Michael Gove is preparing for class war in the classroom. A briefing to last week’s Sunday Times said that the Department for Education was on a ‘war footing.’
The war he is preparing to fight is against the teachers’ unions, and victory for Gove will mean the complete deregulation of education and the increased privatisation of schools, with both teachers’ pay and the school curriculum decided by business considerations rather than educational ones.
There are three key issues to address. Firstly Gove wants to atomise teachers and weaken unions by introducing performance related pay, which was announced in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement. He wants teachers to be too afraid of failure to fight back, and to encourage a Stakhanovite minority to seek promotion by going beyond their contract. As the Sunday Times article revealed:
“Gove sees the change [in pay] as central to improving state education and beating union opponents of reforms.”
Teachers will not automatically progress up the pay spine on a yearly basis, nor will they be guaranteed to maintain their salary if they move between schools. Privatization demands fluidity in teachers’ salaries and any ideological opponents to his reforms can be attacked using pay blackmail. Gove recognizes that the teaching unions are the main obstacle to privatization as they continue to defend nationally agreed pay bargaining, and the professional teachers’ contract.
This leads to the second issue, which is how Gove intends to achieve his goal. The NUT and NASUWT have been engaged in a work to rule since the start of December and this has proved to be successful, drawing in young Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) and especially women.
Gove has written to all head teachers telling them to get tough with any teachers taking industrial action.
This is not without its own difficulties though. Many head teachers are very concerned about Gove’s ideological attacks, and this includes privatization. They do not want to be at war with their own staff as this is bound to damage children’s education by undermining the caring ethos schools seek to promote. The dilemma has been described well by John Tomsett, a York head teacher who writes a blog on education:
"There is a huge fork in the road for Headteachers: one route leads to executive headship and the other back into the classroom, teaching, coaching, mentoring, supporting, being the Headteacher."
Gove wants to give head teachers ‘executive pay’ in return for driving through his ‘reforms’. As ever, in austerity Britain the highest salary is given to those who impose cuts, but even that does not guarantee that head teachers will agree with implementing Gove’s business driven policies.
The third issue to address is what we do about it. Gove is clearly attempting a counter-revolution in education, but judging by the response from the teachers’ unions you would never know it. The NUT responded to Gove’s proposals defensively by saying that standards in British schools were rising and Gove’s ‘comments’ were unnecessary. A slightly more appropriate call came from Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, who said:
"The real reason the secretary of state has issued this advice to schools is that, despite the attacks he has mounted on the teaching profession, our action is empowering teachers as professionals."
She is right but this falls short of any attempt at formulating a winning strategy. The best Labour’s education spokesman Stephen Twigg could do was to bleat that Gove was “playing politics” with education, while criticising teachers for their action.
Gove is confident that he can win by smearing teaching unions as a bunch of selfish Lefties, and claim that he is out to improve the quality of education by marginalizing union influence. The propaganda war against state education is ongoing and is often assisted by the media generally and the BBC in particular. It really is a measure of the weakness of the Left in Britain that they cannot come together to counter the ideology that Gove bases his attacks on. A comment by a prominent London teacher on Howard Stevenson’s education blog sums up the prevailing attitude:
“I do get fed up of people saying that the Tories are “ideological”! That’s like saying water is wet or sand dry! All politicians are ideological... The unions and the very principle and practices of public life and public services are anathema to the market fundamentalists.”
So should we just continue being stubbornly trade unionist in the hope that the ‘market fundamentalists’ will leave us alone? The truth is that the unions are not winning the ideological war with Gove, and a sectional and unimaginative trade union campaign is unlikely to change things. The current work to rule by the NUT and NASUWT is taking place because both unions feel their members are not willing to take strike action. Nobody is organizing to counter the free market drivel that the attacks are premised on. Gove wants to wage ideological warfare on education and teachers’ unions and the Left are not prepared to fight it out. The pipsqueak Gove smells the blood of the trade union dragon!! Ridiculous!
The Left in the teachers’ unions should come together to fight on education; prepare a manifesto based on the principles and philosophy that teachers, students and parents can sign up to; and fight to change the growing consensus that school privatisation is happening because state schools are failing. The evidence for the government being the main cause of failure is revealed by the plummeting number of applications to study at university. Our kids are being thrown on the scrapheap and our cause will win touch every family hit by the cuts. To fight for education on a general political level will raise the fight above the cautious legalistic trade union approach, and could well be the centrepiece for a general fight back against the Tories. That is the best education we could deliver.
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