Rallying To The Cause

The number of protestors who were present in Leazes Park on Saturday morning, looked Time4Changequite impressive to me. Whilst only a fraction of the 48 000 Newcastle United fans who attended the match against Liverpool an hour or so later, it did perhaps show some of the strength of feeling against the Ashley regime. Protest marches and rallies rarely attract more than a fraction of the people who actually support a cause. That said, it is often claimed, with some justification, that football fans are very fickle and the encouraging performance and plucky draw with Liverpool, might have persuaded some fans that Ashley is doing a good job. However the point of the protest seemed to be that a much longer-term view should be taken and a good result here and there, whilst always very welcome, will not persuade me that the real potential of the club is being realised at present.


There was of course another rally in the North East last week, in the beautiful cathedral city of Durham. Members of the two main teaching unions, the NUT and the NAS/UWT turned out in force to march through the city centre to the Durham University Students’ Union, where the building was so full that many had to stand outside and listen to the speeches in the pleasant Autumn sunshine. So why were the teachers so angry as to be on strike in the first place and be willing to lose a day’s pay?


In some respects, I am reminded of James Dean in the film Rebel Without a Cause, when Dean is asked, “what are you rebelling against?”, he replies, “what have you got?”  There are so many things wrong with government education policy, it is indeed difficult to know where to start. However, one thing needs to be made clear; teachers are far from rebels without a cause, so in an attempt to summarise some of the reasons why they are so angry, here goes….


As with many cases of industrial action, some of the anger is concerned with pay. What is particularly annoying teachers is the move to so-called ‘performance-related pay’. I have written it this way with good reason. At first sight performance-related pay seems like a good idea.  Why not reward high-performing teachers? But who will decide who is a high-performing teacher? It will be at the discretion of those who could easily manipulate it to their own ends. It will serve to further restict healthy debate within schools as to how they can best be run to best serve the pupils who are taught there.


Perhaps even more seriously it may turn teachers against each other. Education is not a business. It is a public service. Pupils are best served when there is cooperation between teachers within individual schools and indeed between groups of schools. It is when ideas and resources are pooled and shared that the best teaching can take place; not when teachers are pitted against each other and persuaded to elbow each other out of the way.


However, the most obvious reason for opposing performance-related pay is that it isn’t really what it says on the tin. Let us be clear. The long-term goal of this government’s education policy is for schools to become businsses run by wealthy people to make a profit, much in the same way as the government want to sell off large sections of our National Health Service. Policies such as the free schools are stepping stones on that road. Bearing that in mind, it follows that the policy of performance-related pay is not really about rewarding high-performing teachers; it is far more about depressing the pay of the vast majority of the profession, and it is a profession, to maximise the profits of those who will own schools.  And if you don’t believe me just consider how much this government denigrate teachers along with other public services. It is obvious that the constant denigration of education all public services is aimed at persuading the British public that cherished public services can be better run in private hands, while forgetting to mention that it will mean wealthy owners of these services creaming off large personal wealth for doing nothing at all. Is it right that already ridiculously wealthy people should make a profit out of your children or grandchildren’s education?


Then there is the issue of pensions.  Again at first sight it can seem quite fair that teachers would not get as much from their pension fund as they thought they would as we have an ageing population and an ongoing economic crisis. But wait a minute. We have had an ageing population for decades and talk of dismantling public sector pensions only began with this government. And again, wait a minute. It wasn’t the teachers (or nurses, firefighters, railway workers, e.t.c.), who caused the economic crisis. Yet they are paying for it, whilst the real culprits, the reckless bankers, mostly seem to be getting away scot-free.


Teachers have been bombarded with constant criticism and often pointless reforms for 30 long years. It is also worth remembering that more and more teachers are leaving the profession, whilst applications to teacher-training courses are down 30% since this dreadful government came to power. Is it really any wonder?


Of course I have to mention Gove’s vanity policy of free schools. It seems this week that the chickens are now coming home to roost with this particular folly. We are now in the third year of this policy and a grand total of 170 free schools have been established. This may sound impressive, if it wasn’t for the fact that many are tiny and the total of schools in the country is over 24 000.  Even if they were working, then they would hardly be the answer to any deficiencies in the education system would they?


That hasn’t stopped millions of pounds, which could have been spent on helping children, being thrown down the drain on this nonsense. In Bradford, millions of pounds of tax-payers’ money was wasted on a free school, which was so popular with parents that it didn’t even open. There simply weren’t enough pupils. But perhaps there have been even greater concerns about free schools which have opened.


Whilst the vast majority of schools have been subject to more and more inspection and regulation, free schools have been given the freedom to just about do what they want; with sadly inevitable results. It was reported last week that the Al-Madinah school, a free school in Derby had been condemned by Ofsted as ‘dysfunctional’. Imagine the outcry from Mr Gove if a state-run school had been so gravely judged. Yet Mr Gove, on a junket to Massachusetts said nothing. Then there was the appalling case of Analiese Briggs, a 27-year old, with no teaching qualifications, who had to resign after three weeks of being the Headteacher of  a free school, as she belatedly realised that she was way out of her depth.


