workers revolt against vygotsky – an account of unofficial action at tower hamlets college

The following piece was written by one of the Tower Hamlets College (THC) ESOL teachers who were on strike for four weeks until recently.  For context, it would be best to read our previous coverage – Lessons of the Tower Hamlets ESOL Strike – first.  The article is not current, though it has not previously been published.  It was begun at the end of the summer term 2009, has had a few updates since, and describes unofficial action taken at a training day, which included materials by educational theorist Lev Vygotsky*(whose work it is in no way necessary to be aware of in order to read the following).  The article shows the power of workers to make themselves unmanageable, and some real dynamics of taking assertive action at work in 2009.

THC - workers revolt against vygotsky

By ‘Rachel’

Some local supporters witnessed an open air meeting of our union branch on Friday 3rd July where we had to take the decision of what to do on the Monday of the last week of work. Monday was not a strike day because it was planned as something more important. Teaching finished on Friday and the following week has always been a week of paid Continuing Professional Development – ‘CPD’ where there is a variety of sessions on offer and staff can choose what they’d like to do from a varied list of options including more practical things like learning new software programs or exploring new teaching theories.

There is now a professional requirement for FE teachers to attend and log 30 hours of CPD per year. A teacher who belongs to a radical discussion group who was there Friday told me that at his work place, the (entirely hourly-paid) staff considered CPD something imposed from above and seemed to consider it a victory that no one did it. This is very different from what we had at THC where we were paid well to go to relevant, interesting training sessions.

But this year with the new management in the counting down to redundancies and trying to force in a new work culture, we were told all 300 teaching staff had to attend one CPD session, ironically enough on ‘Differentiation’ which means catering to different needs within the classroom (something we do constantly by many methods such as preparing materials at 2 or 3 different literacy levels).
We objected to all being told what to do, this was entirely new in the history of the college. We also to the objected content of this session.

We understand the differences between learners as largely social; the professional trainer believes it is about a difference in people’s brains – are you a kinesthetic learner or a visual learner, or whatever. In fact, according to Pivotal Education, the trainers hired for the day, learners are apparently as ‘individual as fingerprints’. This chimes very much with current government thinking that conceives of learners as individual consumers of education with their own needs and goals and that teachers must cater to these diverse needs through Individual Learning Plans (long opposed and abandoned by teachers at THC).

So, as the battle shaped up in the 30 day ‘consultation period’ our brilliant CPD coordinator began, with others, to plan an alternate sessions for the day, mostly focussing on how to improve the good practice we have in the college and oppose the target culture. These sessions were bookable on the intranet and were of course more popular than the one we were told to go to. After a few days however our session disappeared off the computer system and we were told that there was only one CPD, had only ever been one CPD and we were all required to attend this. We continued to plan ours and told people to vote with their feet, until the SMT told us that if the alternate session went ahead the planners and those who attended would be in breach of contract and would face disciplinary measures.

So, during one of the one-day strikes we held an open air meeting outside the college where we voted on this issue: so called ‘option 1’ which would be to continue with our plans and face the consequences, or ‘option 2’ which would be to back down, go to the official CPD but not cooperate.

Just before the vote the UCU regional rep delivered to us the speech of ultra-left mythology: if you do this you will be breaking your contract and the union will have to repudiate you, the people planning the CPD and our local reps would be at risk.

Even without this it was pretty clear that most people didn’t wanted to take the risk.. A few people voted for option one, but overwhelmingly people wanted to abandon the alternate plan and attend the One CPD but try to disrupt it and make our feelings felt when we were there.

Later that day this felt like a real step back – although it was a relief that to know our friends and colleagues were safer, we worried that a retreat meant we would lose momentum for the whole struggle. A friend watching the outdoor meeting said he thought it was shameful – of the college management, the union, and us for caving so quickly and voting to do what management wanted us to do.

However, it became clear next week that we’d taken the right decision.

On Monday most of the 300 teachers showed up to the meeting wearing stickers printed with ‘Here under Duress’ and ‘NO CPD by Diktat’. We were sent into two big rooms, 150 people in each, and proceeded to show that we were not under their control.  In the room I was in, the tone was set by a teacher who spoke not ideologically, but from the heart: she said that she was not capable of participating in the sessions given what was going on the college – the wholesale attack on our teaching culture and countdown to mass redundancies. After that many people started objecting to the session, telling the trainer while we appreciated he had been put in an awkward position we asked him not to collude with management in forcing us to sit through the session.

The Trainer tried his best to keep control of the situation through humour, pleading and bullying but it wasn’t going to happen as he wanted. Management people and security guards were there watching but because we were so many we felt strong. Eventually the session was cancelled but not before we had received an assurance from Principal Michael Farley (by email on the interactive white board – he was somewhere in the building) that no one who left the session would be disciplined.

That was a great day. The trainer in the other room carried on and taught a small group of people who wanted to stay, mostly managers and wannabe managers. Many of the middle managers in the ‘scab CPD’ later came out and stayed on strike with us for the 21 days.

This was also the day we got to know each other a bit more. UCU at THC is two branches, one based at Poplar, the 6th form, and the other combining Arbour Square, Bethnal Green, the Ideas Stores and Outreach (community centres). The Poplar branch is dominated by the SWP and is a much more traditional FE Union branch. The Arbour branch is much more decentralised and less hierarchical; it also tends to be more practical and less bureaucratic.

We at Arbour teach mostly adults and have little contact with the 6th form. I had never met any teachers of the vocational options such as hair and beauty and motor vehicles. So when we were sat in the room with 150 others it didn’t seem surprising that people hadn’t gone for the unofficial action of the self-organised CPD; we have to communicate a bit and create solidarity before taking that step.

That same day we had a joint branch meeting where we voted unanimously for all-out strike …

*the training handouts for the disputed CPD session tried hard to be hip and quoted from many sources including Monty Python, Jung and Vygotsky, using radical theory for conservative purposes.

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