Martin Parsons: Why I will NOT be joining the teachers' strike on Thursday
By Martin Parsons
1. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) has become politicised. When I first qualified as a teacher, I joined the union that is now known as ATL. I joined it for exactly the same reason that most teachers join a union - they want someone to back them up if a student makes a malicious allegation against them. I joined ATL specifically because it was a union that was not politicised and did not take strike action over pay. When I returned from working overseas a few years ago and rejoined ATL I was shocked to discover that the political neutrality that had been such a hallmark had gone out of the window.
When the union had been led by Peter Smith, although himself a Labour Party member, he had very carefully steered it away from political involvement to just looking after teachers' interests. Not so, I discovered with Dr Mary Bousted as General Secretary. I found the union had joined the TUC – although what tangible benefit that brought teachers is far from clear. More significantly, it was also issuing political statements on behalf of its members - although neither I, nor, I suspect, thousands of other ATL members, were ever directly consulted. These included statements opposing not only academies but also faith schools – even though more than a quarter of ATL members actually worked in voluntary-aided and voluntary-controlled schools. In other words, an ideological political agenda was being prioritised in at least some areas over the interests of teachers.
2. The NASUWT are not striking on Thursday. Whenever there has been a teachers’ strike in the past, the two unions that have generally called their members out on strike have been the NUT and the NASUWT. ATL has never carried out a strike in its 147-year history. It will therefore seem to many teachers extremely odd, if not disconcerting, that Dr Bousted persuaded ATL to hold a strike ballot when the NASUWT was not proposing strike action.
“Don’t turn up for work at any time on Thursday 30 June and don’t prepare any work you would have carried out on this day – including planning lessons. A strike creates a moral dilemma for some members. But you should respect the democratic decision of your union – a huge majority of your colleagues voted for this action.”
Actually that’s not true – according to ATL's own website of the 78,342 ATL members eligible to vote, 50,779 (65%) did not vote at all and of those who did only 22,840 (29%) voted to strike. That is hardly ‘a huge majority’ of ATL members.
4. I and many other teachers joined ATL precisely because it was in practice a non-striking union. In fact, that is almost certainly why so few members even bothered to return the ballot paper. It is somewhat ironic that in the latest edition of the ATL magazine, Dr Mary Bousted castigates the Government for changing the terms and conditions of the teachers' pension scheme after members had entered it.
“On pensions – I think that… critically, for everyone who’s been in teaching, you entered with a particular contract, as it were in broad terms… I'm not talking about a written document, I'm talking about a broader expectation... for people who’ve been in the profession, we shouldn’t alter the terms on which they entered. I think that’s part of the broad contract that you expect. You came in on a certain basis. You should proceed on that basis.”
So, why Dr Bousted are you changing the very basis on which many of us joined ATL – that of the three major teaching unions it was the one that throughout its history had been a non-striking union?
5. Dr Bousted’s Sky New interview on Sunday. In this extraordinary interview she compared former. Labour cabinet minister Lord Hutton’s pension proposals to Robert Maxwell’s criminal plundering of his company's pension schemes. She then went on to claim that the Government’s pension proposals would mean that:
“there will be no honourable teaching profession. Good teachers won’t want to go into the profession because it won’t be worth their while to do so.”
Leaving aside the rather inherent contradiction of people being supposedly ‘good teachers’ but not yet in the profession(!), Dr Bousted has insulted a large proportion of the teaching profession. Does she really think that teachers teach just for the money? Does she not understand that many of her own members regard teaching as being a vocation, rather than simply a job that pays the mortgage? Many could earn a lot more elsewhere, but choose to teach!
6. Coercion: The ATL letter recently sent to members that I referred to earlier contains a section entitled: “Are there any exemptions to the strike call?”. This states that in "rare circumstances" ATL members may be exempted from taking strike action and says “Requests for exemptions will be assessed on a case by case basis. You should contact your branch secretary if you want an assessment…” Frankly, that sounds horribly reminiscent of the trade union bully boy tactics that we saw in the 1970s. This is quite shocking coming from a union that many of use joined precisely because it did not call members out on strike.
7. There is a lack of clear information about the cost of the teachers' pension scheme. What is clear though is that life expectancy in the UK is steadily increasing – currently at a rate of one additional year’s life expectancy every three years. With nearly half a million people drawing pensions from the teachers' pension scheme averaging (according to ATL) £12,000 p.a. that means that the scheme must be paying out an additional £6 billion every three years. That extra £6 billion every three years either has to come from teachers paying higher pension contributions (the Government’s proposal) or the taxpayer – which seems particularly unfair on taxpayers who work in the private sector.
ATL, together with other teachers’ unions, has drawn attention to a recent Public Accounts Committee report that the unions argue means that the status quo can be maintained in terms of teachers' pensions. However, the Hutton report suggests otherwise. Most teachers have only heard what their union has said on this issue. It is therefore critical that the Government urgently and publicly explains to teachers ahead of Thursday’s strike why additional pension contributions are now required.