Why did we become school workers?

We all chose to become school workers for fairly similar reasons. Some of these reasons were political: we wanted to work somewhere where there felt like there was potential for us to engage in political workplace organising. Other reasons were vocational: teaching can be a job for life; you can get a, particularly non-teaching, job in a school fairly easily and quickly; and, at least in theory, working in a school is a job that can have social value, through improving the lives of young people. For different people, different reasons took a greater degree of importance over the decision to go work in a school. However, the underlying logic was the same: schools are important sites of the reproduction of capitalist society, and therefore could be potentially fruitful places to engage in workplace organising as political militants.

What do we do as school workers?

The maximum teaching timetable is twenty-two hours a week, some of which may be cover teaching. Teachers then have 10% of their teaching hours as Planning, Preparation and Assessment (PPA) time, typically used to do things like preparing lessons, printing, data entry, and marking. This is protected time, so the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) can’t legally tell you what to do in those hours, but they often do in practice. This isn’t nearly enough time to do all the assigned responsibilities and means teachers work outside of their school day and PPA time. The most recent annual government survey of teachers found the mean working hours during term time for secondary school teachers was 51 hours in secondary, and 54 in primary. In terms of how lesson planning and preparation works, the majority of schools in the country now follow a ‘centralised system’, with a shared set of resources that everyone has to teach and you’re generally not allowed to depart from them. These centralised resources are often produced by different teachers, with the work to produce these distributed across the department. Alternatively individual teachers or schools might purchase resources from big multi-academy trusts or other curriculum resource businesses To give an example, Ark is one of the biggest trusts in the country. They were founded by a group of hedge fund financiers and Conservative Party donors. They sell a maths programme with resources and training for Year 7 that costs over £7000. There is a trend away from schools delivering lessons through a PowerPoint. In an increasing number of schools they’ll mandate using a ‘visualiser’ webcam displaying a paper booklet with information and tasks the teacher and the students work through together.

For teaching assistants there can be even less preparation time, as there is no legally protected PPA allowance for this role. One of us worked in a school that originally had around three hours PPA time for teaching assistants - which was then officially reduced to zero. TAs work mostly revolves around assisting specific students in the classroom, as well as planning and undertaking one-to-one “interventions” with students outside the classroom. These could involve trying to improve anything from numeracy and literacy to emotional and motor skills. They may work with one specific student all the time, or work with different students in different lessons throughout the day. TAs may also be made to do a series of other smaller tasks throughout the day outside the classroom - such as helping to administer medicine or accompany wheelchair users up floors. In practice then, it is a broad role that can encompass many different tasks and experiences. Increasingly, TAs are also being expected to take on a lot of cover, because schools are so permanently short staffed. Sometimes this may be made into a permanent role called cover supervisors. These are TAs who are paid a little bit more to undertake cover as their full-time role, but still barely earn anything compared to a teacher’s wage. When one of us was a union rep, one of their biggest complaints we received was how much the TAs in our school were being called on to do cover.

As well as these roles, there are a variety of different other support roles in schools undertaking a variety of different tasks to keep the school running and assist in the curriculum. These include caterers (traditionally known as “dinner ladies”), cleaners, caretakers, admin staff, receptionists, tutors, welfare officers, IT staff, careers teams and more. Without the work of all these various other parts, the school system would come grinding to a halt.

What is the function of contemporary schooling?

Much of the contemporary mentality around working in education involves two interrelated things. One is an idea of social mobility - that our role as educators, or people working in schools, is as agents of social mobility. This logic is then intertwined with a narrative that educators tell the students of meritocracy, or what some Marxist thinkers on education have called “the myth of meritocracy”. When we teach and work with students, we have this back and forth all the time in our own heads. We tell our students (and ourselves!) that if you work hard in lessons, you’ll do well, go to university and then you can get a good job. However, through this, we’re also reinforcing a really pernicious logic: that society is meritocratic, and therefore that our role as teachers is to administer the system, to reproduce a system of social mobility that obviously can’t feed everyone. This is one of the fundamental contradictions that confronts us as communists working in schools. For example, one of us works in an experimental school that claims to have a “progressive ethos”. At the moment this school is introducing compulsory GCSEs for the first time, which is challenging, if not changing, the whole ‘progressive’ principles of the school, which promote student agency and freedom. These are very vague and differently understood concepts in the school, but broadly speaking the student body seem to feel like they’ve got one foot in the camp that subscribes to the myth of meritocracy (because to some extent they have to in order to survive), and one foot that sees the intrinsic value of education for collective growth, involving experimentation, creativity, even rebelliousness against institutions. Although some teachers in this school feel that these two ‘camps’ can complement each other, this view seems held less often by the young people themselves who usually ask for more of one or the other.

