why such scope for union-busting in schools?

by Florence Mensah

There are a number of reasons why I have found it difficult to write about union-busting politics in my workplace. (i) I have been working too hard to consider that I might take time to reflect on it all. (ii) I, like many other workers, am intimidated by the threat of losing my job. (iii) It is sometimes hard to know what good will come from having a great big moan, and it can make you feel even worse!

However, I was encouraged to write about what has been going on in my school by a fellow comrade. Why? Because we are a community of workers, whatever our jobs, whatever our unions. Unless we can problematize the very insidious tactics that managements put in place daily to undermine our agency and threaten our security and mental well-being, we will not be confident in recognising how best to tackle them.

Some context: the secondary school where I work as a teacher was near special measures five years ago. There were stabbings on-site. The school community had to deal with all the stigma and difficulty that goes along with the devastating gang scene. As a result it was subject to a ‘make-over challenge’ consisting in massive scrutiny from OFSTED (and numerous outsourced education and management consultancy firms). It was turned around by a leader who effectively culled ineffective staff. Like many schools in this situation the aim became to bring in a new ‘calibre of child’ in order to produce precious data that is rarely yielded by a cohort of entirely working-class children. In my opinion, therefore, the school is already resting on politically (and morally) dubious grounds; more concerned with raising the class- status of the school than thinking of ways to serve the children who are most in need of a transformative education.

Staff are now expected to collaborate in producing a mirage of excellence and professionalism. However chaotic the systems that have been put in place we cannot ‘be seen’ to be disagreeing with any figure in our heavy web of a management structure. At least once a fortnight some staff will be called into an impromptu meeting to be spoken at for two hours. Questions will not be directly answered. We will be patronised; told off for duties that we could potentially be neglecting – duties which we will then have to perform outside of our directed hours.

The school operates a ‘name and shame’ system in which names of late and absent staff are published in a weekly bulletin. Similar postings are made for incomplete registers.

What is the logic of this management style? I guess it is thought that people respond well to fear. That people feel like they have no room to make mistakes and therefore strive for perfection. Unfortunately it does seem to have this effect on many people. Despite many issues being taken up by our busy union reps, there remains a resounding echo of ‘you just have to play the game- don’t rock the boat.’ What makes it harder to mobilise against management tactics is that there exists a super-layered management structure. Half of the work-force have been branded ‘middle-managers’. This is inevitably reflected in their pay-packet. There are few who are willing to jeopardise pay – why should they be?

So promotions and threats divide the workforce, just like any other workplace. What is unique to the secondary school as a workplace is that there is a common misconception that any attention that is paid to workers rights and entitlements has a detrimental effect on students. Teachers who are trade unionists are caricatured as whiners more concerned with coasting through the day than engaging wholly in the delivery of their students’ education.

It is this myth that I feel it is important to debunk. Public sector workers are easily exploitable because they care about the people they are actually working for; in my case the students. It is my right to do my job well because I enjoy the success and the buzz of knowing that children in my class have learnt something.

In order to do my job well I need to lead a balanced life which requires me to hold on to time that is truly my own. In order to do my job well I would like to work as a part of a collaborative team, not one that is divided and competitive. Lastly, and most importantly, I and every other education worker needs to be able to work without the intense level of scrutiny to which we are subjected. Headteachers become paranoid because of the top-down centralised structures of OFSTED and target-projections. What this means is that, in extreme cases like my own, teachers are battered with mantra relating to quantifiable outcomes – so battered they are often left without space to contemplate how best to create meaningful learning experiences.

I believe that the mistreatment of workers correlates with a mistreatment or neglect of students. What we are seeing is that education is beginning to cater for students on only superficial level (for profit if you like) whilst staff are made to feel as if they are disposable. We should refuse to entertain these union-busting tactics. We have a duty to ourselves, and as role models to our students, to protect our rights and to prevent ego-manic management dictating the future of education.