by Gawain Little writing in Unity! published for NUT conference delegates
In spite of attempts by the government to say otherwise, last month’s national strike by the National Union of Teachers was a huge display of strength. Not only was there a fantastic response from teachers across the country but we clearly won over a huge proportion of parents and the public.
Partly because we won the arguments in the media. In interview after interview, the NUT come out positively in the face of government intransigence. But also because we picked the right ground. For possibly the first time in this longrunning dispute, we successfully made the link between the quality of education and pay, pensions and conditions.
The Stand Up for Education campaign, launched in the run up to the strike, was an important factor. Obviously, the campaign was separate from our industrial action as, due to Britain’s restrictive anti-trade union legislation, we cannot take action over questions like a child’s right to be taught by a qualified teacher. But we know that the threat this government poses to children’s education motivates many more teachers, parents and others than do concerns over pay and pensions.
The power of these issues to bring people together is easy to understand within the framework of mobilisation theory. Central to encouraging collective action is an attributable injustice and an organisation to challenge that injustice with a reasonable prospect of having an impact. This is clearly all there.
The importance of this campaigning is not just its mobilising power but the way in which it addresses the core of the government’s programme in a way that a campaign around a single issue, such as pay or pensions, does not.
The dominant trend in education – referred to as the Global Education Reform Movement or GERM – is towards a deregulated, privatised, for-profit, state funded education system. Schools operating as businesses, accountable to no one but their shareholders, would hire whoever they want, regardless of experience or qualification, to provide a commercial service paid for by the state. The only regulator would be the market and consumer choice. The sole purpose to attract consumers is so as to draw in income, cut costs in order to maximise profits and to meet the narrow needs of the labour market by providing ‘human capital’ for the economy.
This is not only a British enterprise. On 24 May, the NUT will be hosting an international conference with academics and activists from five different continents to discuss how to develop resistance to GERM. It will be important to start to share international experiences and build an understanding of GERM amongst our activist base.
And it’s been tried before in different ways. The key moves towards marketisation go back to Thatcher’s 1988 Education Reform Act. In 1996, the DfE referred to schooling as being the creation of human capital. The academies programme was created by New Labour.
This is why a focus on the quality of education, and its purpose in the 21st Century, is such a powerful argument – because it is the core of the question. If we are able to build our campaigns against pension cuts, pay deregulation and excessive workload in this context – with an understanding of what the end product of these processes looks like – we are much better equipped to win.
And this means expanding the campaign on other fronts: the five key demands in Stand Up for Education and other key issues, like accountability, which are used to force change and around which we can begin to build wide support both amongst teacher unions and teachers, and amongst parents and policy-makers.
There is the potential for many of these ideas to be drawn together into a national education conference on Education in the Next Parliament to be held before the 2015 General Election. This could develop wider support for our vision of education and pressure political parties to adopt, or respond to, our proposals.
An important aspect of mobilisation theory is the local leader who can give cohesion to a group and begin to build a movement. There is now a great opportunity, building on our successes, to start to recruit these local leaders and sustain all our campaigning.
I hope local activists will continue to build the campaign with the same energy as they did in the run up to the strike and that, nationally, the NUT will support them. Over the coming months, we need to develop a coherence and deeper roots in local communities and we can all play a part in this.
Gawain Little is a member of the NUT National Executive.