When something's got to give

24th September 2010 at 01:00
As Labour's 'softly softly' approach to industrial relations makes way for a more confrontational stance, an incendiary mix of funding cuts, pension fears and academy expansion is adding to teacher discontent. In the second part of our series, Irena Barker examines the likelihood of a new era of unrest

"Teachers are passive most of the time, but when an issue really gets them angry they can go haywire; union activists can actually be a moderating influence," says schools industrial relations expert Professor Howard Stevenson.

This is certainly an idea that New Labour understood when it created the "social partnership", an arrangement that kept unions under control by offering them influence at the policy table.

And it worked: the partnership, founded in 2003 with the workforce agreement on workload and classroom standards, has presided over one of the calmest periods in teacher industrial relations since the 1960s.

A national one-day strike over pay in 2008 was notably orchestrated by the NUT, the only classroom union to opt out of the governmental "love-in".

National action to boycott the Sats tests in May this year was driven by the NUT and the National Association of Head Teachers, which also found the level of intimacy required by the social partnership tricky to stomach at times. On a local level there has been conflict, with the establishment of academies a particular sticking point.

But largely, ministers have slept easy in their beds, safe in the knowledge that unions would thrash out many of their issues around a confidential negotiating table. But this is all set to change under Michael Gove, whose reign at the Department for Education looks likely to see a return to the traditionally adversarial approach of the Tories.

Instead of pushing its agenda forward by offering apparently "win-win" deals with unions, the air is expected to become distinctly frosty.

Already, Mr Gove has dismantled the social partnership, which met once a week, and replaced it with the more general "education partnership", a talking shop (according to its critics) that meets just six times a year to discuss general, rather than workforce, issues.

His core policies, combined with impending budget cuts and threats to public sector pensions, are already prompting angry cries.

The planned expansion of academies, free schools, and the push for more private involvement in providing education also have the power to create intense unrest.

Observers say the policies of the coalition Government could also serve to "divide and rule" the unions.

The ordinary classroom teacher may find themselves drawn more into local industrial disputes over a whole range of issues.

Professor Stevenson, deputy director of Lincoln University's Centre for Educational Research and Development, said: "Under Thatcher, Major and now Michael Gove there has been a breaking up of the system (and this is) undermining the collective power of teachers and unions. If there is an end to national pay bargaining you will get more strikes, but on a school-by-school level. Solidarity is made quite difficult because not everyone is in the same situation."

He says the erosion of the role of local authorities will also threaten the work of the unions, as reps rely on them to provide "facilities time" to carry out their union work.

However, Professor Stevenson belives a positive result of this could be that teachers become more engaged with issues local to them rather than relying on distant and anonymous negotiations in London.

He added: "There are some very challenging times ahead for the unions. The break-up of national pay and conditions and erosion of local authorities, where teacher unions remain strongly embedded, could mean we see more conflict, not less."

But John Bangs, former head of education at the NUT, believes the extent of unrest will come down to the nature of the spending cuts rather than a policy issue such as free schools.

"Support-staff unions could also create chaos if they strike over job losses," he said.

Teaching assistants are expected to be the first to go in the face of budget cuts in schools, putting the terms of the workforce agreement under extreme pressure (see box).

Teachers' rights to preparation and planning time could remain underpinned in law but become increasingly difficult to maintain on the ground. Redundancies will also prove another huge flashpoint. And the signs that Mr Gove could bypass the unions wherever possible are already in evidence.

One union official said there were far fewer civil servants putting in calls to him in recent months.

"While it used to be the case that they came to us, we now have to go to them," he said.

And a reluctance to inform and consult has also become obvious. The debacle over headteachers' pay being pegged to the salary of the prime minister is one example.

Earlier this summer, Mr Gove wrote to Anne Wright, head of the school teachers' review body, requesting to use a loophole to avoid the proper consultation process to introduce the #163;142,000 pay cap by this September.

Dr Wright persuaded Mr Gove to accept a full review of heads' pay rather than rushing through policy on the hoof.

But it is not yet clear when Mr Gove will ask the review body to consider creating flexible pay, although statements before the election would suggest that it is imminent.

But in the unions themselves, it is not all doom and gloom.

One official said his workload had been dramatically reduced since the highly bureaucratic social partnership was disbanded, freeing him for other work.

Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said he saw the situation as more of a "return to normal service", with the Government consulting more informally with unions.

The unions would continue to oppose academies, he said, but they were never included in the remit of the social partnership in any case.

"The Government has always held the whip hand," he said. "The only difference is the degree to which they consult us, the detail we go into."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT and famously the most enthusiastic player in the social partnership, is reserving judgment on the likely outcome.

"We are defining the rules of engagement, but no one would expect the relationship with a Labour and a Tory government to be the same, and the Tories are setting the tone for the coalition Government.

"Ministers are going out of their way to be cordial; they make the right noises. But the test will be: what is the substance?" The Gove Revolution appears every three weeks. October 15: SEN


Keep support staff happy

Support staff could prove to be the make-or-break factor in the Government fending off industrial unrest in schools - but the initial signs are not good.

Teaching assistants and other support staff form the backbone of the workforce agreement, which relieved teachers of more than 20 time-consuming tasks such as photocopying and dinner money collection.

But as the cuts loom, support staff face a two-year pay freeze. And many already face the axe as headteachers pre-empt difficulties in balancing the books by getting rid of staff.

Plans to establish a school support-staff negotiating body and a national pay framework are also hanging in the balance.

Since support staff have become essential for providing teachers with preparation and planning time and ensuring that schools comply with "rarely cover" legislation, their absence or unhappiness could easily have knock-on effects on teaching staff.

And they could be preparing for strike action themselves. Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, the biggest support-staff union, has been a leading light in anti-Government rhetoric of recent months. Irena Barker


Winter of discontent unlikely despite widespread fury

One thing is for certain: over the coming weeks and months, we will see increasingly vociferous protests from the public sector unions. Already, there has been much sabre-rattling, messages of solidarity by individual unions and a "call to arms" from TUC general secretary Brendan Barber. The anger over the forthcoming cuts, a review of public sector pensions and predicted job losses is palpable.

But observers need not assume that the angry talk from teaching and other unions will result in widespread disruption of the scale seen in the Seventies. It is unlikely we will see a winter, spring, or indeed any other season of discontent this time around.

There are several key reasons that unions will find it technically more difficult to carry out strike action, and they may also find it harder to convince members it is in their interests to strike.

First, far more working people own their own homes now, and the fear of repossession by the banks may make public sector workers more reluctant to go out on strike. During the miners' strike, many strikers lived in houses owned by the colliery, and it would be unlikely they would be evicted for rent arrears.

But the main thing is the progressive tightening of the laws on industrial action that took place through the Eighties and early Nineties, which narrowed the definition of a trade dispute and introduced progressively more stringent balloting requirements.

Employers are also now becoming more and more willing to use injunctions to put a stop to industrial action.

We saw this with the British Airways cabin crew dispute, where the employer sought injunctions twice on anomalies in the strike ballot. They were successful the first time because a significant number of workers who were balloted took redundancy before the earliest date the industrial action would have taken place. The union won an appeal against the second injunction in May, which had been based upon its failure to inform members of 11 spoilt papers.

In teaching unions another problem in holding a legally watertight ballot will be the accuracy of the membership records, as people come and go from the profession.

Co-ordinating action will also be a very tricky one. It is hard enough to hold a lawful ballot within one union; balloting members of several unions at the same time will be extremely difficult. Dr Alf Crossman is senior lecturer in industrial relations, Surrey University.

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