In 2003 the Treasury produced a document which either got beneath the radar of union bureaucracies, or else became the subject of consultation within government committees which ensured maximum concealment.
Entitled ‘Public Services. Meeting the Productivity Challenge’.1 its preamble summed up New Labour economic policy: ‘As well as creating the right environment for business to raise productivity, government must also strive for greater efficiency. Public services account for a substantial part of the economy, and productivity within the public sector therefore has an important and direct impact on the productivity performance of the economy as a whole and ‘….by placing too much emphasis on resource inputs, past approaches have overlooked the primary concern…….which is that public services should achieve certain specified results’.
This policy has had a profound effect on our public services. It is responsible for the largest productivity deal in history affecting millions of workers and directly challenging trade union organisation. It is the thread connecting Thatcherism with New Labour, the imperative behind the drive to manage and control all aspects of social activity, transfer public bodies to private corporations, and challenge social democratic ideologies.
This productivity deal is directly dependent upon the compliance of trade union leaders and their link with New Labour; it is central to the global neoliberal agenda and therefore a crucial aspect of British capitalism’s agenda for change. It explains why Rupert Murdoch visited Checkers the weekend Gordon Brown had to decide on an election, spelt out the problems with a Tory victory and demanded Brown back off. It explains the largest public service union’s capitulation to Brownism.
FROM THATCHER TO BROWN
The Thatcher government restructured British industry by transferring billions of pounds of wealth from the public utilities sector (gas, electricity, water etc.) to private industry. The objective was to make British capitalism more competitive. In order to do this three major union sectors were attacked – engineers in 1981 (which established the ‘right to manage’), the miners (which weakened the TUC, the Labour Party, and put militants everywhere on the defensive) and the printers, probably one of the best organised unions around.
When Thatcher took on the Welfare State, she had to contend with large numbers of left wing workers imbued with ideas from the post-war period and the widespread struggles of the 1970’s, and millions of workers whose whole lives had been cushioned and secured by institutions they felt were their own. Thatcher failed to restructure the public services and the ruling class sacked her amid the rubble and glass of the smart shops of central London, trashed in bitterness and anger over the Poll Tax.
With their links to the trade unions; their social base in working class communities; their socialist façade, only a Labour Party could deliver the restructuring required by capital. The evolution of Labour into New Labour was a necessary one given low profit rates and low economic growth. In business terms, progressive reform was only possible if the system could afford it. In the 1960’s and 70’s productivity deals provided much of the accumulated capital to finance reform. In the 1990’s ‘reform’ became the catchphrase of New Labour, not as a progressive concept but a means to derail the left, neutralise trade union leaders and renew the Thatcherite agenda. The tool was the productivity deal.
My aim here is to briefly examine the productivity offensive in education. I leave it to other public service workers to judge this analysis in terms of their own experiences.
STANDARDS, STANDARDS, STANDARDS
In 1997 New Labour introduced its Green Paper on Education with its emphasis on ‘raising standards’. We knew then that the Paper proposed changes that would adversely affect the principle of a free, state-funded, comprehensive education system. We also knew that the nature of teaching would change. But the Devil was in the detail. We did not know that the Green Paper was in fact no more nor less than a productivity deal that harked back to the 1960’s deals that so embittered shop floor workers.
WHAT IS A PRODUCTIVITY DEAL?
D.A.C. Dewdney, former vice-CEO of Esso, had proclaimed that a productivity deal was ‘comprehensive’, which ‘looks at the labour force as a whole’, and which ‘develops new systems of production control……new procedures………accounting methods. The whole package ought to be looked at as a whole’.
There are, according to industrial consultants, a number of components to a productivity deal.
1. A reduction in non-working time.
2. Greater flexibility in deployment of labour
3. Reduction in absenteeism
5. Extending ‘overtime’ at little or no cost.
6. Elimination of special allowances.
7. Elimination of assistants to skilled workers or their more effective use.
8. Maintenance of a specified tempo of working.
9. Gradual removal of ’inter-trade’ barriers i.e. de-skilling.
In its initial stages a deal is judged to be successful by employers if:
1. Trade union leaders are on board and willing to police the deal in partnership with managers.
2. The workforce is not a part of the negotiations and knows little of its ramifications.
3. Costs are down.
4. Control of the workforce by managers is steadily increasing.
5. The workforce is won ’ideologically’ to the changes i.e. ‘this is reality’ or ‘there is no alternative’ and
6. That the Productivity deal gradually becomes a permanent feature of working practices and therefore replaces national bargaining.
