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In spite of attempts by the government to say otherwise, this week’s national strike by the NUT was a huge display of strength.
Not only was there a fantastic response from teachers across the country but the NUT clearly won over a huge proportion of parents and the public.
Part of this is to do with the fact that we won the arguments with government in the media. Interview after interview showed the NUT come out positively in the face of government intransigence.
But this itself is due in large part to the fact that we picked the right ground from which to fight.
For possibly the first time in this long-running dispute, we managed to successfully broaden our message from pay, pensions and conditions and to link it with the quality of education.
This is not to say we haven’t tried to do so before. We have always made the link between pay and pensions and the recruitment and retention of teachers.
More specifically, on pensions, we have argued that forcing teachers to work to 68 will have a real impact on children’s education.
But previously there has been a large section of the population who have dismissed this as simply dressing up teachers’ demands in educational clothing. No-one could have made this accusation this week.
So what were the defining differences in approach?
Well, the focus on workload helped. The NUT ran a successful campaign to force the government to publish its 2013 workload survey.
The results were impossible to ignore. When the government’s own figures show secondary teachers working an average of 56 hours a week, and primary teachers an average of 60 hours, the ground on which they can attack us is significantly narrowed, especially since both figures are up from an average of 50 hours when this government took power.
This was a great tactical move by the NUT, but it cannot wholly account for the shift in attitudes.
The key difference is of course the Stand Up for Education campaign, launched by the union in the weeks running up to the strike.
Obviously, the campaign is separate from our industrial action. We could not legally take action over questions such as a child’s right to be taught by a qualified teacher due to Britain’s restrictive anti-trade union legislation.
But we know that the threat this government poses to children’s education motivates many more teachers, parents and others than concerns over pay and pensions.
And when it comes to pay and pensions, it is the damage that a deregulated education system will do that is forefront in teachers’ minds, not narrow financial concerns.
The power of these issues to bring people together is easy to understand when you apply the framework of mobilisation theory to them.
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.
But it is not just the mobilising power of this campaign which makes a difference. It is the fact that it addresses the core of the government’s programme in a way that a campaign on one aspect, such as pay or pensions, does not.
The dominant trend in education — which has been 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 purpose of education would be to attract consumers 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 simply a British phenomenon. On May 24, the NUT will be hosting an international conference with academics and activists from five different continents to discuss developing resistance to Germ.
This will be a hugely important conference in sharing international experience of the drive to privatisation and building an understanding of Germ among our activist base.
Neither is it a recent phenomenon. The DfE referred to schooling as being the creation of human capital as early as 1996, under John Major’s government. The academies programme was created by new Labour.
The key steps towards marketisation were made in the 1988 Education Reform Act under the Thatcher government.
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. It will also mean expanding the campaign on other fronts.
First, building on the five key demands of the Stand Up for Education campaign, but then also looking at key issues like accountability which are used by the right to force change. We have a potential opening on the question of accountability with the recent criticism of Ofsted and the scrapping of A-levels.
But we also know, given where those moves come from, that the intention is not to replace the current accountability system with something more conducive to the development of a broad and balanced education.
We must ensure that we have a clear approach to accountability, drawn from our broader approach to education, around which we can begin to build wide support both among teaching unions and teachers and among 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 would be an opportunity to build further support for our vision of education and to pressure political parties to adopt, or respond to, our proposals.
However, there is one other important aspect of mobilisation theory and that is the existence of local leaders who can give cohesion to a group and begin to build a movement.
We have a great opportunity, building on the success of this strike, and of the Stand Up for Education campaign so far, to start to recruit these local leaders among our members and in the wider community.
There is real enthusiasm and engagement around this campaign. We now need to make that sustainable.
I hope that local activists will continue to build the Stand Up for Education campaign with the same energy we did in the run-up to the strike and that the national union will support them to do this.
Over the coming weeks and months, this campaign needs to develop a coherence and deeper roots in local communities and we can all play a part in that.
Gawain Little is a member of the NUT national executive
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