These ideas of social mobility and meritocracy can be situated within debates around the role of education in capitalist society. In this, there’s a fascinating agreement between the liberal, functionalist and Marxist theories of education. They both agree that the function of the education system is “role allocation”. For the liberals, this means the reason that schools are the crucial engine of meritocratic social mobility, sorting people into hierarchies, with those who are most able and most highly skilled succeeding in education, going to university and getting into the most highly paid careers. For those with a class analysis, this role allocation is viewed rather as a means for sorting and preparing different parts of the population into the capitalist job market. This logic of role allocation feeds into how schools and school workers view their mentality and purpose. For example, on one of our first inset (teacher training) days, the SLT displayed how many students went to each category of university and laid out a target to double acceptances at the most prestigious Russell Group universities. The move to mass participation in higher education occurred at the same time as the introduction of university fees, resulting in even higher levels of debt amongst working-class people. This is another part of the contradiction around social mobility we face in our job as schoolworkers: selling the meritocratic myth of higher education often involves selling a system that often ultimately exploits students. This contradiction is even more pronounced for one of us, who works in the higher education team in the college. Their job is to get students into university, or to make plans for what they’re going to do after sixth form. It is the college policy to try and get every student to apply to university: they have around eight hundred Year 13s, and about six hundred of them are currently doing university applications. Encouraging these students to get degrees that aren’t that useful and that will get them into tens of thousands of pounds of debt obviously isn’t right. But how else do you respond, when there isn’t actually a good alternative to that? There’s less than half as many apprenticeships as there are university places, and most of them are just used by companies to exploit cheap labour, offering little to no actual training. We are therefore left with a catch-22: there are no good options.

Being conscious of this contradiction alone cannot solve this problem. One of us started working as a teaching assistant during the COVID-19 pandemic, after seeing the role that schools were playing in society, and the massive disruption that closing schools had on the wider economy. However, even when entering this workforce with a political mindset of wanting to disrupt the normal functioning of society, and breaking with this myth of meritocracy, it is a hard task to completely break with the dominant logic. When you get there, you build personal relationships with students, and want to see them “succeed”, even if you don’t agree with the criteria for success. Working in a school becomes contradictory - every part of how it is organised functions to push you towards reproducing this false meritocratic and functionalist logic, whilst as communists we know that it is our task to encourage people to think critically about the world around them, and fight collectively for their interests.

We found that working in a primary school there is a more direct disciplining of students for the capitalist workforce, compared to in secondary schools or colleges where the role allocation is more articulated. What feels the most striking when working in a primary school was how the forms of social control are so bodily. Half of what we would hear in a school day in terms of school workers’ instructions were things like “walking feet” which means don’t run or “voices off”. Although it is somewhat cute sometimes, because of how small the children are, it is also striking how much energy is expended by the workers in primary schools to prevent these young beings from following their natural inclinations. If you have to spend so much of your day telling students to stop running, they clearly want to fucking run. We wonder, if that didn’t happen, what would people be like? This is such a massive part of the role schooling plays, especially in primary.1

When you get to sixth form there is now a much stronger push to create like the ideal worker in that setting. In the big, vocational sixth form college one of us works in, they have recently introduced a new authoritarian disciplining framework. This framework includes: not allowing hoodies or earphones at all, sitting up straight in their lessons, having to walk in a particular way across the college, and a ban on phone use, even outside of lessons. Other sixth form colleges can be even more regimented, and there is one school in Newham where they had elocution lessons - literally teaching students how to speak and pronounce words! In this sense, schools are not just trying to produce grades, but rather trying to drill into students how to conduct themselves in the workplace.

