Andrew Stone reports
Nicky Morgan has followed through on her threat to mount a legal challenge against Tuesday’s planned strike by NUT 6th form members, on the nonsensical grounds that we can’t oppose funding cuts because they don’t affect our terms and conditions. We won’t know the result of the challenge until Monday afternoon – the day before 4,000 NUT members are due to take action.
Since 2010 teachers and students in colleges have suffered from multiple attacks, including the headline 14% real terms cuts to student funding, a further 17.5% reduction for third-year students (who often have the greatest pastoral needs), 75% taken from enrichment activities, and funding for students with special educational needs heavily restricted. The headteachers’ Sixth Form Colleges Association reports that 72% of colleges have dropped courses and 81% have increased class sizes. These cuts have increased teacher workload and stress. They have also hit the poorest and most vulnerable students the hardest. The Conservatives believe that they should have carte blanche to make these political cuts, but that it is ‘not a valid trade dispute’ for teachers to resist them.
Once again we see this government’s contempt for workers, democracy and even basic logic. They’ve seen how popular strikes for public services can be with the junior doctors and want a judge to shut us up. On the same day that the legal challenge was announced, David Cameron lied at Prime Ministers’ Questions, saying that the government was ‘making sure sixth form colleges and further education colleges were better funded to help “drive opportunity.”‘ The only opportunities they are creating are for academy chains, which will be able to take over colleges for the first time, to the detriment of teachers’ conditions and local accountability.
Having sliced our funding to the bone they are now embarking on ‘area reviews’ to determine which colleges are insufficiently ‘efficient’ and therefore not ‘viable’. Around 40% face closure or merger according to SFCA estimates.
The NUT is right to mount a legal challenge, but we can’t confine ourselves to that. The Trade Union Bill shows that the Tories will keep stealing our rights if we don’t fight for them. It’s unsurprising, given the financial penalties available, that the union is advising lunchtime protests as a fall-back if the strike is declared illegal. But at some point unions have to take a stand against the ever-eroding grounds for action, or striking at all will become all but illegal.
There are a number of examples in recent years, such as electricians opposing changes to their national pay and conditions, or SOAS workers in defence of their rep Sandy Nicholl, where unofficial strikes have taken place and won. The anti-union laws can seem fierce until they’re challenged. But if they’re resisted with courage and determination then they often reveal themselves as a paper tiger. So maybe 6th form teachers need to forget to check their emails on Monday afternoon and just this once take it for granted that the British legal system will come to the right conclusion.