Education generally and the teaching profession specifically are at the forefront of government attacks. But, writes Martin Copson, teachers are fighting back

Teachers protest

The 20 October national anti-cuts demonstration saw a record number of teachers carrying placards and banners specifically attacking Tory education secretary Michael Gove. The staffrooms are more political than they have been for years. This is understandable, as teachers have seen systematic attacks on their working conditions, the denigration of their professionalism and threats of more attacks on pay and conditions since the current coalition government was formed in May 2010.

The removal of the requirement for qualified teacher status in academies and free schools sits uneasily with the rhetoric about recruiting top graduates into the profession. This week saw Gove announce that he, completely unnecessarily, wants to raise the qualifications of trainee teachers from a minimum of grade C in GCSE Maths and English to a grade B. This is nothing more than another attempt to point the finger at ‘failing teachers’ – a theme that was dutifully pursued by John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today programme.

But while Gove claims he wants ‘aspirational and competitive teachers’, academies and Free Schools can employ teachers that are completely unqualified. The opportunity to employ teachers without QTS and to opt out of national pay will also make academies more attractive to the privateer vultures already circling the education system.

Pressure and competition

The new Ofsted framework ,which replaces the ‘satisfactory’ grading with ‘requires improvement’, is a cynical ploy to force even more schools to convert to academies and embrace the freedom to pay their teachers ever lower wages to gain a competitive advantage.

The threat of Ofsted’s punitive prying is causing increasing numbers of head teachers to put unacceptable pressure on teachers. In many schools workload is rising to breaking point. Sickness through stress is an all too common occurrence in schools across the country. What should be a rewarding, creative and exciting profession can become a nightmare for some teachers.

In response to this the teachers’ union NASUWT has been engaged in ‘action short of strike action’ since December 2011. The initial phase of the action was concerned with ensuring that schools were adhering to their contractual obligations and empowered members to escalate the action where this was not the case. This phase saw an increase in members’ awareness of their entitlements and yielded some successes.

The last month has seen the NUT coming on board and following a ‘work to rule.’ This means that 85% of all teachers are now engaged in joint action by the NUT and NASUWT.

Reclaiming teacher professionalism

Importantly, this action is not about teachers having an easy life but about them being able to concentrate on the core roles of preparing, teaching and assessing. The joint action instructions have pushed beyond defending the contract to asserting the conditions that members expect and demanding a positive life-work balance. This can become an important step when it puts teachers in conflict with their management and challenges their ‘right to manage’.

We have recently seen management forced to backtrack on an excessive and punitive programme of observations at a school in Doncaster after strike action was threatened. We are also seeing new activists emerge as the action is beginning to have an impact, particularly among younger female teachers who see the importance of collective action and solidarity. This is a real sign of hope.

The problem with this kind of action, however, is that is reliant on the strength of members in individual schools – and the local branch to coordinate the action – so it is inevitably patchy in terms of its effectiveness. We need to broadcast the positive effects, for both staff and pupils, of standing together and asserting teachers’ professionalism. This can form the basis of a movement within schools across the country that puts pressure on head teachers and therefore back onto Michael Gove.

This can give teachers the confidence to fight – including through co-ordinated strike action – against future attacks. It is key that this action feeds into a wider campaign that brings together activists from across the education sectors to defend the principle of a national, comprehensive and progressive education system.

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