I spoke to EIS Union representation, James Kane, about the recent teacher strike in West Dunbartonshire Council and discovered what the dispute will mean for student teachers soon to enter the profession.
The EIS received support for this strike from approximately 9 out of every 10 members who participated in the ballot. Why was the strike on Tuesday and the subsequent work-to-rule action necessary?
West Dunbartonshire Council is under pressure to make cuts and wants to save £600,000 from the education budget. It is not prepared to back down over its plans on restructuring and creation of faculties, even though the vast majority of teachers are opposed to it. We do not want to go on strike – this is the first time for 30 years – but we have no alternative to industrial action to force the council to rethink its plans.
How would you respond to West Dunbartonshire Council who, when we approached them for comment, told us that ‘the structure does not undermine subject specialism…the new structure more closely reflects the fact that Curriculum for Excellence is organised under “curricular areas” rather than discrete subjects and places significant emphasis on the importance of inter-disciplinary learning’?
The Council first of all wants to save money. It identified restructuring as a way of reducing spending and then came up with a rationale. However, it doesn’t make sense. For example, Curriculum for Excellence puts Home Economics and Physical Education in the same curricular area, but when you put them together in a faculty you are expecting a Principal Teacher of Home Economics to run PE or vice versa. This makes no sense: it is solely to save money. Curriculum for Excellence should not be used as an excuse to make cuts. It is important to remember that the cuts will also reduce the number of Pastoral Care staff. This is devastating for one of the most deprived authorities in Scotland. Everyone will suffer from this, especially vulnerable pupils.
A work-to-rule action is now taking place. Where do you think the dispute will go from here?
It is entirely up to the Council. I have been teaching for 34 years and I have never seen teachers so militant. We are absolutely determined to win. We won’t give up. The Council should recognise that it has made a mistake and back down. If not, our action will escalate.
What will the restructuring plans mean for students currently aiming to enter the teaching profession?
If faculties are in place, it will make life much more difficult for everyone. Teachers will be under even more pressure and stress. This will make it impossible to give students the help and attention they need and deserve. And of course, the principal teacher may not specialise in the student’s area – a PT English specialist will not have the expertise to help a Modern Languages student, for example. Also, if new teachers wanted to progress through the promotion system, this will be much more difficult as there will far fewer promoted posts.
What support have you received from parents and other areas of the public sector?
As a rule, parents tend to be very supportive and this instance is no exception. The parents’ council has expressed 100% support. We cannot lose sight of the fact that this is a fight for the quality of education and if we lose this dispute, it is the service and the pupils who will lose out. On the day of the strike, the support from the general public was overwhelming and we were astonished at the number of messages of support from other unions and individuals.
Finally, do you feel optimistic about the future of the education system? What advice would you give to student teachers in light of this strike action?
There are many reasons to feel pessimistic because we are living in a country where austerity is a reflection of an ideology that sees public services as dispensable: there is absolutely no need to make cuts. The debt after the Second World War was far greater than now, but look at what was achieved in that period – NHS, Welfare State… However, I am optimistic for one key reason: teachers are prepared to take industrial action to defend the service. For that reason I would advise student teachers to be similarly optimistic because they are entering a profession where the staf are prepared to stand up for their rights and for education. I would also advise them to join a strong trade union.
This interview originally appeared in Qmunicate magazine