We too must tell wood from trees

19th May 1995 at 01:00
Stanworth Woods, near Blackburn, and Lowestoft in Suffolk have, on the face of it, little in common but there is a connection. The people protesting against the M65 extension in Stanworth Woods have taken the art of non-violent protest to a new level - roughly 60 feet above the old level. The extraordinary defiance of the tree people in the face of all that late 20th century technology can throw at them is a fascinating spectacle.

Two observations: first, the existence of the protest is a triumph of democracy. In a dictatorship the people in Stanworth Woods would have been brutally removed. In a democracy, even an imperfect one like ours, that is not an option.

Indeed, what makes the demonstration so effective is that the forces of authority are terrified that someone will get hurt. AJP Taylor said once that the strength of the great powers is that they can threaten to kill weak ones, while the strength of weak ones is that they can threaten to die. The tree people are exercising brilliantly the power of the weak.

Second, the anti-roads campaign of the last few years has been remarkably effective. A Government policy of driving everything that moved and tarmacking everything that didn't has been reversed. There were defeats on the way - at Twyford Down for example - but victory is now assured.

The campaign succeeded because it was tactically and strategically excellent. The protesters did not resort to violence, subside into sub-Marxist babble or jostle politicians. More importantly still, the pressure groups were never deflected from putting their overwhelmingly powerful intellectual case. Even in the dark days of the early 1990s, when the Government was brazenly boasting of the biggest road-building programme since the Romans, the pressure groups, such as Transport 2000, continued to argue their case calmly and rationally and always on the basis of evidence.

Eventually, people believed what the pressure groups said. The evidence of their own eyes, as they sat in lines of cars, confirmed it.

More than 70 years ago the new Burnham Committee had just agreed new national pay scales for teachers. It was up to local authorities to implement them.

Lowestoft was typical of many small town authorities which had historically paid much lower salaries than large urban authorities The bullish chairman of Lowestoft's Education Committee, HC Adams, refused to implement the new scales. Lowestoft's branch of the National Union of Teachers went on strike. At stake, after all, was the principle of national pay scales, for which the union had long campaigned.

The authority recruited unqualified blackleg teachers from all over the country in an attempt to keep the schools open. The battle for parental support had begun. The NUT might have simply sat tight and pointed out in leaflets, and through whatever Press Lowestoft had in the early 1920s, that real teachers were better than these substitutes, but would it have worked?

We will never know because the union produced a tactical master stroke. It opened new schools staffed by the striking teachers. Parents could choose between the blacklegs and the teachers they knew and respected operating in makeshift strike schools. Most Lowestoft parents sent their children to the strike schools Some months later, members of His Majesty's Inspectorate came to Lowestoft. They inspected both LEA schools and strike schools and found the quality of education in the strike schools markedly better.

It was the beginning of the end for Adams. The LEA capitulated. National pay scales were introduced. The local schools were re-opened with the real teachers back where they belonged.

The current campaign for greater investment in education needs to take account of these experiences at Stanworth and Lowestoft. Campaigners' tactics should be consistent with campaign goals. Potential supporters, especially parents, should be encouraged to join the campaign, not be alienated. The recent local elections suggest the potential support is huge.

It is also worth noting that issues of quality sometimes outweigh those of power. The case, surely, is not just about class size but about standards and achievement. Without additional funding over the next five years the creation of an education system that is successful for all is simply not possible. The case needs to be put calmly, rationally, again and again.

Industrial action has a place in certain circumstances but its potential is limited. One-day protest strikes and randomly sending home children would alienate potential allies, above all parents, and directly contradict a campaign goal of improving quality.

While strikes might, particularly given the present weakness of the Government, bring some gains in the short term, their long-term consequence would be to reinforce lingering doubts about the extent of teachers' commitment. Since it is both huge and undervalued by society this would be a double tragedy.

Fortunately as Pete Strauss, a teacher from Nottingham, pointed out recently in a seminal letter to the Guardian, there are other options. He proposed, among many other things, open days for schools when parents and others in the community would declare their support for the campaign by visiting schools and seeing displays. Above all, he urged those leading the campaign to exercise their imaginations just as their forebears did at Lowestoft. What, in short, is the educational equivalent of climbing trees?

The issue is not bludgeoning some money out of the Government this year. Winning additional funding for 1995 or 1996 is not enough: we want steady investment. The aim should be to create a state of affairs in which the need for higher standards is universally accepted, education is properly valued and teachers' commitment is unquestioned. Then underfunding the education service would become unthinkable, just as, after Lowestoft, LEAs never again questioned a national pay structure.

Only this would represent complete victory and the tactics should be designed to secure it.

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