Get back to where we once belonged

7th January 2011 at 00:00
They may look and sound different these days, but with a determined Government embarked on the biggest school reform programme for a generation teacher activists may be making a comeback. And that's if they ever really went away

More than two decades ago, during an era of widespread industrial unrest, the level of militancy among the teaching profession was worthy of note. A series of three-day strikes over pay affected almost every school in England and Wales, forcing 2,000 of them to close altogether. The wife of the Labour leader, Glenys Kinnock, joined teachers on the picket lines to show solidarity. The dispute went on for so long that the government of the day set up a special Cabinet committee to deal with the issue.

A quarter of a century on, despite the prospect of unprecedented cuts in school funding as part of the squeeze on public finances, it is difficult to envisage a repeat of those scenes. Bar a one-day strike two years ago, the country's education system has seen no widespread industrial action for some time. It is "all bark and no bite", according to a regular delegate to teaching union conferences. Education may be facing its most serious financial threat in a generation, but calls to man the barricades are few and far between.

So whatever happened to that staple image of the mid-1980s - the "lefty" teacher? "Almost all are retired, disillusioned or dead by now," says Bob Vincent*, a secondary teacher from the Midlands. "They used to exist but teachers are too knackered and browbeaten to profess politics, let alone find time for left-wing activism."

Although calls for industrial action are frequently heard at union conferences, these rarely translate into strikes. Even the 2008 dispute followed a turnout of only 32 per cent in the NUT ballot; the other unions refused to take part.

Even if the appetite for sustained action has waned, there are still a few hardy teachers willing to take a stand. And Hank Roberts, probably the UK's best-known teacher activist after his long-running campaign to highlight the bonus culture at his school in Brent, north-west London, is convinced they are more than a minority.

"To paraphrase Mark Twain: `The reports of its (left-wing activism) death are greatly exaggerated'," says Mr Roberts, junior vice-president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and secretary of Brent NUT. He believes that after a period of torpor, teachers will not take the proposed cuts to education lying down. "The Coalition's actions are radicalising a whole new generation of teachers," he says.

Fred Jarvis, who was general secretary of the NUT from 1975 to 1989, was the public face of much of the agitation that rocked the educational landscape during Margaret Thatcher's premiership, even though he spent most of the decade trying to temper the demands of the more militant section of the union.

Although it is hard to imagine unrest on the scale of the 1980s, Mr Jarvis says teaching still has a significant proportion of activists; those he characterises as people who "dress in corduroy" rather than smart designer suits. "They are just more likely to drive cars nowadays," he adds.

Kate Milner-Gulland, 33, a teacher at Wallands Community Primary School in Lewes, East Sussex, is one of them. She is proud to call herself left- wing, but admits she is worried that the teaching profession is becoming less idealistic, and therefore less willing to take a stand.

"I am sad to think that teaching is gradually attracting more bankers and lawyers," she says. "What drives a banker to be a banker? Certainly not the same set of ideals that drove me to be a teacher - namely wanting to inspire children to enjoy learning for learning's sake and helping them become emotionally healthy."

But Mr Jarvis believes that Ms Milner-Gulland's views were no more prevalent in the 1970s and '80s than they are today. Even during the 1979 "winter of discontent", when industrial unrest brought the country to a standstill, he says there never was a "golden age of leftism" in teaching.

Research seems to back up this up. A poll by The TES following the 1979 general election found that six out of 10 primary teachers voted Conservative.

"I am strongly Labour myself, but there has never been a clear picture of the teachers as strictly Labour," says Mr Jarvis. "The NUT conference, which usually displays a far-left faction, is not reflective of the wider views of the profession."

There is no doubt that left-wing teachers did exist, and were dominant in the 1980s, argues Alf Crossman, senior lecturer in industrial relations at Surrey University. But he believes that teachers' politics reflect those of society at large: teachers are neither more nor less likely to be left or right-wing than anyone else.

"There tends to be strong left-wing factions in some larger, partly deprived cities, such as Liverpool and London, but they are less prevalent in rural areas," he says.

But looming funding cuts could see teachers shifting to the Left, argues Howard Stevenson, deputy director of Lincoln University's Centre for Educational Research and Development.

Further education lecturers have been among those demonstrating against the increase in tuition fees. As school budgets tighten, he believes teachers could be next. "The scale of the cuts will lead to an increase in industrial action by teachers," says Professor Stevenson. "There is no question about that. The extent will depend on how those cuts play out across the system."

But the bulk of teachers may not have the stomach for the fight. On the surface, Sian Wilkins* would fit the template of a union activist. The secondary teacher from London is a veteran of protest marches, but says those days are firmly in the past. "I spent a good 15 years or more involved in direct-action politics, anti-fascism and local community activism," she says. "But I got burnt out. I was overworked in my teaching job and started a family."

It is not that her beliefs have changed, Ms Wilkins explains, it's just that she doesn't have the time to protest. Her political action is now confined to "swearing at Tories on TV" and giving money to charity. She takes some comfort from working in a challenging school, but acknowledges that some will see this as a poor substitute for direct action.