This weekend has seen news that a second headteacher, this term, is to leave a chain of academies known as Future Academies set-up by Lord Nash a government minister. Accusations of bullying are being given as the key reason why this shambles is occurring. All the while concerns are growing about the government allowing more and more untrained and unqualified teachers to teach children in our country. Whenever you hear Michael Gove trying to claim that all his policies are geared towards raising standards remember that.  Quite frankly the education policy of the government seems to be in complete disarray and the British public could be forgiven for asking what on earth is going on?


And there’s more. One thing which members of the teaching unions hold dear is the opportunity to make a real difference to children’s lives, especially those from disadvataged backgrounds. All children, no matter what the background, should have the chance of fulfilling their potential.Yet this government have made that job a whole lot harder by cutting Educational Maintenance Allowance and raising tuition fees to the point that many pupils from poorer backgrounds believe it is impossible to use education as a stepping stone to making  the most of their lives.


Even Alan Milburn has at least partly seen the light. The Coalition’s Social Mobility tsar has made it clear in a report this week that parents in work, not on benefits, “simply do not earn enough to escape poverty”. Social mobility is at an all-time post-Second World War low and this government seems determined to make sure that it stays that way. And yes, the strike was about more than just pay and pensions. Teachers in the NUT and NAS/UWT do care about issues such as this. Deeply. If they didn’t they wouldn’t put up with all the other nonsense and do the job at all.


Perhaps the aspect of Michael Gove’s disastrous tenure as Education Secretary which has most angered teachers is his complete refusal to listen to teachers and their union representatives. Here is a man, who trained as a journalist, at Newcastle University as it happens and has since become a politician. He has not spent even a single day in the classroom as a teacher. Yet he has the temerity to tell teachers how to do their job. By not listening he is copping out from hearing the real concerns of teachers, the people who actually do the teaching and who know and understand far better than he ever will, what might be going wrong and how it might be put right.


Just think about that for a moment. Think back to the last time you heard somebody who has never done your job patronising you and telling you how to do it and just how irritating that was. Then imagine that happening to you week in week out. For years. That might give you some idea of what teachers have to put up with.  Mind you, I have to smile when I hear Gove lecturing teachers who go opn strike about how it will lower the respect the public have for thwem. Coming from a politician that is a little rich. Surveys of the British public I have seen suggest that teachers have somewhat more respect among the British public than politicians…


Indeed Gove has managed to alienate EVERY  group involved in the real work of teaching our nation’s children. From teachers to governors, from university education departments to headteachers to parents groups he has alienated them all  It is arguable that Gove’s only achievement in his three and a half dismal years as Education Secretary has been to get the two main teaching unions, the NUT and NAS/UWT, formerly quite bitter rivals, to work together. .


There are so many other things I could say about why teachers were on strike this week. Taken together all these factors have unsurprisingly lead to all-time low morale amongst the profession. And how has Sir Michael Wilshaw, Michael Gove’s head of Ofsted responded to this crisis? Here’s how: Wilshaw once said to headteachers that, “if anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you know you are doing something right.”. It is little wonder that a subsequent motion at the, the NAHT conference the annual gathering of the headteachers’ union, passed a mtion of no confidence in Wilshaw with over 98% support. Do you work better when your morale is low?  No. of course you don’t, so why should teachers be expected to do so?  Teachers spend a lot of their time trying to eradicate bullying in schools – it seems the biggest bullies of all are the Head of Ofsted – and his political master Michael Gove. Many schools have anti-bullying policies. Perhaps Wilshaw and Gove should take some time to read one or two of these.  Then they might learn how to treat hundreds of thousands of teachers, who do one of the most important jobs in the country, in a more reasonable manner.


Goves policies for education are untenable He claims he simply wants higher standards. If so, how will greater pay and job insecurity encourage the best graduates to join the teaching profession?  How will dismantling public sector pension provision help to raise standards? How will free schools packed with untrained and unqualified teachers help to raise standards?  How will making it harder for working-class pupils, through an elitist curriculum and the removal of much-needed support help to raise standards? How will refusing to listen to teachers when devising policy raise standards? How will all-time low morale amongst teachers raise standards?


Teachers do not take strike action lightly. They are in the profession prescisely because they do care about children’s education and haven’t left, despite all the nonsense that is going on. But there has to be a line in the sand and a time when they say enough is enough. Enough denigration of the profession, enough money wasted on free schools and other vanity projects and enough obstacles put in the way of teachers feeling respected, teaching children who feel that they really can use education as a stepping stone to a brighter future for them and their communities. That time has come.


© Peter Sagar October 2013
Reports of the rally by teachers Tony Dowling & Lee Ferris can be found on our website here: http://peoplesassemblytyneandwear.wordpress.com/2013/10/17/striking-teachers-descend-on-durham/


and here: http://peoplesassemblytyneandwear.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/17th-october-strike-onwards-and-upwards/


Gove vs Education Tues 22 Oct
Next Tuesday 22nd October North East People’s Assembly is holding a public meeting to discuss education. All are welcome to attend.


Gove vs Education

Tuesday 22 October, 

6pm, St John’s Church hall,

Grainger Street,



“Tory education secretary Michael Gove is engaged in the biggest attack on state education we have ever seen. The erosion of teachers’ pay and conditions is part of a wider effort to change the nature of education in this country.”



Rachel Featherstone, UCU

Jill McManus, NUT

Paul Simpson, post-graduate student

and Newcastle Free Education Network

will introduce a discussion about education:what’s wrong, what the alternatives are, and how we can change things.



This meeting is open to all supporters of North East People’s Assembly.