Today’s strike by teachers, college lecturers and civil servants is an important challenge to the low pay and privatisation agenda that this government is inflicting on workers in the public services. It is the first national strike by teachers in the National Union of Teachers (NUT) for 21 years. For many lecturers in the University and College Union (UCU) and for civil servants in the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) it is the first time that they too have taken industrial action.
While the leaders of the unions will tend to see the strike as a protest and a chance to let off steam, for the 400,000 workers involved, it is a long-overdue opportunity to express their anger at the way they have been treated over a number of years, culminating this year with another below-inflation pay award. And beyond the pay issue, today’s strikers are all enmeshed in “an orgy of privatisation” plans, as Mark Serwotka, the leader of the PCS, has described it.
New Labour’s ringing slogan of 1997,” Education, Education, Education” turned out in practice to be the opposite of what most voters thought it meant. The Tory Education Reform Act of 1988, with the introduction of the prescriptive National Curriculum, the management of schools by themselves, the setting up of new types of school, such as the City Technology colleges, the ending of local control over these new schools and the polytechnics and FE colleges, and a regime of testing youngsters every other year, was left entirely in place by new Labour in 1997. The much-hated schools inspector Chris Woodhead, continued to oversee and terrorise schools up and down the country.
New Labour then built on this framework, encouraging competition between different schools and colleges and inviting the private sector to bid for control of so-called “failing schools” and even failing authorities (such as Islington). It created “academies” and school trusts outside the control of the local authority (but under the control of a local business, or a church or even an “intelligent design” outfit). The government outsourced school meals and school supplies and got private firms to build (and own) new schools and colleges through PFI deals. Many schools themselves are increasingly run along the lines of a business enterprise with the head teacher as the CEO.
This was called “modernisation” and was falsely touted as a means to increase parental choice. Apart from opening the door wide for businesses to cash in, it led to confusion and dismay amongst teachers, who now had to teach children to pass tests, the results of which became the all-important measure for attracting new parents.
Centralised, top-down management of education in the state sector, in schools and colleges, has largely cut across the old ideals of a learning environment, which was to encourage a genuine spirit of enquiry and discovery in youngsters. Class sizes have risen while wealth and job inequalities have manifested themselves in the form of disruptive behaviour. No wonder three out of four NUT members voted to support strike action,
The truth is that New Labour (and the Tories for that matter), dancing to the tune of the World Trade Organisation, will continue to pursue policies for the privatisation of all the public services, including the NHS and the civil service. That is the dynamic of the new market state, towards a world where eventually transnational corporations will provide everything for everyone from birth to death (in two or three distinct levels, of course, according to wealth and class).
With New Labour in a weakened and confused state in the midst of a growing global economic crisis, now is the time to force the issue, to build an alliance of all public sector unions teachers, parents and other supporters to defend services and to defeat this government of corporate globalisation and privatisation. Such an alliance can only strengthen the movement if and when it comes to confronting Cameron’s Tories. The reported meeting of the NUT and the PCS to plan for further action after today is an important first step.