The Growing Authoritarianism of Schools

When tracing the history of school behaviour, the primary method of instilling discipline upon children, from the gradual introduction of mass education in the 1800s through to the 1970s, was physical punishment. There’s a liberal narrative of its abolition, focusing on one parent leading a legal case against their child being hit at school. However, there is a whole bottom-up history as to how the abolition of corporal punishment came about through the self organisation of young people themselves: there were mass student walkouts in the 1960s and 70s of school students against corporal punishment, and campaigns for its abolition oriented around the School Action Union and their ‘No to the Cane’ campaign.2

After the abolition of corporal punishment, new methods for “regulating” student behaviour had to be unearthed. For people not working in education, the way behaviour is now managed in ‘zero tolerance’ schools, is mind blowing. The school day often starts with an outdoor, single file, silent ‘Line Up’. A member of SLT will deliver messages for the day and teachers will be instructed to issue detentions to students who commit an ‘infringement’ like talking or not getting their equipment bags out. The teacher will then escort each class in a silent, single file to their classroom, where they complete a silent ‘Do Now” activity. One of us worked in a school which mandated the delivery of transitions in lessons between activities with a ‘SLANT’ requiring students to sit up, listen, answer questions, nod their heads, and track the speaker. The only major opportunities for student dialogue in these schools is short paired discussions and answering the teachers’ questions. In the absence of physical punishment, these behaviours are enforced through the detention and exclusion system. At one of our schools with just over 1000 students, over 200 a day are in detention for up to two hours and around 20 are in internal exclusion. The logic underpinning this is applying the neoconservative concept of ‘broken windows policing’ to educational settings. The idea being that by “sweating the small stuff” like equipment, uniform, and low-level disruption it prevents escalation into bigger problems. Obviously, however, these authoritarian policies are always being challenged by the students, forcing SLT to try and find new “solutions” to their own problems.

A big driver of the increasing authoritarianism of schools is the curriculum and examination demands, particularly since the ‘knowledge-rich’ reforms of Michael Gove. Punishment is basically a short cut way of getting people to do something they don’t want to do, or be someone they don’t want to be. It therefore becomes the de facto way to ‘efficiently’ get large amounts of children to memorise information they can regurgitate in exams. This also applies to the ‘hidden curriculum’ of behaviour, uniform and language that disciplines subjects into becoming various classed, gendered, and racialised forms of desirable citizens. Schools are also becoming further integrated into (increasingly defunded) social services, meaning not only are the children being fashioned, but these policies are also trying to fashion families into “the right kind of families.” For us, these practices are extremely scary, not least because of how normalised they have become. Another factor behind the rise of ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour policies is austerity, underfunding and the linked workload crisis. This means alternative, less carceral solutions to solve harmful behaviour by students based around relationship building become difficult to practise. In a context in which there aren’t other ways to solve student misbehaviour, the solution, for not just SLT but often also teachers’ unions, becomes strictly enforced behaviour systems.

In the workforce, the enforcement of these kinds of behavioural policies are maintained not just through the authority of the SLT, but also partly through an internal culture amongst workers themselves. The labelling of students - as “good” and “bad” - isn’t something purely formed in school workers’ own heads, but are rather formed collectively, through sitting in the staff room and talking to colleagues. When you’re working, it is natural to chat and complain about your work and its conditions, but in a school, your work is mostly interacting with students. We often have to be strict with ourselves, because workers in schools talk about the kids all the time - partially affectionately, and partially brutally. If you don’t engage in these conversations, you’re basically excluded from a large proportion of staff room chatter, and therefore the wider social life of the workplace. The way these cultures permeate can often be gendered or racialised - for example, in one of our schools, a young woman teacher was labelled by the rest of the workforce as “lazy” and “weak”, simply because she was less strict and allowed more free play in her lessons.

