NUT member Despina M discusses the attacks on post-16 education and fightback against them
The post-16 sector has been at the sharp end of government cuts, but has also seen some of the most impressive fightbacks. Whereas – in theory – funding for five to sixteen year olds has been ‘protected’, the Tory coalition has imposed 20% real terms reductions for sixth forms. The impact of this has provoked a number of serious strikes which show the potential for a wider challenge to austerity and marketisation.
Michael Gove’s plan to spend £45 million on the Harris Westminster Free School has highlighted the scale of inequality that he is creating in the sector. He wants to shower money on an elite of students – £160,000 each according to the NUT – half of whom he expects to attend Oxford or Cambridge.
Meanwhile current sixth form colleges have suffered £100 million of cuts. Our students’ EMA has been stolen and pastoral funding has been cut by 75%, while many students with Special Educational Needs have had support removed on crude benchmarks (e.g. if a child with dyslexia achieved a C at GCSE English). Whereas private schools are exempted from VAT through ‘charitable status’, sixth forms – that often educate among the most disadvantaged students – are not.
And Gove’s Christmas present to us was an announcement that funding for 18 year olds – mostly those who have taken a bridging course at 16 to qualify for level 3 vocational courses – would also be slashed. This will hit hardest the most inclusive colleges at a time when the school-leaving age is being raised to 18.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the heads of all 12 London sixth form colleges wrote to the Independent condemning Gove’s priorities, or that, more crucially, wider layers of teachers and lecturers are seeing the need to fight back against waves of redundancies, course closures and workload increases.
So teachers at Gateway College in Leicester defeated a punitive observation policy with strike action and a threat of a further nine days out. Staff at the Stem 6 Free School in Islington faced down management intimidation and deception to win union recognition through industrial action. And an indicative ballot at Bsix in Hackney last month showed 94% in favour of strikes against cuts and redundancies. The parallel struggles in the FE sector, such as that at Lambeth College, provide opportunities for solidarity and joint action with UCU and other unions.
The decision to combine the campaign around sixth form pay and funding with the wider Stand Up For Education platform made sense to many, but only so far as it helps to highlight the issues and strengthen a fightback over them. Unfortunately until recently they have largely gone under the radar. NUT conference passed the executive’s priority motion on sixth forms unanimously. The task is now to build the campaign as a key part of Stand Up for Education. But we also need to develop a strategy which is less reactive to the localised manifestations of cuts, and begins to challenge them at their root – the neoliberal break-up of comprehensive education.