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Martin Powell-Davies interviewed Tony Harrison and Bryan Beckingham, Joint Secretaries of Oldham NUT about the NUT action at the Radclyffe School to oppose the employment of four unqualified staff to take lessons when teachers are absent.

Q. What is the background to the dispute ?

The Radclyffe School was named as one of the Government’s “Pathfinder” schools, used to test out the Government’s “remodelling” initiatives. These were part of the thinking behind the Government’s “School Workforce Agreement” which most of the education unions agreed to earlier this year. The NUT refused to sign-up because it will allow teaching jobs to be carried out by unqualified staff. This is an attack on the entitlement of every pupil to be taught by a qualified teacher.

For example, last year the school replaced vacant Head of Year posts with non-teachers. Also, in return for some welcome additional administrative support, Heads of Faculties were then asked to teach a greater number of lessons every week. The final straw was when the school advertised last term for four “Learning Managers” to be employed to cover for the first ten days of a teachers absence from work.

Q. Why are you opposed to the employment of “Learning Managers” ?

No teacher likes to have to give up any of their non-contact time to cover the classes of absent staff. This is the time colleagues can use to prepare work and mark books. But the solution has always been to employ properly paid and qualified “supply” teachers.

The Headteacher argued that having different supply teachers coming into the school didn’t give pupils continuity. In negotiations, the NUT accepted this but explained that’s why we wanted the school to employ their own qualified teachers to cover absences. The school refused to agree to this so we declared a dispute.

Q. What pay and training have the Learning Managers been given ?

We were told that the four recruits would receive training in classroom management and other skills from the Deputy Head. We thought this would have to take some time and gave us a chance to build our campaign. But in less than a fortnight they were in the classroom. Their rate of pay might not seem bad to them – but it’s less than a qualified teacher would get.

Q. Is the Head doing this to save money ?

Employing qualified teachers would certainly cost the school more but we don’t think that’s the main reason for the school’s actions. The school management want to show that nothing is going to stop them implementing the Government’s remodeling agenda.

Q. What has the response been from NUT members in the school ?

About three-quarters of the teachers at Radclyffe are NUT members and they’ve backed the stand of the Union. In a consultative ballot last term, members voted 35 to 0 to oppose the employment of the Learning Managers.

This week, at a few hours notice, 33 came to a lunchtime meeting with Doug McAvoy, NUT General Secretary. It was agreed that under existing workload action provisions, NUT members would refuse to set work or provide resources to assist the Learning Managers in covering lessons, nor mark or assess work from the classes. If the school management try to discipline members, the NUT has promised further action with sustentation against any loss of earnings. If they simply try to make teachers cover for absences, we will move to action where we refuse to cover beyond the first day of absence.

Q. Isn’t there a risk of damaging division between teachers and support staff ?

Dave Prentis, UNISON General Secretary, has already written to Doug McAvoy complaining about our action, saying that the Learning Managers are not replacing the jobs of teachers. The NUT view is that, on the contrary, additional cover would indded have been carried out by supply teachers. If, on the other hand, the Mnagers are just “supervising”, not “teaching” children, then they won’t need us to set teaching work will they !

We have got nothing against the four people who have been recruited personally. We have written to them to explain that we intend to maintain a professional relationship with them and certainly value the other work they carry out in the school supporting teachers. However, the principle that the teaching should be a graduate and all teacher trained profession is one we hold dear.

Q. How can other trade unionists support your dispute ?

Members have stood firm up to now but, unfortunately, we already have members of the ATL and NASUWT unions undermining our action. We also know that the school management will try to put staff under pressure. That’s why messages of support to the NUT group are vital. It could be their school, or their children’s school next !

Fax messages of support to: Tony Harrison, School NUT Rep on 0161 628 5935