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Take profit out of education – and put teaching back in

United Kingdom
Trade Unions

Ilmicrofono Oggiono under a Creative Commons Licence

Across the globe, governments are privatizing education as part of their drive to force neoliberal agendas onto public services. In Britain, 27 per cent of the Conservative Party’s funding comes from financiers and equity firms – who are thus well positioned to ‘win’ contracts in education. As for-profit companies move into the education sector, we will see further reductions in the quality of tuition, attacks on staff pensions, pay and conditions, and pressure to realize higher revenue.

The semi-privatization of schools is a growing trend, with community assets being taken out of public control and turned into commodities. This ‘softening up’ of education has opened the door to further privatization, with educational establishments perceived as businesses. Many parents now see themselves as ‘consumers’, adding to the pressure on overworked staff.

‘Below Target’, my recent study of neoliberalism, education and occupational stress, found staff alarmed about the future of the education sector. Concerns included privatization; the creation of Super Heads; a ‘sausage-factory mentality’ (schools just being concerned about churning out results); the lack of focus on ‘soft skills’ such as team work and social skills; a belief that technology can fix all; and pupils suffering school-related stress at an ever younger age.

Cuts in funding were of concern to 83 per cent of respondents, followed by increased workload (80 per cent), reduced staffing (77 per cent) and government policies and reforms (76 per cent). One respondent bemoaned ‘the creation of a two-tier system of education’ and the ‘resultant lack of opportunity for social mobility’. Another said that the current model was a ‘huge step backwards in education’.

The UK’s Treasury is looking for an average 17-per-cent spending cut to government departments for 2015-2019, with no commitment to protect the education budget. Austerity measures, including the recent 24-per-cent cut in the Adult Skills Budget, severely impact on the quality and choice of education.

Psychologists Against Austerity connect the rise in stress-related illness to austerity measures. They have identified ‘Austerity Ailments’ – specific psychological links between austerity policies and increased mental illness (humiliation and shame, instability and insecurity, fear and mistrust, a feeling of being trapped and powerless, isolation and loneliness).

Education is now an under-resourced, under-staffed environment with high levels of daily stress. This has a damaging effect both on the health of employees and on the students – who are constantly judged on their success or failure in attaining certain grades. Students’ work is marked ‘on target’ or ‘below target’; similarly, this is increasingly how staff feel judged.

The report found that the main issues contributing to stress in the workplace were: pressure to work intensely/insufficient breaks (63 per cent), unachievable deadlines (61 per cent), lack of information/communication (59 per cent) and performance reviews/competency procedures/poor line management (54 per cent).

Human Resource Management and appraisals are now firmly integrated into schools, with far-reaching consequences for employees faced with the ‘top-down approach’: unachievable targets are used as a means of coercing more work and responsibilities for the same wages. One Child Development Officer said that ‘good people will have their abilities and confidence undermined by bullying management techniques’.

A Head of Department had very real concerns regarding her ability to teach until she was 67:

‘Teaching is a lot more stressful than I thought it would be and not a job for life. I always thought that I would be a teacher for ever, but I’m not really sure if physically and mentally I will be able to do this until my pension kicks in at 67. It is the most rewarding career I could ever think of being a part of; I just wish that teaching was the main priority rather than everything that has been bolted onto this position.’

Some methods to relieve occupational stress can be implemented. For example, Staff Consultative Committees can reduce some stressful working practices (such as bullying and friction between colleagues). Nevertheless, these measures are merely papering over the cracks.

Although teachers are generally in trade unions, lower-paid staff struggle with membership fees and support staff have consistently been a marginalized group. Though many are highly skilled, their roles are perceived by management as transferable: ‘anyone can do the job’. With the majority of support staff only employed for 39 weeks a year, increasingly on temporary contracts, the imbalance of influence creates a ‘them and us’ situation. Though many support staff are also union members, this imbalance means that collective union responses alongside teachers are likely to be difficult.

Contributors to the ‘Below Target’ report said they wanted greater trade union support. They feel that unions should be more visible and proactive (industrial action, lobbying government, training on employment rights), and develop coherent national policies and strategies to fight for education, working collectively to prevent unions being played off against each other in future.

Encouragingly, many believe that by campaigning and acting together, they can adopt strategies to help employees manage the rise of stress-related illness. Unions are perfectly placed to deliver training on coping mechanisms such as Wellness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and this would be an effective way to reach new members and ensure relevance – essential as public-sector cuts continue apace.

Trade unions must also work together to gain the support of parents. A commonly held perception is that teachers’ pay and conditions are more favourable than those of the majority of workers. This leaves many to question why they should support industrial action by teachers, ensuring a ‘race to the bottom’ rather than striving to improve conditions for all. Inspiration can be taken from the example of the Chicago Teachers’ Strike, however. It achieved success by working with community groups and other unions, making the campaign not just about themselves, but about the students as well.

Following a recent visit to Chicago to research this subject, Matt Hannam, who is Constituency Case Worker for Naz Shah MP, said:

‘We need to organize and resist in a much more ideologically nuanced way. Whilst we respond in an issue-by-issue way (over pay, or testing, or curriculum) we allow the bigger ideological assault to continue unabated. How we push back is hard to conceive of, but communities and unions in Chicago have suggested that there are possibilities if a more politicized counter-narrative is developed and a bigger audience, namely parents and pupils, are included in the process and development of an organized response.’

Kath Holder is a UNISON Trade Union activist and works in a UK school. She has recently completed an MA in International Labour and Trade Union Studies at Ruskin College. Findings from ‘Below Target’ were also presented at The British Universities Industrial Relations Association Conference 2016.

Front cover, NoNonsense Rethinking EducationNoNonsense Rethinking Education (New Internationalist, 2016) is out now.

Look out for the September 2016 issue of New Internationalist: Trade unions: rebuild, renew, resist

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