We’ve found that the way these internal cultures of authoritarianism operate is not uniform. We’ve found ways to join in the more general jokes or whatever, but avoid talking about the specific kids. One of us worked in a school outside of London where most of the TAs were parents who had lived and grew up on the working-class estate that the school was itself on. Here, although they witnessed a degree of class solidarity emerging out of this situation, they also found that many TAs tried to differentiate themselves within this working class community through a politics of “respectability”, that entailed a strict enforcement of school behavioural policies. This differentiation and respectability politics also created feelings of disrespect and devaluation, as well calls for even stricter behavioural policies. There was similarly little pushback from teachers in this school against authoritarian disciplinary measures, perhaps contrastingly due to their detachment from the community they were working in, mostly living far away from the school and driving in every day. Another one of us, who worked in a central London school where most of the TAs were young, recent university graduates, found this section of the workforce was instead at the forefront of struggles against authoritarianism, often in opposition to many teachers who were actively, and often successfully, pushing through the union for greater disciplinary measures against students, such as the introduction of a “internal pupil referral unit”.3

It must be said however, in the midst of all these contradictions, there are still a lot of moments when we see a phenomenal care and tenderness between members of staff and students. It is on these moments that we should aim to grow our solidarity with students against authoritarianism in our schools.

Academisation and Privatisation

The growth of these authoritarian practices go hand-in-hand with the rise of academies which now educate 39% of primary school and 78% of secondary school students in England. Academisation is a policy introduced by New Labour that expanded massively with the Conservative Government of 2010. Academisation removed democratic, community control of the governance of schools, as well as the administration and oversight of local authorities. These were replaced by non-profit ‘trusts’, increasingly running multiple schools as ‘multi-academy trusts’ of an average seven schools, but up to 75 for the biggest trusts, like United Learning.Academy trusts produce their own pedagogical practices, which are strictly enforced internally, often trying to distinguish themselves from other federations. Academisation was a major attack on the conditions of school workers. The binding ‘burgundy book’ and ‘green book; on pay and conditions for teachers and supply staff respectively does not apply in academies for workers joining after academisation. This allows the SLT to enforce the schools pedagogical and behavioural policies, primarily through ‘learning walks’ in which they conduct unexpected classroom observations. In local authority schools, we see these learning walks happening once a term with notification given in advance. Those of us who work in academies can often see these learning walks happening every day, with no notice given. Ironically, such policy often comes with a massive expansion of the, by far, most expensive part of the workforce: SLT. It is not unusual now to have numerous vice principals and assistant principals, all on hefty salaries. In a school one of us worked in, a whopping quarter of the budget went to SLT pay, with there being one member of SLT for every five teachers in the school.

Academisation hasn’t just meant a rise in authoritarian behaviour policies and workplace management. The variety of subjects on offer in schools has been reduced in size. For example, there appears to be a renewed focus in lesson timetables on science, maths, and English. There is limited time for creative subjects, such as art and music, and vocation subjects within the realm of “design and technology” are not existent in some of the schools we’ve worked in. The increased privatisation and marketisation of the sector that came with academisation has led to a greater introduction of “consumer choice” within education. This is because, unlike local authority schools, academies can set their own admission policies, and therefore parents can choose which school they send their child to. Schools therefore need to be competing to attract those students, and therefore money, as the funding formula of schools is based on how many students you have enrolled. In order to have this “marketplace of education”, the state decided you also needed to have informed “consumers”, and therefore published league tables. Initially these published just exam grades, however it has since been adapted, and it’s based now on how much are students moving past their predicted grades, based on their SATs results. Schools then at the top of these league tables, and therefore in theory attracting the most students and funding, are those who only teach a bare curriculum of subjects, and therefore can focus more curriculum time on each subject. For example, the infamous Michaela School, only teaches eight subjects at GCSE, at the expense of subjects such as music, design, sociology, and psychology.

Similarly, those of us working in administration and professional services parts of schools have noticed that the one workforce that academisation has engendered a growth in careers and work experience teams. These teams frequently negotiate partnerships with businesses, including arranging for businesses to come in and teach lessons, and even help shape the curriculum. With the introduction of T-levels, it is likely we are only going to be seeing more of private businesses influencing the school curriculum. Sitting in school offices too, we are witnessing how further marketisation is making sources of funding more fragmented and unusual. Funding from businesses and charities are constantly applied for, and student applications are weighed up on the merit of if they can help the school gain extra funding. This neoliberal fragmentation of funding sources results in more and more bureaucratization, as there’s more and more work required just to do simple administrative processes.

