Striking is a potent weapon - but one of last resort

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08 June 2016 by Mary Bousted
I think it is safe to say that teachers and school leaders are very cross with the Government at the moment.

It takes a lot to get the profession in such an agitated state, but relentless workload, threats of forced academisation, late notice of exam specifications in secondary schools and assessment and testing chaos in primary schools adds up to a toxic mix of Government incompetence which affects the profession badly. Teachers are, for the most part, simply at the end of their collective tether.

That being the case, thoughts of strike action can be very appealing. A national teachers’ strike is a potent weapon, and one which the Government fears.

But ATL is clear that national strike action must always be a weapon of last resort, something which is available to teachers, but used wisely and when there is no other alternative. That is why ATL is not, at present, taking industrial action over the Government’s white paper (though we have a Conference mandate to do so in the future, if necessary).

In ATL’s opinion, the measures the Government is proposing in the white paper are unclear. Just what will the replacement of qualified teacher status with a system of teacher accreditation mean in practice? How will the Government’s determination to increase school-led initial teacher training actually work out in reality? What are the Government’s proposals for national negotiations on teachers’ pay and conditions of service? What concrete plans is the Government making to improve teachers’ CPD and school leaders’ training?

The fact is, we do not know the answers to these questions. There is a great deal of negotiation to be done on each of these issues and the Government has just re-committed itself to a new round of talks with education unions on the white paper proposals.

I have recently met Nicky Morgan and have made clear to her ATL members’ concerns not only about assessment and testing at primary and secondary level, but also about the new national curriculum and the EBacc, which are, in my view, entirely inappropriate for many pupils. I also raised concerns about the potential loss of the STRB, whose recommendations ensure teachers have a semblance of a national pay structure and leaders have a benchmark upon which to base their pay decisions.

It is clearly the case that the Government is in a weaker position now than for a long time. It was political campaigning, not strike action, which forced ministers to abandon their plan to force all schools to become academies by 2022. Clear arguments, strong evidence and forged alliances with county councillors, the Local Government Association, the National Governors Association, parents, school leaders and teachers defeated the Government’s intentions. It is upon this experience that ATL intends to build.

ATL will examine each of the Government’s proposals as they emerge. We will canvass the views of our members. We will negotiate in good faith with clear objectives and we will report the progress of negotiations to our national Executive.

Be in no doubt, should the need arise, ATL’s Executive have a Conference mandate to ballot for strike action on the white paper’s proposals if they are going to harm educational professionals and the pupils and young people they serve. ATL took national strike action in 2011 to protect teachers’ pensions. We are prepared to do so again, but only as a weapon of last resort, and when all other options have been tried.

I am in no doubt that the Government cannot continue devising education policy as it has done recently. Ministers are acutely aware that there have been too many mistakes – test papers printed on websites before the exam; test questions designed for 11-year-olds that even Government ministers cannot answer; a teacher recruitment and retention crisis (yes, it’s a crisis, not just a challenge).

As the song goes, ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’. ATL is tough and will negotiate to achieve better working lives for our members, including the biggest crisis of them all – the insane workload pressures which teachers and school leaders labour under and which need much more time and attention by the Government, by employers and by teacher unions to be tackled successfully.

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Educational reform