Last Tuesday members of the EIS union from all five West Dunbartonshire Council’s secondary schools came out on strike, claiming council decisions to alter the running of subject departments and principal teacher posts were purely ‘financially driven’. The strike, backed by almost nine out of every 10 union members, has been followed by a work-to-rule decision which took effect on Wednesday.
It is significant that on the same day as junior doctors across England and Wales took to the picket lines to defy Jeremy Hunt, a strike caused by similar tensions between the public sector and local government was taking place in West Dunbartonshire. Both strikes were fuelled by anger from doctors and teachers at the devaluation of their professional integrity, and both strikes seek to preserve opportunity for those entering their respective professions.
The council’s plans to restructure secondary schools by cutting the amount of principal teacher posts will see certain subjects run by principal teachers who specialise in entirely different areas, e.g. a Physical Education teacher as head of Home Economics or vice versa. The fear is that, rather than encourage interdisciplinary learning as the council suggest, these plans will only serve to generalise subjects and provide less expertise for pupils to learn from. Students will be less likely to study subjects which are managed by teachers whose knowledge lies in entirely different areas. Surely the focus should be on the ability of teachers to inspire and guide pupils in their area of specialism?
A spokesperson for the council told the BBC they were ‘saddened’ by the strike, a word choice echoing Jeremy Hunt’s use of ‘regrettable’ to describe the action of the junior doctors. However, striking means a day without pay for workers – it is not a decision anyone takes lightly.
When qmunicate approached Terry Lanagan, West Dunbartonshire Council’s Executive Director of Educational Studies, for comment we were told that ‘the new structure will move from a ratio of 1 in 3 of all secondary teachers in West Dunbartonshire promoted posts to 1 in 3.7, which still represents excellent promotion prospects for new teachers and is more generous in terms of school management posts than many Councils.’
Yet one probationary teacher told me that ‘not only will the restructure increase teachers’ workload and reduce any chances for promotion but the quality of education the pupils will receive could be hindered. Teachers will have to spend more time on work passed down from management and less time on planning. It will also mean that student and probation teachers may not have a mentor specific to their subject.’
Gil Paterson, the SNP MSP for Clydebank and Milngavie- a constituency effected by the strike action – told qmunicate that “the teachers’ strike in West Dunbartonshire would never have happened if the Labour administration had listened to the professionals – the frontline teaching staff – who would have explained to them the full impact of their actions. If their proposals go through, it will affect the quality of teaching and, most importantly, the children.’ Yet these fractures in relations between public sector workers and local councils transcend local constituency boundaries.
Fears about the emphasis on management as opposed to specialism within professions is one that is replicated across public sector fields in the UK. On Friday, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood told The Daily Politics programme that the government’s proposed plans to fast-track people into management roles in the social-care sector in Wales would do nothing to ease the burden on social workers within communities.
In an interview for qmunicate an EIS union rep suggested the dispute now lies in the hands of the council. It is vital, for both teachers and the wider public alike that professionals are listened to. Students must show support for those fighting for their futures.
This article originally appeared in Qmunicate magazine