We can see this encroaching privatisation affecting all areas of school provision. One of the major areas affected by privatisation is cover work. There’s a massive recruitment and retention crisis in teaching, meaning now around 20% of lessons nationally will be taught either by internal or external sources of cover. Prior to mass academisation, cover teachers were employed by the local authority supply agency - so they would work officially for Hackney Council, for example. However, in the name of supplier competition, that has now been replaced with a huge industry of supply agencies. These companies are profiting massively off the crisis, with the seven biggest agencies making almost £70 million last year in profit. This, ultimately, costs schools, becoming one of the major pressures on budgets. It is similar with teaching assistants: agencies will charge schools £20 to £30 an hour for teaching assistants - but as an agency TA you’re only making around £10 an hour, as well as receiving no sick pay or holiday pay. Some of us have even heard of agency TAs having to pay their own employers national insurance out of their back pocket. Even if they wanted to, schools often can’t employ you directly without paying a large release fee, because of the contract they hold with the agency. You also see this market competition with other parts of the school, such as the provision of cleaning and catering services in schools, which nowadays is mostly outsourced. Food is crap now in schools, partially because of Jamie Oliver, but mostly because food catering agencies are competitively contracted to provide food. Even teachers are now being introduced into a competitive market: usually pay progression is an annual increment, but now there’s performance payment in teaching. This means teachers can move more quickly through bands based on your performance, which is going to be based on how closely you adhere to the behavioural and pedagogical prescriptions of that school.

What does it look like to organise and struggle as schoolworkers today?

In the 20th century, teaching was in many ways the archetypal middle class profession.
However, the inherent liberalism, of both that class position and the association of education with social mobility has been challenged by the decomposition of the profession over the last few decades, with the severe deterioration of working conditions and pay. We can again draw this deterioration out in relation to the policies of marketisation. When the coalition government announced the trebling of university tuition fees and the abolition of the education maintenance allowance, there was an explosion of protest resulting in the 2010-11 student movement. What characterised much of this movement was a politics of solidarity - those students were themselves not going to lose their educational maintenance allowances or pay higher fees, as these were ring fenced for the two years leading up to the policy’s introduction. Instead, this movement was a defence of the future generation of students and workers. However, the same cannot be said for teaching unions around the further introduction of marketisation in schools - either due to lack of foresight or levels of organisation. Whenever a school becomes an academy, the binding green and burgundy rulebooks are transferred over for the existing workforce, or TUPE-d’.4 For many of the academy schools we work in now, the workers who joined before the 2010 era have comparatively much better working conditions, but anyone (such as us) who started after the process of academisation are not entitled to these conditions. This means those of us who are teachers do lunch duties, whilst those older staff do not, as the STRB said that lunches are protected periods of time. This has allowed a degradation of working conditions to be introduced through the backdoor: by not applying new policies in a whole sweep, and impacting everyone’s working conditions the same all at once, the policy of academisation managed to prevent more joined up struggles against a degradation of working conditions in the sector, as well as creating a workforce now divided between different terms and conditions.

Our state of trade union organisation often feels today as if it has failed to come to terms with the vast array of changes that have occurred within the last two decades in the sector. Within the NEU, the main union in the sector and the only one to formally offer membership to all school workers regardless of their jobs, members are organised into “district branches”, representing local boroughs. District branches have elected committees and meetings for all district members are held every month. However, in our experience, these meetings feel like bureaucratic structures for passing this or that motion more than they represent spaces co-ordinating on the ground struggles in workplaces. Committee members often sit for years, even beyond retirement: one of us remarked how, in their local district branch, there are more people over the age of 70 than under the age of 50! Attending these meetings then often requires a high level of both patience and political experience, for little organisational gain. This situation has been arguably exacerbated by the contemporary redundancy of the district model. Organising on a district level reflects the historic fact that most people worked for a local authority school. The structures of the union haven’t changed to reflect the fact that often you’ve got more in common with a teacher in Dorset who is part of the same academy chain as you, than you do with another teacher in your London borough who’s in your district branch, where the only thing that connects us is that historically we would have been part of the same local authority, but we’re not anymore. We need therefore to be organising education workers across trusts, as well as within districts,, and individual schools themselves. This has already started to happen in some cases, for example in February 2024 over a 1000 workers from the 54 schools in the Harris trust signed an open letter demanding improved pay and conditions.

