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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT blogs about his thoughts and passions and the work of the National Association of Head Teachers.

NAHT response to Conservative proposals on public sector strike ballots

The first Conservative Party education announcement of 2015 contains no ideas for improving the quality of teaching. Instead, they’ve gone on the attack against the profession. They have announced three new items for their election manifesto. They will:

Require a minimum turnout of 50% in ballots for industrial action plus a 40% yes vote from all members eligible to vote;

End the ban on using agency workers to cover classes during strikes;

Impose a duty on schools to remain open during strikes.

This is a shameless political manoeuvre that will risk the progress made with the teacher unions. I fear that it will fatally damage the talks on workload, which teachers and their unions have undertaken in good faith.  More than 40,000 teachers engaged in the Workload Challenge with their ideas and suggestions. We were expecting a response from the government next week; that’s not going to happen now.

This action thus has immediate consequences regardless of the election results. It reverses the fragile accord which was defusing the threat of industrial action and promoting a constructive dialogue on how to improve conditions for teachers. The détente is cancelled. We will continue to see frustrated, alienated and demoralised teachers. Even the Secretary of State had admitted that dispirited teachers are no good for pupils.

Let’s unpick these tactics one by one.

Lifting the ban on agency workers is a subsidiary issue compared to the other two. Imposing minimum levels on turnout and majorities is quite simply a restriction of a democratic right. I know that it can cause disruption when a school shuts, but everyone should question whether curtailing this right is justified or fair or safe. There are no restrictions on the turnout for an MP to get elected. The Conservatives won’t need 40% of the electorate to vote in favour of these policies in order to implement them.

I write this as the leader of a union that is not particularly strike prone. We take national industrial action roughly once every century. The last time we did so we met the minimum criteria set out above, despite the archaic ballot restrictions. I am not worried about my bargaining power but I am worried about the attack on the basic human right to withdraw one’s labour. I am worried about the damage to education from the deliberately provocative tactics.

Of course it won’t eliminate strike action in schools either. It may reduce the prevalence of national strikes but it will be relatively straightforward for individual branches to achieve these totals and shut individual schools.

The final tactic, forcing schools to open during action, will worry and anger head teachers. They will keep a school open if they can but it is often unsafe to open a school without sufficient qualified and vetted staff at hand. Many commentators from outside education don’t believe this, but then few of them have been asked to look after a thousand teenagers with just a handful of colleagues.  Head teachers could be asked to endanger children in order to help the government win industrial conflicts. They know that their first duty is to the safety of children, that they are morally and legally accountable for that safety, and that they are the only people who should determine when a school is safe to open.

As I said, this is political strategy. I believe the public are fed up of teachers being criticised and bullied, so these tactics won’t carry much weight by themselves. They will only work if they provoke an extreme reaction from the unions in the run up to the general election. The most effective response is a calm rejection and the appropriate exercise of our democratic right in the ballot we all get to take part in in May.

09 January 2015