When Labour came to power with a mission to sort out education, they bulldozed ahead with the mantra of "whatever works". All opposition to New Labour "reform" was met with this crude put-down. Tests were necessary to drive up standards. Ofsted was needed to root out bad teachers. This was a mask to continue Tory policies. It was a strategy to justify the centralisation of control of schools, the handing of lucrative contracts to their friends in big business for buildings and services, and to stop dead any opposition from teacher unions. A regime, initiated by the hated Tory Party under Margaret Thatcher, introduced the testing of children at seven. This has been pursued relentlessly over the last 12 years. Now every part of education - from children's early admission to school, the content of the curriculum, the building of schools under the Private Finance Initiative, the conditions of teachers and support staff, right through to university level - all have been infected with this suffocating top-down control. Targets, testing and league tables have led to bullying management, and a narrower curriculum than even that of the old Victorian Gradgrind era!
But the recent Cambridge Review completely shatters the New Labour and Tory myth. It supports much of what socialists and trade unionists, and a wide range of educationalists, have been warning over many years. Unfortunately for a generation of children - and their teachers - everything we said has been borne out. It bears out with evidence based on research that the narrowing of the curriculum is not good for children; and that the biggest contributor to under-achievement is poverty. It condemns the current system of SATs. But in the end it will be down to the unions to get SATs and all their ramifications thrown out. The unions, particularly the National Union of Teachers (NUT) have had chances to do just that. In 2003 the union, under a right-wing leadership at the time balloted teachers in primary schools to stop Key Stage 1 and 2 tests. Although the result was over 30,000 in favour of a boycott, the leadership buckled and stepped back, leaving teachers even more isolated.
This gave the green light to the government to pile on more of the same, with one diktat after another, one literacy strategy after another. Earlier this year the NUT conference voted again to call another ballot to stop SATs with delegates on their feet chanting enthusiastically: "No more SATs." The NAHT, the headteachers' union followed up by passing the same motion at their conference. It seemed that this time it was for real. Then absolutely nothing happened. Recently the heads, not unexpectedly, backtracked, and the now Left led leadership of the NUT fell in behind them. What has taken place is only an indicative ballot, not a real ballot for action. If strong action is not taken soon, the matter could be left to David Cameron and his crew to sort out. According to the Conservative shadow education minister Michael Gove, their view on less interference by central government is, true to Tory form, to hand over schools (including primaries) lock, stock and barrel, to all manner of private outfits. In other words they propose the complete dismantling of state education.
The recommendations of the Cambridge Review, with some exceptions, are on the whole very welcome. However, the current system of testing and league tables will not fall down through evidence alone; now more than ever trade union action is the key. If teacher trade unionists take the first step to boycott they will find a huge pool of support from parents, other educationists, academics, and even the media, who could all be drawn in to bring about real changes for the benefit of children. As the axe of council cuts looms and falls, with public services paying the price for the recession, school support staff are directly in the firing line. Job losses and cuts in hours are widespread. Redundancies are only being avoided in some schools by all support staff 'pulling together' to volunteer hours so that schools can make a saving. We are paying the price, not only as workers but also as parents whose children are losing vital support in their classrooms, dining halls and playgrounds.
'Teaching on the cheap' is already widespread, with teaching assistants leant on to plan, deliver and mark lessons. Taking whole classes to cover for teachers, often for extended periods of time, is commonplace and increasing. Schools are saving money by deploying these low-paid staff to cover teachers' planning, preparation and assessment time, instead of paying qualified teachers to cover this legally required non-contact time for teaching staff. School support staff are pressurised by bullying heads into agreeing to work extra hours, often without pay, at lunchtimes and before and after school, running clubs and activities. A sharp increase in disciplinary cases involving school workers is already evident. Headteachers and governing bodies, in line with other employers, are turning the economic climate to their advantage, acting with a new level of brutality over sickness and misconduct policies. Union organisation of school staff nationally is at best patchy. There are some union branches where a healthy network of members and stewards will enable workers to make their voices heard but there are others where midday supervisors, teaching assistants, caretakers, cleaners, administrators and catering staff are left fending for themselves.
It is now more crucial than ever that the vulnerable and fragmented workforce in schools is recruited into the trade unions and organised to defend not only our jobs, terms and conditions but also our children's education. We must fight to make sure that the price for this crisis of capitalism is not paid in schools.