Mark Langhammer on continuing NEU Industrial Action in Northern Ireland

Blog
03 September 2018 by lbarbier
A transcript of an interview by Frontline with Regional Secretary, Mark Langhammer on continuing NEU Industrial Action in Northern Ireland.

What were NEU’s aims on pay?

Initially the Northern Ireland Teachers Council* (the body of teachers’ unions within the Teachers Negotiating Council) made pay claim for 2017-18 is for a 5% increase.  This was made up of three distinct components.

  • First, there was 3.9% to cover the rate of inflation (calculated by Retail Price Index) at the time of submission.
  • Second, we asked for 1% in lieu of 2015-16, when 0% was the imposed settlement by Minister Weir. The irony of a unionist minister setting the precedent to breach parity of teachers’ pay with the rest of the UK on the main-scale was not lost on us! 
  • Thirdly, we included 0.1% as a token gesture towards pay restoration, given that teachers’ pay has reduced by 12-15% since the 2010-11 pay freeze. So, we thought 5% was reasonable. It was a “no-win, no-lose” claim, a “stand-still” claim, really.

Executive pay, in the same period has rocketed. Politicians pay has increased. Banking and finance sector pay – for the same executives that wrecked the UK economy and brought about the 10 years of austerity - and were bailed out by £900 billion in taxpayers support – have also accelerated. The teachers’ claim was bargain-basement reasonable.

Where are the negotiations now?

Nowhere, really! The series of intensive meetings between Management Side (MS) and Teachers’ Side (TS) have lasted for months, but there is no end-product yet – and I don’t believe we’re close. Initially, the employers would not negotiate whilst industrial action was ongoing, but in the end, it was the industrial action that brought them back to the table.

The Inspection boycott has been unusually solid and successful. That’s because the issues, really, are not just pay, but also Accountability and Workload. This is about the quality of teachers’ working lives, not just pay.

 

The outline ‘shape’ of an agreement is emerging based on a decent pay rise, but in the Government’s mind, it’s not a fully funded pay-rise. In other words, a pay-rise is dependent on a range of savings to be agreed from elsewhere. Essentially, paying teachers more means giving schools and other education areas less.

We think that there are cuts that could be made, but not to schools. Whatever way you cut it, Northern Ireland’s education system is over-administered, and over-accountable. But less money goes to schools than needs to. Even though Northern Ireland’s education system receives more – proportionately, per head – than an equivalent school in England, schools here receive appreciably less. The answer lies not just in ‘more funding’ but in cuts to the right places, starting with an out-of-control accountability system.

So, let’s say the pay offer was 3% (because we couldn’t bring anything less to our members, in view of the 2015-16 debacle), then we’d be looking to achieve savings from reviews of accountability, assessment, more centralised employment models and so on.

We’ve also insisted on a new deal on Workload, and Industrial relations measures including school-level Joint Consultative committees.

What’s the problem?

Well, we don’t have a Minister or a Government for a start! And civil servants are reluctant to step outside their limited authorities.  The Mallusk incinerator judicial review judgement has had radical effects on civil servants’ natural conservatism. Civil servants simply will not go ‘out on a limb’ to award more than 1% without political cover. The policy status-quo is a limit on public sector pay at 1%. In England, the 1% limit has been breached for 2018-19 round, through political means. Teachers in England will receive 3.5 on the main-scale; 2% on the Upper Pay Scale and 1.5% for school leaders, but they’ve a Government, we don’t! And we’re still stuck on the 2017-18 pay claim, they’re settled for 2018-19.

Where does that leave us?

 It leaves us taking industrial action. The action we’re taking is threefold:

  •  First, complete non co-operation with the Inspectorate. That’s a core action which is popular and will remain.
  • Second, complete non co-operation with the flawed system of key-stage, cross curricular assessment. The assessment system is a dead-duck anyway, as dead as Monty Python’s infamous Norwegian-Blue parrot!
  • Then thridly, there is the school level action on Needless Tasks, tasks that waste time, tasks that are of nugatory value, the sort of bureaucratic, back-covering tasks that add no value to childrens’ education, tnd the obsessive, mind-numbing scrutiny tasks like excessive reporting, obsessive tracking, pupil pursuit and the myriad of other low-trust practices, many of which stem from the Inspectorate.