This highlights another issue we have encountered working in schools, which is the power represented in and reliance upon union reps. There is no regular structure, across the various unions organising in the sector, for how and when to run school-level union meetings: instead this responsibility falls onto local school reps (if you even have one in your workplace). This creates vast divergences in local levels of organisation - some of the schools we’ve worked in have irregular meetings months or even years apart, whereas in others they have been regularly scheduled. One of us even worked in a school where there had never been a local union meeting before they became a support staff rep. In many senses, the union can come to be seen by the workforce as the local rep. This can cause problems if your local rep is annoying or unpleasant, your line manager or (as a couple of us have experienced) a member of SLT! Equally, it can also see struggles become incredibly individualised, with union meetings becoming spaces to complain about work and bring up individual casework for your local rep, rather than places where we answer questions such as: what are we willing to do about these issues collectively? What leverage do we have? How do we build the organisational capacity to take action? Although complaining about work can have some political use, ultimately if these conversations are not backed up with the threat of action that affects the running of the school, it is just a staff room moan taking place in a union meeting. Building this means also pushing back on the current dominant mode of union recruitment, that essentially pushes the union as an insurance policy for if a school worker is accused of misconduct. This doesn’t have to be difficult - when one of us was having some initial recruiting conversations with support staff, they were pretty receptive to another kind of argument that asked them: don’t you think that we essentially keep this school functioning? And doesn’t that give you certain ideas about the power we hold as workers?

In some of our workplaces, we have put a lot of thought into how we can bypass these bureaucratic structures in order to take collective action and become better organised as workers between union meetings. This seems particularly important given how fragmented school workers are between the half or dozen so unions that claim to organise them. One of us saw their team of TAs taking a collective grievance against the school over a reduction in PPA. However, instead of bringing it to the rep, which was seen as a hassle unlikely to go anywhere, they decided instead to deal with it themselves. They organised as a group of workers to boycott certain lessons a week that they were scheduled to work in, and use this time as PPA. Ultimately this campaign was successful, and produced an increased feeling of confidence and comradery amongst their team. Others of us used the recent national strike action as an opportunity to experiment with different methods in our workplaces. One of us organised for support staff to take unofficial strike action and walk-out on the first day of the strikes, although they struggled to maintain this high-engagement of unofficial action as management repression intensified, and the support staff strikes reduced in number. We have another friend who, working as a teaching assistant, did manage to organise for all support staff in their school to take unofficial strike action for the entirety of the official teachers strike last year. A couple of us also initiated strike committees in our districts that could bypass more stagnant and bureaucratic organisational structures. This meant refusing a top-down model of unionism, where the regional officers told workers when and how to organise campaigns, and instead deciding and organising these things themselves. We held open meetings after strike rallies, where school workers could come together and try to shape the future direction of the strike. This, compared to the official district model, created much more accessible avenues for people to feel like there were things that they could contribute. However, some of us have found it hard since the strikes ended to funnel this energy and influx of new workplace militants into more long lasting structures, and expand to be something bigger.

What power do school workers have?

In last year’s national strike action, the logic of the staffers working for the NEU to organise this wave of strike action was to focus on hitting 50% turnout. This was because you need 50% turn out to take legal strike action thanks to the state’s anti-trade union laws. The way they chose to do this was by focusing their energy into organising large secondary schools, as they worked out that, mathematically, if they could get high turnout in those large secondary schools, then the union would be able to hit that 50% threshold. However, this also produced a massive limitation in that wave of strike action. When considering our leverage as school workers, beyond teaching basic skills and enforcing social control through the hidden curriculum of behaviour, our main purpose is essentially childcare: looking after young people so that parents are able to go to work. If you want to send people into wage labour, you need someone who’s going to look after their kids on a pretty regular basis. It is true that primary schools are typically more difficult to organise. This is partly because they are smaller workplaces, and often the personal relationships between labour and management in primary schools are less diffused than in secondary. The leverage our strike therefore held over the government was reduced by the union’s focus on large secondary schools, as this meant levels of organisation, and therefore strike action, were much lower in primary schools. If you’re a parent, and your kid is off in secondary school, that’s kind of fine - they can usually just stay home for the day. In sixth forms, there is even less leverage, because even if your entire teaching body is gone, the schools will still open for students to come in and conduct independent study. However, if your kids are off in a primary school, you’ve got to take that day off work, or go get child care. Primary schools then must become a key ground of struggle if we are to leverage this function that schools play in society.

