New head teachers in a school always want to stamp their authority by making a few changes. The new head at Central Foundation Girls School, in Bow, East London, went a few steps too far.
Under her “leadership”, the sickness policy changed to trigger procedures against absentee staff after four days (previously eleven). Support staff became subject to a new evaluation process. Observations of teachers increased. Data entry went through the roof. Not surprisingly, morale hit rock bottom.
This was the backdrop to the announcement, in December 2011, of a restructure, affecting both teachers and support staff, and involving 13 redundancies. Several support workers were going to have their all-year-round contracts altered to term-time only, causing a huge drop in pay. It was also proposed to increase teacher workload by giving them an extra 50 minutes a week in class, breaking National Union of Teachers (NUT) guidelines for an 80-20 ratio of contact time to non-classroom work.
Unison, the union organising support staff in the school, and the NUT immediately set about organising ballots for strike action. The Unison dispute was about compulsory redundancies and cuts in pay. The NUT’s focused on compulsory redundancies and increased workload.
Because of the low morale, the start of the fightback was shaky. At a staff meeting, the head told everyone that striking was a waste of time because there was nothing that could be done about the restructure, and denied the union reps a chance to reply.
Her own intransigence and unreasonableness made staff begin to stir. Up until then, many had believed the head was behaving in a transparent and reasonable way. Her actions at the staff meeting proved she was not.
At a second whole staff meeting, the head attempted to drive a wedge between the two unions by running down Unison’s handling of the job re-evaluation process at the same time as again refusing the chance to respond. The Unison rep made an impassioned plea to members of both unions to attend union meetings, where workers could discuss a response to the cuts on their own terms. Sure enough, the next two union meetings were packed.
The demands of the fightback were: no compulsory redundancies; no pay cuts; no increased workload. The two unions met together from then on, produced joint strike bulletins, and discussed joint responses at every turn.
The headquarters of both Unison and the NUT sanctioned strike ballots and when they returned a yes vote, two dates were set; 24 April and 11 May. The exams period was just about to begin, and the unions agreed that they would attempt to minimise disruption to the students to whom the staff devote their working lives. That meant implementing union control of the exam processes, whereby teachers could apply to the joint union reps for permission to run particular exams or revision classes.
The evening before the first strike day, several members of staff met to make banners and placards. The next morning, torrential rain prevented them being put up at the school gates (they had been made with water based paint) but there were still over 70 people on the picket lines. A mass meeting later in the morning, held in a packed hall, set up a strike committee, discussed how the strike funds would be used, and voted to go ahead with the next strike.
Morale in the school was going up as people began to take control of the fightback against this vicious attack on their working lives. Staff were smiling at each other in the corridors, thanking and congratulating each other, and even stopping for the occasional hug. The difference from a few weeks before was palpable.
Up until this point the head had insisted that this was her school, her staff, and her decisions. Then the local authority stepped in, and called the head and governors to a meeting with the unions to broker a deal.
There was a second attempt to create a divide between support and teaching staff. The compulsory redundancies were dealt with by ensuring that those who wished to go would be able to do so at a time that suited them, and those who did not would be offered redeployment.
The cut to support staff pay was withdrawn. A compromise was offered on the teacher workload — that the extra teaching time would only affect those members of staff who had additional, paid, “Teaching and Learning Responsibilities” (TLRs). It was felt that, since the NUT were now isolated, they would accept the deal.
At a huge joint meeting, Unison members voted to accept their offer, as both of the demands most immediately affecting Unison members had been conceded by school management. The teachers voted to reject the offer made to them. All staff then had to vote on whether to go ahead with the second planned strike on 11 May. The teachers voted to carry on with the strike, and Unison members refused to be split from their NUT colleagues and voted not to cross the picket lines.
The second strike day went ahead with better weather and another mass meeting. Teachers spoke emotionally about the workload issue. The national press had just published comments from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of OFSTED, in which he claimed that teachers didn’t know what stress really was, and that being a head teacher dealing with industrial action by staff was “real” stress! Two more days of action were set for the 13 and 14 June, and Unison members again voted not cross teachers’ picket lines.
The teachers suggested a compromise on the workload issue. They would agree to 50 minutes a fortnight across the board, but only if the management conceded on a whole raft of other issues that had been increasing teachers’ workload and wearing down morale since the new head’s regime began.
They demanded an agreement that observations would only take place at at least five days’ notice, and be only for a specific lesson. They demanded a reduction in the amount of data entry required, and changes to the marking system. They also demanded the withdrawal of the hated sick leave policy, and a guarantee that any future changes would have to be properly negotiated through the unions. If management agreed to these demands, it would represent the reclaiming of significant ground by workers in the school.
The local authority stepped in again and, in the next round of negotiations, management caved. All the teachers’ demands were met. There was a half-hearted attempt by the school’s chair of governors to get the union negotiators to withdraw further strike action there and then, but the unions refused, saying that this was for members to decide.
At a further joint union meeting two days later, the final deal was accepted and the strike called off — but not before workers voted to maintain the strike committee as a permanent joint union committee.
Workers have taken a big step forward in Central Foundation Girls’ School, and their committee — buoyed by victory in this fight — can be a platform for pressing that advantage.