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Issue 41, September 1999

Teachers in the front line

RIGHT-WING trade union leader Doug McAvoy has been re-elected as general secretary of the largest teaching union in England and Wales, the National Union of Teachers (NUT). This will prove to be a setback for teachers who were looking for determined leadership to oppose New Labour's attacks.

New Labour made much of their promises to make education a priority but their policies have meant attacking comprehensive state education. Creeping privatisation through Education Action Zones (EAZs) and the Private Finance Initiative is gathering pace. Now education services in Hackney, Islington and Liverpool are being put out to private tender.

Teachers are threatened with the introduction of performance-related pay (PRP). Mounting opposition to these proposals set the scene for the NUT elections yet, perhaps not coincidentally, news of McAvoy's victory was soon followed by the announcement that the new pay arrangements would be starting in 2000.

The NUT had led the opposition to the PRP proposals contained in the government's green paper. At the annual conference this Easter, McAvoy's supporters had surprised delegates when they echoed calls from the left and themselves called for national action to oppose the government. The national boycott of appraisal went ahead with a further ballot for a one-day national strike due to follow. Now McAvoy is safely returned, however, the right-wing majority on the national executive have already overturned conference policy for a one-day strike!

While still voicing opposition to PRP, McAvoy argues that his campaign has secured concessions from the government. It is true that, as always, they have been prepared to give some ground in order to weaken opposition. David Blunkett's official view is, 'we are committed to the principles of our proposals but want to ensure that they are manageable and practicable'. The main thrust of linking pay to performance remains.

  The central idea will be the introduction of a 'threshold' which teachers will be asked to apply for from May 2000. 'Successful applicants' who can show 'evidence of effective teaching' will move to an upper pay spine. This divisive measure allows the government to pretend it is doing something about teachers' pay without funding what is really needed - a decent pay rise for all. It also allows them to deflect criticisms about problems really caused by chronic government underfunding of education onto their agenda of blaming supposedly failing teachers.

The 'threshold' falsely implies that only some teachers are up to the job. Staffrooms will be divided as colleagues compete to prove themselves worthy of an increase and many will be forced into even greater workload as a result.

This will be administered through a new system of 'performance management'. The government claim annual performance reviews will be distinct from pay reviews. Now this has been echoed by McAvoy who has sent out advice to union members on how to operate performance management schemes. He could not get this undermining of the boycott of appraisal through the national executive - but a core group of union officers voted to send it out anyway!

The government's latest pamphlet on the green paper admits that 'decisions on pay and promotion would be informed by performance review'. In other words, they are pressing ahead with PRP. Detailed proposals will be published in the autumn. The union should urgently be preparing members for action but McAvoy seems unwilling to do so.

  McAvoy is also guilty of undermining conference policy of 'total opposition' to EAZs and falsely reassuring teachers about the threat of privatisation. He has pointed to the difficulty the government has had in getting private firms to put up cash for EAZs as evidence that fears about privatisation are exaggerated. Like other union leaders who still cling to hopes that deals can be done with New Labour, he fails to see how far this government want to go in abandoning 'old Labour' principles.

Of course, all this was hidden from many members voting on the ballot papers sent to their home addresses in June. For months, much of the union publicity against the green paper had featured presonal messages from McAvoy. While active teachers understood what McAvoy's re-election would mean, to many he seemed to be leading a fightback.

McAvoy's election address also blatantly used 'red-scare' tactics to label his opponent, Christine Blower, as 'the candidate of the extreme left'. He listed left-wing groups and parties - including the Socialist Party - who would 'decide what she said and did'. These insults must have had an effect, particularly on teachers who, while angry, were not confident of taking action to defend their conditions.

The Socialist Teachers Alliance and the Campaign for a Democratic Fighting Union - which make up the NUT left - worked hard in the election campaign and this defeat will be a blow to the confidence of some activists. McAvoy won with 39,245 votes to 22,183, on a low 29.8% turnout. Experience, however, will teach teachers that there is no easy road to defend our pay and conditions against this government.

Further elections for NUT national officers will be held this autumn followed by the election of the deputy general secretary (DGS). The union left will have to redouble its efforts to expose the failure of the right-wing leadership to defend NUT members and make sure that the left campaign sets out a distinct alternative. Socialist Party members believe that would be aided by a commitment from the left's DGS candidate to remain on the pay of the classroom teacher - compared to the 74,664 that McAvoy receives!

Socialist Party members in the union and the wider community also need to oppose the government's attempts to set parents against teachers. We have to prepare a united struggle against the PRP and privatisation and to win properly funded comprehensive education from nursery to university.

Martin Powell-Davies

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