What is the purpose of the industrial action?

Obviously, it’s about pay, that was the trigger, but it’s a lot deeper than pay. We are convinced that there is a deeply felt resentment amongst teachers that their working lives are out-of-control.

We know that school leaders are routinely working 60+ hours a week.  Teachers routinely work 50-55 hours a week.  Ask a teachers’ spouse or partner, they’ll tell you.

 

The action, particular focussed on inspections, and pre-inspection ‘prep’ (and pre inspection ‘prep’ can last for 12 to 18 months!!!) is aimed at allowing teachers to take back control. We determine, at school-level, and through professional discussion with teachers at individual school level, what tasks are “needless”, what tasks are of nugatory educational value, and we determine not to undertake these. Typically the tasks targeted are routine, bureaucratic and ‘back-covering’ in nature. Usually, no-one notices when they go undone, except the teachers who find they have an extra 30 minutes or an hour a week to use productively – teaching, or preparing to teach. In most cases, schools can easily cope. Pupils, for the most part, don’t notice a thing. Fundamentally, the action provides support to teachers to take control, and to exercise professional discretion.

We want to settle this dispute with a fair outcome, but if the action persists for 5 or more years – and this timescale is more than possible – the outcome will be that schools, culturally, will be different places.

 

The mind-numbing, low-trust, command and control micro-management cultures will have greatly receded. In short, teachers in schools not taking action, will lose out. They will de-professionalise themselves by submitting to low-trust accountability.

Could the industrial action last 5 years?

It could be 10 years! Easily! Our union is a traditionally moderate union. We’ve taken only one strike day in over 120 years. We don’t ‘do’ industrial action as a habit. Our action against the flawed system of Assessment dates from 2013, so in one sense, we’ve already been on action for 5 years. This current pay action dates from the Minister’s unwise decision to impose 0% in October 2016. Could the action last until 2020 or longer. Yes, it could. It’s easily imaginable that the Assembly won’t return until after Brexit actually happens. We may have no Minister for a long time. We won’t settle for 1%. So, yes, being realistic, it could easily last to 2022 or 2023.

 

I can also say that teachers are beginning to ‘get’ that the action is as much about ‘cultural change’ as it is about pay.

 

I, and the officers on NEU in Northern Ireland, are under absolutely no pressure to settle the action – particularly when what is on offer is ‘buttons’. Teachers’ don’t like that the Government or Department of Education don’t value them enough to propose a decent pay offer. But they’re putting no pressure on the union to settle lightly. They know well, as we do, that settling will automatically result in a tsunami of bureaucracy, initiatives, tracking and the re-imposition of the low-trust micro-management that is fuelling this dispute. Ten years? It could be.

Inspection has been a target. Why is that?

Mark: Traditionally, NEU (or ATL as we were) always enjoyed a collegiate relationship with inspectors. The culture of inspection has, however, changed. It has become more judgemental, along the lines of the English OFSTED regime.

We’d prefer the more developmental approach of Education Scotland (the Scottish inspectorate).

 

The NI Assembly’s education committee agreed with us in its 2013 Inquiry Report. I have to credit Mervyn Storey, the DUP Chair of the Assembly Committee for his persistence - it was an excellent report, but we are still awaiting its full implementation.

The inspectorate requires deep reform, but I guess our bottom line is that it is entirely unacceptable that the Chief Inspector remains (without a Minister) unaccountable. As one Permanent Secretary told us, the Chief inspector inhabits a “sacred space”. I guess our bottom line is that, within the Inspectorates complaints system, we need an independent or external final appeal. At present, the inspectorate investigates and determines complaints against itself. That won’t wash! We are looking for something like the Republic of Ireland system of an independent Commissioner to hear final appeals. That would create, for the first time, workaday accountability of the Inspectorate. It goes without saying that ETI are resisting this


*The NITC is made up of INTO, UTU, NEU, NASUWT and NAHT, whose decision-making democracy is determined through 4 out of 5 unions agreeing to any given measure.

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Industrial relations