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NATIONAL Education Union members in five schools in East Sussex took two days of strike action last month over pay and ballots are taking place now in eight more schools as the dispute widens.
The issue at stake is whether the National School Teachers Review Body’s pay recommendation to give newer lower-paid teachers on the main teachers’ pay scale a 2 per cent rise is applied in the County’s local education authority and academy schools.
Union members have been enraged by the fact that, despite East Sussex having a very high cost of living — average house prices being over £340,000 — teachers’ pay has now fallen behind most of the rest of the country.
When producing its pay recommendations the county used the fact that school teachers’ contracts only specify the top and the bottom of the pay scales to move the middle of the scale only 1 per cent and therefore set pay for many teachers at a lower level than the national norm.
The amounts of money are not large — a few hundred pounds a year for most of those affected — but a decade of below-inflation pay awards, soaring workload and stress levels have made this a clear line in the sand for the union and its members.
East Sussex teachers should at least get the paltry pay award that has been recommended.
When negotiations with county HR and attempts to raise the impact with the Tory councillors that paying less will have on recruitment and retention made no ground, the local NEU decided to begin a campaign of industrial action.
The action is being conducted in groups of schools being balloted and taking strike action on a rolling programme.
Six schools were in the first round of ballots, all of which passed anti-union threshold laws with ease.
Given the small cost to schools to pay the proper national rates, averaging at only £1,700 for the whole year for the whole school, it was not a surprise that governors in the only primary in the initial group decided it was correct to agree to pay.
What was more surprising is that, despite the small sums involved, the five secondary schools were not even willing to formally discuss the situation.
The two days of strike action in these first schools was very successful, with around 300 NEU members representing the vast majority of teaching staff in the schools taking part and the schools all being shut for lessons.
The lack of any significant strikebreaking was all the more notable as many, perhaps a majority, of members will not see a rise in pay when the dispute is won. Sitting on a different pay scale, it is the principle of implementing national pay that is at stake for them.
The second day of action was, if anything, more successful than the first, with more members joining picket lines and very good support from the public in town centres when out campaigning.
The towns affected by the action — Lewes, Peacehaven, Uckfield, Eastbourne and Seaford — are perhaps not renowned for the strength of their labour movements, but consistent organising by the NUT has placed them in the front line in action over public-sector pay.
The campaign is making headway with 23 schools in the county, most not faced with industrial action directly but well aware of the campaign now paying the national rates.
Difficulties have arisen as heads rightly claim that schools are underfunded and therefore pay must be held down or that the action is unfair as it targets some schools initially and not others.
The funding argument is a serious one. There is no doubt the government cuts to school funding are disgraceful and are leading to cuts to provision and staffing levels.
However, not only are the amounts in this dispute so small as to mean they will not trigger redundancies by not agreeing the national scales, as NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney rightly explained at the strike rally, this failure to pay pushes the funding problem down onto teachers who have had real-terms pay cuts for years, whereas heads need to be putting pressure on government.
The dispute is now set to go into its second phase as a new round of schools are balloted for industrial action.
The local NEU has made it clear the dispute will continue to roll on and expand until it is resolved.
This may well spill over into the next academic year when once again the county will be setting a pay policy and, without pressure, the union believes it is likely it will again recommend to schools that they underpay, exacerbating the problem.
The dispute, although limited in geographical reach, is an important one. It raises the obvious problems with the government’s breaking up of school teachers’ national pay.
This dispute would not have happened a few years ago when scales where simply set nationally. The advantages of a planned and joined-up national education service offered by Labour are very clear in that terms and conditions can be consistent and eliminate the risk of a race to the bottom in education workers’ pay.
The NEU has been formed out of the amalgamation of the NUT and the ATL. This action in East Sussex, alongside significant strike action in London schools over academisation, shows that the new larger union is able to organise to protect its members despite the issues coming from joining two organisations with very different cultures.
The dispute also raises the spectre of more significant national action over pay across the public sector. It may well not have been the case only a few years ago that teachers in East Sussex would have been so determined in taking industrial action over pay and, for many, their colleagues’ pay.
The argument that we all need to tighten our belts has well and truly worn thin for these teachers and the mood is that, when it comes to pay, enough is enough.
Following on from the TUC demo over the weekend it may well be time for union leaders to catch the mood of members over pay and look at how industrial action can be used to force much-needed pay rises out of this government.
Phil Clarke is secretary of Lewes, Eastbourne and Wealden branch of the National Education Union (NUT Section).
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