the membership currently claimed for all the teaching unions stacks up to 811,989 (including the PAT, NAHT and SHA, admittedly, but excluding the EIS of Scotland).

The Walrus

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