Why teachers are going on strike – Simon Fletcher


“Declining pay, rising workloads and scrutiny, plus chronic funding shortages, are driving many away. One third of teachers leave the profession within their first five years.”

By Simon Fletcher

Parents and carers are receiving the message from headteachers to say whether their children’s schools will close next month, as teachers in England and Wales become the latest workers to strike.

Industrial action by trade unionists now dominates the political agenda in a way that Britain has not seen in years. Much of the media has largely ignored unions except in the context of their relationship to the Labour Party. Now strikes are central to public debate.

As last year came to a close, the strike wave that had been building for months reached its highest and most dramatic level. The nurses’ strike is historic, the first in the existence of the Royal College of Nursing. The ambulance workers’ strike was met with ferocious attacks in some parts of the media. “How will they live with themselves if people die today?” was the Mail’s splash.

Health service workers’ strikes are a crisis for the Conservative party. NHS staff are highly valued and admired workers. That is reflected in public support for their strikes. YouGov’s polling found sixty-six per cent of the public backed the nurses’ strike with sixty-three per cent support for ambulance staff. The Tories may have hoped for a backlash against the workforce but it has not materialised.

February will be the next even higher stage of industrial action. Further NHS strike dates have been announced. Teachers, university lecturers, railworkers and civil servants will strike on February 1, the largest single day of strike action for decades.

Workers on middle and lower income levels are faced with a squeeze on their disposable incomes and their living standards. So the strike wave is not confined to the poorest or most disadvantaged and reflects widespread pressure on household incomes and spending power. A wages crisis that has been building for years – particularly in the public sector and affecting recruitment as well as living standards – has exploded with inflation and the rising cost of energy prices. In December food price inflation hit a record 13.3 per cent. OBR figures at the time of Jeremy Hunt’s fiscal event show real household disposable income per person set to fall 7 per cent over the next two years, the biggest fall on record, bringing incomes down to where they were in 2013. 

(At the same time, as the Royal Mail dispute shows, many employers want to drive people into accepting worse working conditions, for less pay. Acceptance of gig-style working and fewer employment protections is part of a process of shifting British working practices. The government has supported this agenda, for example by doing absolutely nothing about the P&O sackings. One of the characteristics of the disputes in higher education, for example, is the sector’s reliance on casualised labour).

So what is behind the teachers’ strikes?

Members of the National Education Union in 23,400 schools will strike over pay on February 1st. Teachers in Scotland, members of the EIS union, are on strike today.

After the strike on February 1, a series of regional and Wales strikes is planned, followed by a two-day national strike on March 15 and 16, with a national demo in London taking place on the same day as the Budget, March 15.

For the NEU – the largest education union in Europe and the fifth largest union in the UK – the campaign for a fair pay settlement is about more than educators being able to make ends meet. As with the NHS, schools are facing an escalating crisis of recruitment and retention. The NEU argues that this is harming children’s education.

Last September, teacher trainee numbers were down 23 per cent compared to the previous year. The Tories spectacularly missed their own government target for recruiting secondary school teachers, by 41 per cent. This year, for the first time, they also failed to recruit enough new primary school teachers, only securing 89 per cent of the target number.

Some of the gaps between the subject teachers needed in secondary schools, and the trainees recruited, are eye-watering: biology target missed by 66 per cent, modern foreign languages by 48 per cent and English by 39 per cent.

The problem does not end with bringing new educators into schools and colleges. Declining pay, rising workloads and scrutiny, plus chronic funding shortages, are driving many away. One third of teachers leave the profession within their first five years. 13 per cent of teachers who qualified in 2019 have already quit.

This is hardly surprising when you look at what has happened to workload, in addition to the headlines around pay. Teachers’ incomes have declined by more than twenty per cent in real terms since 2010; meanwhile teachers work more unpaid overtime than any other profession. In addition to their teaching timetable, primary teachers spend nearly thirty two hours, and secondary teachers nearly thirty three hours working, on top of their teaching every week. This means working weeks of 55-60 hours are commonplace in schools and colleges.

Of course, it is children – in particular those with special educational needs – who lose out, through lack of subject specialists, teaching assistants leaving their jobs for better-paid work elsewhere, and a revolving door of supply teachers.

The scale of the NEU’s ballot victory illustrates the strength of feeling within the profession, and should act as a huge warning to the Tory party. Over ninety per cent of teacher members in the union’s England ballot group voted yes to taking industrial action, on a turnout of 53 per cent, beating the Tories’ punitive threshold law. It has been widely reported that over 20,000 members have joined the NEU since the strike ballot result was announced.

The Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has shown no commitment to making an offer to end this dispute, preferring instead to question the timing of the NEU’s announcement of its ballot results.

So, the union is pressing on with its strategy to engage parents, pressure politicians, and strike – to mobilise public support for educators and exert pressure on the government.

There can be no doubt that the Tory party and the right-leaning press is likely to turn the heat on teachers over school closures, which is why it is necessary to understand that a fully-funded pay rise is essential for the education system itself.

When the teachers win, education wins.

Featured image: Pay up! Save our schools demonstration held by NEU members. Photo credit: NEU/twitter

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