On 26 September school teachers, members of the NUT and NASUWT unions, begin non-strike industrial action across England and Wales.
The action is a sort of work-to-rule. According to official union strategy, it is intended as a lever to make education minister Michael Gove agree to talks with the union on working conditions, pay, pensions, and jobs, and will be followed by national strike action if after a while Gove does not do that.
Most immediately, however, the action is a lever to impose liveable working conditions in schools, to enable teachers to get on with teaching with less bureaucratic harassment, and to push back the new breed of bullying head teachers trained by the infamous National College for School Leadership.
The unions have 25 action points. The first ones are about decent conditions for management appraisals of teachers’ work and limits on lesson observations done by school management (only three a year, five days’ notice of each, written feedback). The unions say that if head teachers refuse to accept union conditions, then teachers should refuse to cooperate at all with appraisal or observations.
Two other high-profile points: teachers should refuse to submit lesson plans to management (a plan should be to help the teacher teach, not to show management that she or he is ticking the right boxes: there is no contractual or statutory obligation to submit lesson plans).
They should also refuse to cover for absent workmates. (Official policy is that teachers should cover only “rarely” and in unforeseen cases, but many head teachers routinely flout it).
As Lewisham NUT secretary Martin Powell Davies points out, to be effective this “non-strike action” must quickly escalate into strikes. “Where schools are imposing unacceptable policies, strike action is the best response”.
Some head teachers will agree the union conditions on appraisal and observation. Others will refuse or stonewall. In schools where that happens, some teachers will be confident enough to ask students just to cross their arms and wait silently until the head teacher retreats from an unwanted intrusion in the classroom, and some will be confident enough to refuse to attend appraisal meetings. Some will not.
Unless the action is to be very ragged, the school union groups need to collect evidence of management’s failure to keep to union conditions, and — having collected a dossier, but soon — tell the NUT that its ballot now authorises immediate strikes to impose the union conditions.
Martin Powell Davies says: “Where Local Authorities are ignoring union protocols, we need to be urgently discussing about escalating action to coordinated strike action in line with NUT advice. Alongside this localised action, we also need to call national strike action. That’s what really hits the headlines and puts the Government under pressure”.
He is right. But another Lewisham teacher told Solidarity: “Well-organised regions building for local strike action en masse is a more desirable outcome. There may be a problem about asking London branches to go first, on their own, with no assurance of anything to follow. Many London teachers already feel like sacrificial lambs because of 28 March, when the NUT Executive ignored a big majority in a members’ survey for a national strike and instead called a regional strike in London, with the promise, never delivered on, that other regions would follow.
“My proposal would be that regions, divisions, and associations affiliated to the Local Associations Network (a rank-and-file grouping established in June this year) start the ball rolling with a coordinated wave of local strike action”.
This approach would make it easier to carry through policies like refusal to submit lesson plans. There is no contractual obligation on teachers to submit these plans; but the individual teacher, confronted individually by a bullying head teacher, may find it hard to hold the line. A wave of strikes, and the possibility that if they build up a dossier of lesson plans submitted under duress then they can get further strikes, will embolden them.
“Some head teachers are probably confident that they can outsmart the union on this one by carrying on with divisive bully tactics that isolate older workers, and those choosing to observe the mandate of the non-strike action, from less confident younger teachers. The worst academies have a high turnover and a high proportion of newly-qualified teachers and ‘Teach First’ staff (teachers taken straight from university). Head teachers will try to get round the union by staggering the changes to appraisal policy and terms and conditions, so that by the time all members are affected, union mobilisation will have faded.
“We need rapid local, regional and even national collective action in response to foul play from head teachers”.