On Tuesday teachers across the country were on strike. There were national and regional demos, and a migrant solidarity direct action on Westminster Bridge linking education and anti-racist struggles. The strike was called over the Government’s consistent squeezing of education funding in the context of increased monitoring and higher expectations on teachers, with 91.7% of voting members supporting the action. Teachers are also concerned because it appears that, despite the Tories’ professed u-turn on forced academisation, most or all schools will be made academies by 2020. Education is being put under extreme pressure at the school level, as it is in Higher Education (HE) and Further Education (FE). As Adam Robertson put it in his piece for Novara:
As the idea of an education system staffed by fully-trained subject specialists teaching manageable class sizes hangs by a thread, and a large portion of the teaching profession stands on the brink of a physical and mental breakdown, the Conservatives have decided to freeze education funding in cash terms. This means a real terms cut over the next few years of as much as 8%. Something will give.
It is more important than ever that struggles across different education sectors, and indeed across society as a whole, are linked by bonds of solidarity and by a recognition of common problems and common enemies. In light of that, two members of Warwick For Free Education (WFFE) travelled to Northampton to support picket lines and address a public meeting.
In Northampton, we’re seeing the kind of connections that need to be made. Lecturers with the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) used their local day of strike action to walk off the job on the same day as the National Union of Teachers (NUT) strike. Arriving at the picket outside Northampton University it was good to see UCU members with banners, placards, and t-shirts alongside teachers with their NUT flags and badges. At about 12 we set off to march through the streets to the Northampton Workingmen’s Club where there would be a public meeting.
The meeting was well-attended by both NUT and UCU members. The panel discussion kicked off with statements of solidarity sent by the junior doctors and a US teachers’ union. NUT and UCU reps spoke about the attacks and problems in their respective sectors and the need for concerted and escalating strike action beyond symbolic protest strikes. Next, WFFE member Connor Woodman spoke on behalf of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). He talked about some of the successes we’ve had at Warwick – the defeat of Teach Higher, greater transparency and awareness around the racist Prevent agenda, and some partial victories in getting management to oppose cuts and reforms in HE. Connor’s speech highlighted the successes that have emerged from cooperation between WFFE and UCU on campus, and how students and workers have different capacities and strategic positions within the university that complement and strengthen each other. He ended by talking about the national picture, and NCAFC’s call – now official National Union of Students (NUS) policy – to engage in a sabotage of the National Student Survey as a tool to fight the HE reforms.
The panel finished with an inspiring and moving speech by a newly qualified teacher. She spoke of the overwork and poor conditions within the teaching profession, of earning less now per hour than when she worked in a supermarket, and of having to buy her own classroom materials to supplement diminished school budgets. In this context, it is unsurprising that there is a crisis in the recruitment of teachers and qualified teachers are leaving the sector in droves. As with junior doctors and university lecturers, most teachers are there because they genuinely care about the wellbeing and development of their students; this commitment – and an unwillingness to ‘let pupils down’ by working to their actual contracts or striking for prolonged periods – can be exploited by unscrupulous bosses and austerity-obsessed governments. In my opinion this is why initiatives broadening out beyond the withdrawal of one’s own labour are needed to supplement and strengthen strikes – for example, the Picket the Profiteers initiative which has seen striking doctors joining with other patients, students and workers to directly target private companies that profit from NHS cuts and marketization.
The feeling in the room was that confidence needed to be built to increase turnout in future strikes, strike action needed to escalate, and the union leaderships needed to be more militant. We were emboldened when someone relayed the news that junior doctors had voted to reject the new contract, opening the door to another round of strikes and new opportunities to build links and apply pressure to a government and ruling party in disarray.
Solidarity with all teachers, parents, and pupils fighting for a properly funded, publicly controlled school system. Victory to the NUT!