As educators in the sixth form sector prepare for 3 days of strike action over funding and pay (beginning Thursday 17 October), sixth form teacher and Wandsworth NEU district Secretary Andrew Stone explains what is at stake.
National Education Union (NEU) members are set to take three days of strike action in sixth form colleges across England in opposition to a decade of funding cuts. The first day of action will be on Thursday 17 October, involving 23 colleges, with further strike days planned for Tuesday 5 and Wednesday 20 November.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that education funding for 16 to 18 year olds: ‘has seen the biggest squeeze of all stages of education for young people in recent years’. The Education Policy institute calculates that sixth forms and further education colleges have received a 16% real terms cut since 2010, a drop from £5,900 to just £4,960 per student. The much-heralded increase of £188 per student announced by Boris Johnson’s government, even if we suspend our disbelief that it will be delivered, doesn’t get near to bridging that funding gap.
The cuts to the sector have been compounded by repeated pay freezes and below-inflation caps eroding the value of our pay, culminating in an offer of only 1% this year. This further opens up the gap in pay between sixth form and school teachers (who were offered 2.75%). A promise to harmonise this pay, attached to the introduction of performance-related pay scales, was quickly broken.
Unlike further education colleges, which suffer from more variable and casualised conditions, the sixth form sector has so far retained the benefits of national bargaining. However, austerity has imperilled that fragile bulwark in recent years with a string of closures and mergers. In the meantime the learning conditions for our students has deteriorated.
A survey for the ‘Raise the rate’ campaign suggests that 78% of sixth form providers have reduced student support services or extra-curricular activities as a result of funding pressures – with significant cuts to mental health support and careers advice. Provision for students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) has also been hard hit, with many students who would have previously received individualised support now left to the best efforts of teachers in increasingly overcrowded classes. 81% percent of schools and colleges are teaching students in larger class sizes and nearly half (46%) have reduced contact hours of individual courses. In addition, 51% have dropped courses in modern foreign languages, with A levels in German, French and Spanish the main casualties.
So it’s no surprise that we achieved an 84% vote in favour of strike action. The turnout was 43%, respectable given the challenges of the postal ballot system, but insufficient under the 50% strike threshold of the Trade Union Act 2016 to mandate blanket national strikes. The NEU has recently received strong majorities for action in national indicative ballots over funding and pay (across primary, secondary and sixth form sectors) and to a lesser extent over primary testing, but in both cases the turnout would not have been enough to win an official ballot.
We are a long way from achieving the astounding 94% turnout of the Chicago Teachers Union’s recent ballot. Less stringent balloting rules in Chicago are part of the explanation for the discrepancy, but this shouldn’t diminish the massive credit due to activists there for engaging members and parents through community organising, and taking up issues of inequality and oppression and their intersection with curriculum and institutional structures.
There is a growing awareness within the NEU that the revitalisation of organisation at a nursery/school/college-level will be necessary to make significant breakthroughs on the range of battles we have been fighting over funding, pay, academisation, curriculum etc. A recent meeting of the NEU Left, a new grouping within the union, grappled with the difficult strategic questions of how to bring that about.
In the meantime, the union’s pragmatic decision to undertake disaggregated ballots (i.e. voting groups in each sixth form colleges) has meant that the 25 colleges that surpassed 50% turnout are able to take action (see below), which will be sustained with strike pay, while a further layer of colleges who just missed the threshold will be reballoted in the hope that they can join later days in the discontinuous action.
In a way the striking colleges will therefore be proxies not just for other sixth form colleges but for the education sector as a whole, which is wracked by the same problems of underfunding, unsustainable workloads and diminishing pay. So it’s really important that other NEU members, as well as trade unionists more generally, get behind our battle to show that concerted action can win.
Please send messages of support via our Post 16 Executive member firstname.lastname@example.org , get down to your local picket line to tell us in person and, if possible, join our march and rally at 1pm on 17 October from the Emmanuel Centre, 9 Marsham Street, London, SW1P 3DW.
Below is a list of the colleges that successfully met the threshold. WQE and Gateway will be on half-term on 17 October, but are set to join the strikes on 5 November.
Longley Park Sixth Form College
Long Road Sixth Form College
City & Islington Sixth Form College
The Brooke House Sixth Form College
WQE and Regent College Group (from 5 November)
St Francis Xavier Sixth Form College
Shrewsbury Colleges Group
Gateway Sixth Form College (from 5 November)
Newham Sixth Form College
Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College
Hereford Sixth Form College
Brighton Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College
St John Rigby RC Sixth Form College
Hills Road Sixth Form College
Notre Dame Catholic Sixth Form College
Sir George Monoux College
Richard Huish College
King Edward VI College Stourbridge
St Brendan’s Sixth Form College
The Sixth Form College Solihull