The strike wave came and went. Did the NEU #saveourschools? No. If anything, conditions are worse. Management piles on the workload: more meetings, more marking, more cover work, more observations, more scrutiny overall. There’s more of everything except real funding. And that pay rise? It’s already been eaten up by inflation and rents that keep rising.
The most important outcome of the NEU strike is that the strength of the union has been sapped. Where strike action galvanised hundreds of thousands, now no one talks politics. A mood of resignation prevails in the face of management’s onslaught. Yes it’s terrible, yes we’re angry, but what can we do? And management knows this mood best since they saw more and more members turn from strikers to scabs as the strike dragged into the summer. Rampant scabbing then has given them free rein to run roughshod now. That workers feel they have zero power at work is the surest sign that the first teachers strike in decades was driven into the ground. To understand why and how, it is necessary to begin with an understanding of what was, and is, needed to fight for schools.
What it will take to fight for schools
A few hours in a state school will educate anyone about the social decay pervading Britain. After learning nothing online for over a year, students are struggling mentally, socially and academically. Behaviour is terrible. Grades are tumbling; literacy and numeracy have taken a dive. Classes keep getting bigger. Teachers are quitting in droves. To top it all off, hundreds of schools might literally collapse.
Management has one solution: crack the whip. More sanctions to make the kids behave better, ignoring the social circumstances causing poor behaviour. Instead of making provisions for growing challenges in learning, teachers must somehow become social workers without training or resources. It’s not about good or bad management; the job of management is to implement cuts, which mean layoffs and speed-up. Thus management objectively works against the interests of teachers and students. Organising the fightback at work must start with kicking management out of the union.
Lack of funding is a symptom of the broader problem: general deterioration of social and economic life of the country. The real reason for the crisis in schools is that the British state and economy are run by Etonian dynasties from the City of London to Westminster. They have no interest in providing even a basic education for working-class kids considered surplus in an economy run on finance, not industry.
It’s quite simple: the whole country is going to hell and schools are going right along with it. Saving schools boils down to changing the entire course of this country: more wages, more funding, more schools, more housing. It means taking on capitalism and the ruling class itself.
Socialists and the NEU’s losing strategy
When the strike wave began in 2022, the Tories were in shambles and support for the unions was massive. To win, the NEU needed to take on the government, but its strategy flew in the face of organising a real fight. It consisted of isolated strike days and a handful of national marches that felt more like parades than class struggle. Scabbing was the norm, so schools stayed open; workers from other unions waved hello as they crossed the pickets to go to work, under instruction from their leaders. There were no common strike funds, so the union played right into the Tories’ strategy of attrition: members began feeling the pinch and scabbed on their own strike. As a result, the strike dragged into the summer and ended in defeat. The parting gift from ex-NEU leaders Courtney and Bousted was the recommendation to accept a real terms pay cut born of their strategy. From start to finish, the union leadership stood as an obstacle to winning the strike.
The task for socialists was to oppose the strategy of the leadership and fight for one based on challenging the entire system that maintains schools in a constant state of deprivation; it was to point to a fundamentally different road. But this was not done by the socialist left in the NEU, composed of supporters of the Socialist Workers Party (who basically run the Islington branch and have seats on the London and National executives), the Socialist Party (which has representation on the National Executive) and other groups like Socialist Appeal and Socialist Alternative. Despite all they said about fighting capitalism and bringing down the Tories in their press, their work on the ground consisted in covering for the NEU tops, either pushing them to the left or pleading to escalate when defeat was certain. In both cases, they fundamentally accepted the strategy of the leadership. Marxists characterise these trends as opportunism and adventurism, which are in fact two sides of the same coin. Let us elaborate.
Lefts cover for NEU tops
Opportunism is an adaptation to existing conditions; for example, calling for more strike days without organising a fight against the losing strategy of the leadership, fuelling illusions that five or ten more days of strikes would be enough to win. On the ground, the lefts did photo-ops on picket lines, holding their papers, ignoring the open schools behind them, refusing to say “never cross a picket line”. They happily organised rallies for the bureaucracy featuring Corbyn. When militants challenged local leaders and the lefts about the need for strike funds to build the strike and opposed the union means-testing its membership for a meagre £40/day, they were told to suck it up and carry on. The lefts did not lift a finger to conduct fundraising drives to support striking teachers against the leadership leaving them hanging. Instead, the socialist left covered for the NEU tops.
The result was a defeat and the emergence of a divide between the mass of teachers alienated by the union’s losing strategy and ready to give up, and a tiny minority of isolated militants who wanted to carry on. This is the only meaning of the results of the contract vote.
Adventurism, from the strike to Palestine
When union leaders recommended 6.5 per cent, the lefts organised the “Educators Say No!” group (mainly a WhatsApp echo chamber), which criticised the tops for pushing a rotten contract. But its entire premise was to reject the offer and carry on doing more of the same, with drastically reduced numbers. This is the definition of insanity; at that point, the game was lost. What was needed was a temporary retreat to rebuild the union by recruiting more members, building strike funds, kicking management out and, most of all, fighting for a socialist leadership prepared to take on the entire system. This is still posed.
The frenzy of the lefts to carry on despite widespread demoralisation is known as adventurism, the essence of which is to forge blindly ahead, going around the leadership instead of challenging it on a fundamental basis. As the February indicative ballot approaches, the lefts cheer for more strike action, drawing no lessons from the defeat of the strike. The lefts’ adventurism is a mirror of opportunism in that both are defined by their attitude to the obstacles: where opportunism adapts, adventurism ignores their existence and wishes them away.
Nowhere is this clearer than on Palestine, with the lefts pushing all kinds of workplace actions like school walk-outs. Yes, teachers must stand in defence of Palestine. But as things stand, will the NEU defend members if they face discipline for disrupting education, for “anti-Semitism”, for contravening the anti-Muslim Prevent programme? No. This amounts to asking teachers to put their jobs on the line without the backing of the union. If members stand up for Palestine, they are left in the lurch, just like during the strike. Despite the socialist groups talking about Palestinian liberation, their actions on the ground do not challenge the leaders who prevent a real show of strength for Palestine.
Indeed there are two parallel universes. On Saturdays, NEU leader Daniel Kebede gives speeches in central London about the plight of Palestinian children and branch leaders unfurl their union banners for photo-ops at the mass demonstrations. But Monday to Friday, the union issues advice parroting the Education Act of the British state that kids must be “offered a balanced presentation of conflicting views”. There can be no balanced presentation of Zionism and the oppression of Palestine!
The union’s hypocrisy is explained by the fact that the NEU itself accepts Prevent; that is, it accepts that teachers act as ideological minions of the British ruling class — the very architect of Palestinian oppression. To defend Palestine without being labelled an “extremist” or an “anti-Semite” requires opposing policies like Prevent and “British values” that gag teachers and students alike. Doing so would mean confronting the British state, which the union leadership has demonstrated it will not do. Yet the lefts in the NEU are silent about the hypocrisy of the union, adapting to its acceptance of Prevent when the fight for Palestinian liberation demands that this gag order be lifted urgently!
From the strike to Palestine, the lefts in the NEU are defined by their refusal to challenge the union leadership and provide a different course of action based on going up against the entire system, the only way to #saveourschools.