THE SOCIAL PARTNERSHIP
In order to get the NASUWT, ATL and UNISON to agree to the deal and become their partners, New Labour had to offer something. They offered teachers the Threshold (a five tier pay progression based on a somewhat woolly idea of on-going and consistent contribution to teaching) and non-teachers a career structure. (They also offered the political carrot of a long-term New Labour administration that ’listened’ to them).
And they offered a work/life balance policy.
Once snagged, it was difficult to get unhooked. Restructuring (which specifically called for a reduction in costs) and capping of the Threshold has started to wipe out the initial carrots. (The Threshold capping at tier 3 was replaced with the Excellent Teacher Scheme. Today there are 26 ‘Excellent Teachers’ in the whole country as compared to 100,000 at USP3 who cannot progress further!!!!).
And UNISON got wrong-footed with ‘job evaluation’, another old management ploy straight out of the 1960’s. Strike ballots and grievances around the country testify to the inherent unfairness of the system.
As for work/life balance, the rate and pace of work cuts straight into home and family life causing more heartache and grief in education staff than possibly in any other field of work. There has certainly been more control exercised by managers as witnessed by their sheer increase in numbers. Productivity deals in the 60’s and 70’s always meant more supervisors
– because the job was broken down into smaller and smaller components. Very similar things are happening in schools as the senior management teams in even the smallest of schools appear excessively large
The time-and-motion man by the machine with clipboard has been replaced by the advisor/observer in the classroom with clipboard. In both cases time and pace are critical. In both cases assessments are made based on little more than value judgements. In both cases ‘surveillance’ is a more apt description.
THE DRIVE TO PRODUCE
At every level the productivity offensive is beginning to make itself felt. Teachers are being removed from the classroom and replaced by untrained supervisors, management allowances have been removed, and lunch breaks are being eaten away while pressure is being placed on staff to do ‘extra-curricular’ activities i.e. unpaid overtime.
In the meantime draconian sickness and leave of absence policies provide the necessary backup for managers intent on raising production levels.
The productivity ‘deal’ has now become a productivity drive. ‘It is just the way it has to be’ increasingly echoes down the corridors
But what is being produced? A child cannot be produced in the same way as, say, a truck. Or can it?
A machinist in a factory can produce a screw, but it has no value as a screw until it fits into a pump which is produced by another machinist. But the pump will have no value until it is put into the truck, which is only useful when it begins to transport goods and pay for the labour invested in it.
So what do staff in schools produce. Certainly not children, not even parts of children. They do however, in the New Labour neoliberal newspeak of the 21st century, produce standards.
‘Raising standards’ has been the battle cry of all politicians for a decade or more, disgracefully mimicked by some trade union leaders. Yet very little flesh has been put on this particular bone, simply because there is none available. ‘Standard’ has come to encompass ‘Levels’. Children are no longer Jimmy, or Darren, Yasmin or Tracey, Mohammed or Desmond; they are Level 2, or 6, or 4. They represent standards against which they, the staff and the school are judged.
This dehumanisation of the pupil and student has it’s counterpart in the alienation of the educator. Removed from the process of education as a gentle and sometimes mysterious process of childhood discovery and development, the Level becomes little more than a thing to which school workers must pay homage.
Failure to produce the requisite Levels leads to accusations of incompetency, closure of schools, threats of business takeover.
Yet the threat of takeover, of an Academy or a Trust, is as much a part of, and a vehicle for, the productivity offensive, the ‘whole package….looked at as a whole’, as is restructuring. The Education and Inspection Act – directly influenced by the CBI Report, the ‘Business of Education’ – opens the door to Trusts and contains the most dangerous of all clauses where schools can suspend national pay and conditions if they can show that by doing so they will, you guessed it, ‘raise standards’
PAYMENT BY RESULTS
Yet there is a problematic area. The final distance between being a ‘worker’ and a ‘professional’ cannot be bridged since educators are not paid according to results. Every productivity deal involved being paid that bit more for what is produced. It was always the important element in fragmenting workforces.
In September 2007, the Training and Development Agency introduced, with NASUWT and ATL acquiescence, their so-called Professional Standards. For those teachers on the post-threshold, the following standard was linked to pay progression: ‘Have teaching skills which lead to learners achieving well relative to their prior attainment, making progress as good as, or better than, similar learners nationally’.
In other words, payment by results.
The professional teacher has become a producer of commodities with the use of a professional standard by which his production is judged.
In these circumstances the child can confront the educator as a threat, since s/he represents something that affects conditions and wages. Fragmentation and conflict will result, and is already apparent.
The employers’ aim of the productivity deal becoming a permanent feature of working practices and therefore replacing national bargaining is becoming more of a reality.
The issue now is what to do about it.
