Once again I find myself in a place that I hoped never to revisit. In 2018, the union I belong to, the University and College Union, voted to take industrial action in protest against cuts to pensions. In spite of the convening of an independent panel since that action, UCU and Universities UK have not been able to agree a way forward to solve the pensions dispute. Thus, UCU members were balloted about taking further strike action earlier this autumn. In addition to the pension dispute, we were also balloted on ‘universities’ failure to make improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads‘. According to UCU, ‘79% of UCU members who voted backed strike action in the ballot over changes to pensions. In the ballot on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads, 74% of members polled backed strike action’. Eight days of strike action have been called, starting last Monday 25 November-4 December.
I voted to take strike action in both 2018 and in the recent ballot, but secretly hoped it would not come to pass. During the 2018 action I met many amazing colleagues (with whom I shared a campus but had never even met), and enjoyed inspiring conversations which continue to feed me even now. But I also found the experience draining, physically, emotionally and mentally. I wholeheartedly support the current UCU campaign, but when news came through of the ballot result, my heart sank.
My heart sank even further when I realised that this current dispute was scheduled to take place during a pilot Ofsted inspection of initial teacher education at my university. With great reluctance and with a heavy heart I decided to support my colleagues in ITE and participate in the inspection, instead of standing with those on the picket line. It is one of the hardest things I have ever had to face in nearly seventeen years of university teaching.
So on the first day of the inspection, at the start of a lecture and subsequent seminar during which colleagues, including me, were due to be observed teaching, a group of us read out a statement in front of students and a row of Ofsted inspectors which stated our support both of the strike and our colleagues in ITE. (You can read this below.) In common with our decision to participate in the inspection instead of the strike, this was not an easy decision to make. (It was not referred to by our inspectors for the whole of the week they were with us.) Even before we were greeted by the thunderous applause of our students as we finished reading, we knew it was the right thing to do.
During the previous dispute colleagues had talked about the strike as a ‘teachable moment’, but I was not quite sure if I knew for myself what this had meant. Now I did. I have lost count of the emails from and conversations with students supporting us.
All of which brings to mind the conflict I still feel about one piece of feedback I received from Ofsted last week. The session in which I was observed included a video about practice teaching pupils who have English as an additional language in an isolated context. Among positive feedback I was asked to reflect on how far I had drawn students’ attention to the teaching of British values in schools:
The government defines “fundamental British values” as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths. Since 2014, teachers in English schools must promote these British values and their promotion is inspected by Ofsted.
The initiative was a response by Michael Gove – then secretary of state for education – following the “Trojan Horse Affair”, where it was alleged that Islamists were trying to take over state schools in Birmingham. No evidence was found to support the accusation of conspiracy, despite numerous investigations.
[Source: The Conversation]
To be fair to my Ofsted colleague, I might indeed have made mention of this agenda. But I suspect that, had I chosen to draw attention to British values as defined by HM Government, I might have pursued a more critical approach, questioning how far the isolated and recently arrived children in the video were actually supported in use of their home language; how far their learning was scaffolded in a democratic and accountable way; and how far assumptions were shown to be made about their personalities and capabilities based on minimal evidence.
In turn, this brings to mind The Fruit of the Spirit: A Church of England Discussion Paper on Character Education (The Church of England Education Office, 2015), a response to the British values agenda:
The values listed in this consultation are narrowly focused, and do not include several important aspects of British life including:
a. ‘Loving your neighbour’ and ‘being prepared to receive from the outsider’ as demonstrated by the Good Samaritan
b. The importance of dissent (e.g. as demonstrated by the campaign for the abolition of slavery, the suffragettes, chartists etc.) (p.14).
Were I teaching this session tomorrow, I might make mention of British values via the questions above. I might also use the Church of England critique as a way of engendering a discussion about who we consider to be ‘the other’; and about the tradition of dissent in our culture, without which power, injustice and inequality go unchallenged. Which explains why I will be standing with colleagues on the picket line tomorrow morning, whatever the weather.
Some links which explain the current UCU industrial action:
The views expressed in this blog post are mine alone and do not represent those of my employer.