Andrew Stone, secretary of Wandsworth NEU and a Sixth Form teacher in London, spoke to Counterfire’s Katherine Connelly about why teachers are taking strike action
What prompted the recent day’s strike action in some FE colleges?
This has been a long time coming, there’s been a long build up because we’ve been suffering cuts in the sector since 2010. The immediate prompt was a more generalised ballot within the NEU last year which, although it got a vote for action, it didn’t meet the required turnout to have official action. But within that vote it was clear that the turnout in Sixth Forms was stronger, reflecting a greater level of organisation within our sector. So, the union took the position to ballot the sixth form sector, with the view that hopefully this could work as a motor for inspiration and action more widely.
Broadly speaking the strike is about the fact that the government are not sufficiently funding the sector to meet the needs of the workforce and, by extension, our students. We’ve lost roughly a quarter of real-term funding since 2010. In terms of pay, it’s been a loss of 16%. This is more extreme even than the cuts to schools – which have been bad enough.
It started with the Coalition government, where there was a 75% cut in enrichment funding, there was the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, money that played a big part in helping working-class students to focus on their studies, so they didn’t need to take jobs while they were studying, so they didn’t drop out.
In 2013 there began a freeze to the rate of funding per student. There was also a shift away from funding per course to per student – which narrowed what colleges were able to offer and limited the potential to run different courses, as well as for students to change courses. Since 2013 funding has been frozen to £4,000 per student, and this has been cut for 3rd year students to £3,300 per student. This introduces a perverse disincentive to being an inclusive college, because the students who need that extra third year – because they had to take an extra year to get their level 2 qualifications, or because of extreme health issues, or because they were made homeless – these are the students who are being least well-funded under the current formula, despite the fact that they need the highest level of support.
A number of sixth form colleges have closed, merged or academized, and an increasing proportion are in increasingly poor financial health. We also have the ridiculous situation where non-academy state 6th form colleges pay VAT – unlike private schools – costing us hundreds of thousands of pounds per year. Why are private schools given charitable status while we’re taxed as businesses? Who makes a greater contribution to society?
There’s also a real crisis of recruitment and retention – and this is one reason why pay is so important, particularly in London where the cost of living is so high. Turnover is unprecedented, with people moving out of London, or out of the public sector to teach privately, or leaving teaching entirely – something like 10% each year leave teaching because it’s not sustainable. And that’s not in the interests of our students, increasing the number of inexperienced teachers, depriving them of the guidance and support they need. It also erodes the traditions that a trade union movement builds up over what’s acceptable. That’s why it’s been so good to get younger teachers out on strike, to give them a bit of confidence, that we don’t have to take whatever’s thrown at us, that we do have alternatives.
Having experienced austerity for over 9 years, many people are likely surprised to see the government making announcements about money for hospitals and schools. What do you think is behind these announcements?
I think they recognise that there is a degree of public awareness and discontent around austerity in the public sector. There was a study of voters in the 2017 general election which suggested that ¾ of a million votes were switched because of the NEU campaign around schools’ funding. And, although the NEU isn’t affiliated to Labour, its politics are more aligned that way, supporting the National Education Service and increased funding. Boris Johnson, in a desire to get himself a façade of a mandate, thought it would be a useful soundbite. But to be clear, what has been offered for sixth forms amounts to just £188 per student. This is about a quarter of what the ‘Raise the Rate’ campaign, which brings together a range of unions and post-16 providers, argues is necessary just to return to 2010 levels. And the pay offer for sixth form teachers is just 1.5% - up 0.5% since we announced our strike action, but well below the 2.75% offered to school teachers, which is itself insufficient. Three years ago we were moved to a system of performance-related pay – or rather, budget-related pay – with the carrot that it would entail harmonisation with school teacher rates. That pledge was broken the very next year, so you’ll forgive us some scepticism about the current promises of future windfalls.
What was the atmosphere like on the strike day?
It was really good, I think it’s been encouraging that it’s more than one day of action and that strike pay was being paid from the first day, which shows a degree of seriousness that convinces people that this is going to be more than a one day event. Over the past decade, we’ve been balloted a lot of times, but not always been asked to come out. So we had to push through a degree of wariness among some members about where this was going.
People are clearly fed up with where things are going in the sector and what it’s led to. The amount of courses has narrowed substantially. The cuts have been to the kind of courses that disproportionately affect working-class students – Dance, Drama, Film Studies – and that’s been frustrating.
When I first started teaching, we had timetabled enrichment and an enrichment co-ordinator. Now that’s gone, so providing what should be a cultural and educational entitlement is dependent on teachers going above and beyond. And the overall workload, created by the so-called “natural wastage” of voluntary and in some cases compulsory redundancies, has increased so that most people struggle just to do the basic work required of them in the working week. This has seen a big number of teachers going down to 3 or 4 days a week – and in effect having a 20-40% pay cut, even before you factor in the pay erosion – just to have a work-life balance.
Lots of school students are getting involved in political activity at the moment. What’s been the response of school students?
We’ve had a positive reaction, so on the strike days we had a lively picket with the teachers out and we leafleted all the students who came in. (Though some NEU-dominated colleges were closed to students, in others some classes ran because NASUWT members were not on strike. Unfortunately their union leadership didn’t take up the call for a united national campaign). It was very clear that students supported the fight for better funding, they know about the very large class sizes and the problems. Some of those students have been taking action themselves in the climate strikes and with Extinction Rebellion, and they can see some of the connections. Some colleges did, in fact, have a curriculum strike on the day of the climate strike, where teachers suspended the curriculum that they would have taught that day and changed it to discuss climate change.
There are potentially more strike dates coming up, how can we best show solidarity with your struggle?
There are two more strikes scheduled for the 5th and 20th November. 25 colleges met the turnout threshold in the first round of balloting and 23 took action this week (2 were on half term). 16 extra colleges, whose turnout was close to 50%, are being re-balloted, so we hope they’ll join us on the 5th.
There is some discussion to be had about the format because of GCSE re-sits. Now, some of your readers might be thinking: these are colleges, what do GCSEs matter? But now there is a legal requirement for students who don’t get a Grade 4 (equivalent to a C) in Maths and English to retake those. So this creates a big financial pressure on colleges that tend to be more inclusive than school sixth forms, especially academy sixth forms, as there are hundreds of students who need to retake once, twice or three times. Most NEU members are teachers and teachers shouldn’t be invigilating, but there are still issues to work around with support staff and questions about how to picket on the day because of concerns about worrying students. It’s difficult because we want the action to be successful.
In terms of what you can do to show support: make contact with your local Sixth Form, invite an NEU speaker to your union branch meeting at work, or to a campaign meeting. If there are picket lines arranged, go and visit them and email in your messages of support.
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