Tower Hamlets Teachers Resist Attacks on the Vulnerable

By George Binette

Nearly 30 members of the National Education Union (NEU) in the Labour-run borough of Tower Hamlets are set to strike on Wednesday 9th December in response to a proposed restructure. If implemented, the proposals would from April next year axe nearly half of the posts in the borough’s Support for Learning Service (SLS). Established in the mid-1990s, the SLS has been a key component of the council’s provision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

The NEU members are highly qualified, experienced teachers with specialist knowledge, who provide tailored support to pupils with a wide range of sensory impairments and disabilities, as well as advice and training to colleagues based in classrooms. They have played a crucial, if largely unsung, role in cementing the local authority’s reputation as a previous leader in inclusive education.

Though union density is high, the SLS are unlikely militants, who are taking strike action only after a 96% ‘yes’ vote on a 92.6% turnout. In addition to the drastic job cuts, remaining staff face the prospect of substantially increased workloads and the imposition of worse terms and conditions under Soulbury as opposed to teacher contracts. (For full-time staff, Soulbury contracts require a further 29 working days a year with substantially different, generally less favourable pay spines and a switch to Local Government Pensions Scheme). Above all, however, they are angered at the implications of the £650,000 spending cut for the prospects for children and young people with whom most of them have worked on a regular basis.

While many, if not the majority, of local authorities face even more acute fiscal pressures as a result of the pandemic, the Covid crisis is not the real driver behind the threatened cuts in Tower Hamlets. The council’s current proposals have come in response to a genuine crisis in SEND funding. According to a 2019 publication, produced jointly by the council and Tower Hamlets Clinical Commissioning Group, there are nearly 8,000 people aged two to 25 with SEND, while a Loughborough University analysis of child poverty indicates that Tower Hamlets has the highest rates of any local authority in England: 55% of the borough’s children are below the poverty line when high housing costs are factored in.

With exceptionally high levels of need, the borough has seen a shortfall of some £12 million in SEND funding amid a nationwide gap estimated by the Local Government Association at some £1.6 billion for financial year 2021-22. This yawning gap stems largely from central government imposing new responsibilities on councils under the Children & Families Act 2014, without increases in real levels of funding from Whitehall.

For example, the Deaf and Partially Hearing team in the SLS has witnessed a 65% increase in caseload in the past six years with no new resources, while management is now seeking to axe 3.6 full-time equivalent posts from this team. The Visual Impairment team would shrink from five to just two posts.

Responding to the cuts threat, NEU district secretary Alex Kenny said, “The cuts currently threatened by the council are a real body blow to dedicated staff, who worked through the Covid pandemic at a time when pupils often couldn’t access therapies and NHS services that many rely on.”

He added, “The current SLS has played a vital role in improving educational and job opportunities for local children and young people with SEND. Cutting jobs and deskilling those staff that remain will hit the life chances of the current generation.”

The SLS is not the only service under threat from directly elected Mayor John Biggs’ administration. Having provoked a still unresolved dispute over the summer with the council’s largest union, UNISON, through the use of John Major-era legislation to impose new contracts by sacking, then re-engaging, virtually the whole workforce apart from schools, the council is now looking to shut three day centres for adults with learning disabilities and chronic health issues.

The council is also launching a community consultation on the future of its library services, with the clear objective of slashing spending by a further £1 million, nearly a quarter of the current total libraries budget. And in a curious development, incumbent Mayor Biggs is himself now backing a referendum next May, which could ultimately abolish the post of executive mayor.

Meanwhile, industrial action is not the only prong in the union’s campaign. An online petition has garnered nearly 1,500 signatures, and local parents of children with SEND have launched their own initiative to put pressure on the council to think again. A Zoom meeting in October attracted some 120 participants including Poplar & Limehouse MP Apsana Begum, who has been very supportive and sympathetic. Backbench Labour councillors also took part, as well as parents, ex-pupils, who delivered powerful tributes, and the award-winning Deaf poet, Raymond Antrobus.

The council has offered a meeting with union representatives under the aegis of ACAS for Monday morning 7th December, but this is all but certain to be a formality. The local NEU has provisionally agreed five further strike dates for January.

George Binette is Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP Trade Union Liaison Officer, who writes in a personal capacity. His partner, Amanda Bentham is a qualified teacher of the Deaf and also a joint NEU representative in Tower Hamlets.

Image: Campaigners outside the gates of Downing Street earlier this year, submitting a giant invoice to the Government for SEND funding.

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