Participating in the so-called WAMG’s – Workforce Agreement Monitoring Groups – does very little except legitimise the erosion of skills, conditions and wages and has itself become central to the productivity drive.
Clearly, workplace unity with other education unions including UNISON is absolutely critical in this situation, as are regular meetings where ideas can be exchanged and discussed. An informed workforce is necessary in order to build the confidence people need to defend positions and support workmates.
For example, on an education production line it sometimes happens that competency and capability procedures are used against people who feel intellectually compromised by dangerous education practice dressed up as reform. This needs to be said loud and clear. If someone is ill and depressed by work that doesn’t fit with their idea of what thinking children need to experience, then they should be defended. We should not always allow workmates to disappear into the clutches of occupational health and counselling, like Russian dissidents being sent to the Lubianka. A collective drink down the pub after school can sometimes be a better therapy, so long as you avoid the occasional management nark ready to report dissidence.
We need also to develop strategies to challenge ‘reforms’. If, for example, payment by results ‘… is just the way it has to be’ then so are battles over the timetable. If research shows, as it does, that certain children will not attain linearly due to a range of factors then who should teach them? NQT’s? Senior managers? Who will volunteer for a wage cut?
THE BATTLE FOR IDEAS
Critically, the productivity offensive has created an ideological battle with which we must also engage. The almost bloodlust enthusiasm which Gordon Brown and Lord Adonis exhibit when threatening the closure of schools and opening of Academies in the name of ‘raising standards’ is crucial to them in maintaining the falsehood of progressive reform.
Furthermore, employers hope the shift to vocational education for pupils and students will rapidly shorten the time lag between producing a ‘standard’ that moves on to another ‘Level’, to a full-blown human worker producing surplus value. The involvement of industry in managing, controlling and determining the curriculum in a variety of settings – ‘diversity’ – will serve the same purpose. And all in the name of prosperity and progress.
But it is also important to see the bigger picture. New Labour’s offensive is as much a political as an economic one. They want to shift the political landscape away from a class-based, collective perspective towards an individualised, fragmented perspective relying on consultation, questionnaires, surveys, petitions, and talk shows designed to manage and control activity and neuter criticism. As they move to the political right they hope eventually to take their entire social base with them, including the disgruntled, guaranteeing a long-term hegemony over workers with little room to develop an alternative. MP’s have already succumbed. Labour’s hope is that trade unions will follow as they are sucked into the politics of neoliberalism, accept privatisation and market hegemony over the public services as ‘it is just the way it has to be’, and wrongly interpret lack of interest by members in union affairs as irreversible apathy.
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
Fortunately such bleak scenarios are always confounded by real life. Parallels with the 60s can be seen now in a range of workplaces and unions. Productivity deals hamstringing union officials and activists, small inquorate branch meetings, political parties running around the ‘centre ground’, supervisors ruling the roost on the shopfloor. Not to mention extreme right-wing organisations stirring it up for migrants egged on by a Prime Minister stealing their ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ slogan.
Many Labour Party branches became little more than entertainment circles between elections and in the absence of current technology, leaflet-carrying joggers during them.
Yet by 1972 there was an explosion of militancy and anger against government policy wide enough to transform the political landscape at grassroots level, and bring thousands into activity, including teachers.
But that didn’t come as a result of people sitting on their hands and waiting on events. Networks of workplace activists were built from the bottom up, all with diverse ideas about the way forward, all developing tactics to deal with the situation in their own local education authorities and schools.
And nothing in what this government has done so far or even intends to do, indicate that this could not happen again.
Indeed, the government’s education agenda is now in deep crisis. The highly authoritative Primary Review overseen by Cambridge University professor Robin Alexander, with contributing sections from a variety of UK academics, and published at the end of October2provides us with priceless data to expose precisely the lack of genuine commitment to educational achievement since 1997, and, by implication, grist to our mill in saying that the economic imperative has always been paramount for Labour.
The new Minister for Children Schools and Families has even had to recognise the hokum about City Academies being a recipe to put right failing schools, when they are in fact increasingly introduced as the only funding arrangement for new schools under the Building Schools for the Future scam – where no failing institution actually exist to be replaced! His review is unlikely to conclude with the NUT policy that Academies should be scrapped where planned and returned to Community School status where existing. But we can demand that!
I’ll leave the last word to a local government worker who, after discussing the above, concluded: ‘The thing is, if the bosses were succeeding, they wouldn’t have to bully so many of us’.
Barry Conway November 2007
1 See full document at: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/budget/bud_bud03/associated_documents/bud_bud03_adpubserv.cfm
2 For full first documents go to: http://www.primaryreview.org.uk/Printable_Sections/People_Print_All.html