"I've spent the past 10 years working with pupils from some of the most impoverished areas of London and helping them to achieve their aims," she says. "Maybe that is something political in the broader sense, or maybe I am just trying to justify my own political retirement."

For Annie Fairhurst*, her retreat from activism is the result of changing attitudes. Ms Fairhurst, a secondary teacher in the North West, dabbled in anarchist politics as a student teacher in the early 1980s before moving to a "more realistic" Labour position in the 1990s. She now defines herself as a floating voter.

"Nowadays, I can veer from extreme right to extreme left, depending on the issue," she says. "I can see myself coming back round to anarchism in my old age, as I detest a party line." But she misses the days when teachers "weren't afraid to strike", believing they are now more apathetic.

One of the reasons teachers may be reluctant to strike and militancy has ebbed is that many believe conditions in the profession have improved vastly over the past 25 years. Those 1980s disputes led to the creation of the forerunner of the School Teachers' Review Body, which helped bring teacher salaries into line with many other professions. The 2003 workforce agreement also freed teachers in England from administrative tasks. It is not hard to see why some argue that teachers have never had it so good.

In addition, Dr Crossman believes that conditions for industrial action are far from favourable. "The rhetoric of another winter, spring or summer of discontent has resurfaced, but the chances of prolonged disputes are very slim," he says. "Unions are weaker politically, laws surrounding industrial action are tighter, and people don't really have the stomach for a fight. There will be plenty of tub-thumping, but not much substance in the long run."

But Mr Jarvis argues that there are signs that change is in the air. Education emerged relatively unscathed from the Government's spending review but although the school budget was set to increase by 0.1 per cent in real terms, this will no longer be enough to keep pace with rising inflation. Cuts are still likely. On top of this, there are proposed changes to pensions and a possible end to national pay bargaining.

"There are lots of issues emerging that teachers feel strongly about, regardless of their political leanings," Mr Jarvis says. "They worry what effect the threat to expenditure will have on pupil opportunities, as well as on their own job security and finances."

But he believes it is too early to judge what the real impact on education will be, or the scale of the subsequent backlash. "I imagine there would not be much public support for teachers striking because a lot of public- sector workers have been hit harder," he says. "I can't see teachers rushing to the barricades just yet."

This is not just because individuals are less inclined to rock the boat, says Professor Stevenson. Since the 1970s, there has been a concerted effort by the state to assert control over teachers - not just through better pay, but through the increasing influence of Ofsted, performance- related pay and competition between schools and individual members of staff.

In addition, teacher solidarity is harder to achieve now that the school landscape has become so fragmented. "It's all about institutional survival nowadays," says Professor Stevenson. "We face difficult times, but schools' experiences will differ significantly. Within that environment, it is very hard to develop united action."

The fragmentation of the school system, with the creation of academies and the forthcoming free schools, is a deliberate attempt to divide teachers, Professor Stevenson argues. The different routes into the profession only adds to this mentality.

Fast-tracking certain groups of teachers, such as those on the Teach First programme, which places top graduates in the most challenging schools, or mature applicants from industry, is a deliberate attempt by the Government to "re-culture the profession", creating more of a private sector ethos, he says. "It's another way in which shared experiences between teachers are being lost."

However, many teachers still see the profession as an extension of social activism, as a way of "doing their bit" to help improve the lot of less fortunate members of the community. But they can often get worn down by the pressures and demands of the job and family responsibilities, not to mention worries about wider economic uncertainties.

Penny Alcroft*, a primary teacher from the North West, admits she is too focused on the job to join a union or take direct action. She does not believe schools are any place for agitators. "There is not much point in being militant unless you can afford to be without a job," she says.

Professor Stevenson thinks teachers are as socially aware as ever, but believes changes in the profession mean industrial action is less likely. "Teachers have always dealt with ideas and have traditionally had a touch of dissent about them," he says. "They have been associated with progressive causes associated with the Left, such as developing the welfare state, equality, comprehensive education and anti-racism.

"But it should be no surprise that when a job is reduced to something that is more performance-driven, teachers' behaviour adapts accordingly. Inevitably, teachers adopt a more functional relationship to the job," he says.

Dr Crossman agrees: "Teaching is certainly less of a vocation than it was. The question is: is the tradition of teachers joining a trade union under threat as `career' overtakes `vocation'."

Mr Roberts thinks the number of trade unions has worked against the possibility of united industrial action. He has been campaigning for a single teacher union for more than a decade, which he believes could reignite teacher activism. "Many teachers radicalised in the 1960s are heading into retirement now," he says. "But this Government's actions must be curtailed. Teachers will be up in arms on a raft of issues, from academy and free-school plans to pay and conditions, and pensions."

He predicts that teachers will make their presence felt at the planned Trades Union Congress (TUC) national demonstration against public-sector cuts, earmarked for March 26. Mr Roberts is pinning his hopes on a new generation of radicalised, left-wing teachers.

Ms Milner-Gulland is a member of this generation. She, for one, will be on the march. "A government that wants to make such aggressive cuts, particularly to welfare, is at odds with my view that our society's well- being should come first," she says. Perhaps the left-wing teacher is one dinosaur that could yet return from extinction

* Names have been changed.

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