The Kids Are Alright

Beyond us as workers, it is also important to mention the levels of student organising, particularly recently around Palestine. We are all within walking distance of schools where there were mass student walkouts in protest both of the British government’s position around it, but also schools’ draconian policies of banning symbolic political protests around solidarity with Palestine. It really does send a shiver down your spine when you see those photos of thousands of school kids walking out of their schools. This is happening at the same time that the government is attempting to enforce a ban on teaching anti-capitalism in schools, as well as cracking down on any symbols of political dissent or identity. A good example from one of our own schools’ was a Palestinian who was put in internal exclusion for wearing a keffiyeh. We also have Michaela school - that is headed up by the government’s former social mobility tsar Katharine Birbalsingh. They are currently being taken to the high court because Muslim students at that school have been banned from praying. The school’s legal response hinges on their claim they are trying to create an “inclusive Britishness” through completely confining any symbols of protest, cultural expression, or religion.

This is then tied into a much broader conversation we need to have about the politics of educators and our potential for teaching students in a more radical fashion. We will end on a playful example of what this could entail. One of us, who didn’t even work as a teacher, managed to take on a spare extracurricular program at their school on “active citizenship”, for students between seven and eleven years old. Because of the lack of resources, no one was watching over it too closely. They created their own syllabus, and ran lessons on topics such as student protests. In another session, they ran a school student version of a worker’s inquiry. This activity encouraged the students to fill out a survey, answering questions such as: what do you think about your play time? Who gives you instructions? How do you feel about them? Who do you think makes the decisions in the school? Many of the students loved it, because it gave them a rare opportunity in school to state their opinions. Finally, they played a game called “bosses and workers”. Each student was allocated a role. Some of them were bus drivers, others sewage workers, and some shopkeepers. Then, four of them were assigned to be the bosses of the companies, and they sat on a separate table from everyone else. The students would go through the day doing their tasks, and then they would be given corresponding wages that they would have to spend at the supermarket or on the bus tickets. Every so often, the class leader would announce that they were taking all the money collected by the bus drivers, and giving it to the bus company boss. Throughout the exercise, students would be asked how they felt about this situation. Then at a certain point, it was announced that half the bus drivers would be fired, because the bus company claims they are not making enough money. And the students responded with such rage, saying “Miss, we want to burn down the bus company office!”. They would then replay this scene, where the bus drivers got fired, over and over again, until the students figured out a way that they could stop it. Finally they managed to - and the students were taught that what they came up with was called a strike!

The kids are alright. They are a source of hope and joy in the constant humour, resistance and inspiration that they provide. And perhaps, as school workers, we could also learn a thing or two from them, in how they rebel against the injustices of our world. In the long run teachers and students are on the same side in the struggle for a liberated education system and wider society.

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  1. One of us works in a “progressive school”, which whilst having its own contradictions, doesn’t partake very much in this direct disciplining of students - children run and shout and sometimes swear. Whilst still sometimes having to be reminded about school wide agreements democratically decided upon, instead of being constantly compelled, students (and workers!) are in a continuous process of establishing what their boundaries are - what feels like ok freedom and is having a negative impact on other people. 

  2. The School Action Union had offices, tens of thousands of members, and even sent delegations to similar radical groups in France. One of the founders of SAU had in fact been in Paris during the events of May 1968. 

  3. An “internal pupil referral unit” is an authoritarian programme essentially used by schools in an attempt to re-educate students labelled as “naughty” into being “good students”. It consists of a room where these students are forced to sit in silence for a week or two at a time, and disciplined should they break any of the school’s rules (such as turning around, not sitting up straight, or talking). In the school where one of us worked and this was introduced, it was originally planned for TAs to staff this unit, but they refused. 

  4. TUPE stands for Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment). TUPE is a legal regulation which, in theory, ensures that existing employees’ most important terms and conditions aren’t worsened when a company’s workforce is transferred to another company. 


A group of school workers

A group of anonymous school workers, organising in various different education unions and working in various different jobs within the education sector.