“Pay is just the tip of the iceberg though. The strike is a reaction by educators to a system in disarray.”
By Robert Poole, Strike Map
Normally I spend my time documenting and recording other people’s pickets for the website I co-founded a couple of years ago – Strike Map. We list every strike and picket that we can and then encourage people to send messages of solidarity or make a trip to visit a picket.
But on Wednesday this week the tables were turned and I found myself standing outside the school in which I have worked for eight years setting up a picket line in the dark.
The last time I went on strike was 2012, right at the beginning of my teaching career. As a trainee teacher and fresh member of the National Union of Teachers I joined hundreds of thousands of other teachers in withholding my labour, that time over pensions. This was my first introduction to the trade union movement. Having come from the private sector with bullying bosses it was a breath of fresh air to realise that in my new job there was a network behind me of people who were willing to fight for me.
This time around we are striking over pay. We have seen decades of real terms pay cuts. A sickening statistic is that I have lost over £60, 000 in pay since I started teaching as a result of Tory austerity ideology. This is how much easier life would have been over the past decade with that extra money. Health problems in my family followed by lost earnings for my partner during covid drew down my savings and there have been some tough times.
What is sometimes forgotten is that teachers’ pay and conditions have a direct impact on pupils’ learning conditions. Tired and stressed teachers cannot deliver a top notch education no matter how much they would like to. Low pay in schools coupled with rising cost of living has led teachers to take on two, sometimes three jobs. Exam marking, tutoring or even just part time work at the weekends simply to make ends meet. This then has a knock on effect with teachers having less time to plan and assess and coming into work over tired.
Pay is just the tip of the iceberg though. The strike is a reaction by educators to a system in disarray. Crumbling buildings, staff shortages, over work, constant change and over surveillance have left us on the brink. Stress levels are through the roof, many staff live in fear and this is having a detrimental effect on mental health. A former union branch secretary told me that he had members ring him up and leave messages to say that they were going to try calling The Samaritans instead. This is unsurprising with teachers reporting working 55 hour weeks.
The question the government should be asking itself is why do a third of teachers quit within the first five years? Why is the government missing its own recruitment targets year after year? Staff shortages increase workload and lead to the education of pupils suffering. A shocking statistic is that one in eight maths lessons are taught by a non specialist. As a parent this is very concerning. We send our children to school trusting that they will get a high quality education.
Strike action is always the last resort and no teacher in the land wants to lose a days pay to freeze on a picket line. But what else can they do? Protests don’t work. Petitions don’t work. What does work is causing disruption, teachers after all are the babysitters of capitalism. The last time I went on strike we won serious concessions over our pensions. This time we will win again.
Striking is a lonely thing which is why we founded Strike Map and why we supported the NEU in creating their own map for this strike wave. Seven days of strike action will be hard, especially for those teachers for whom it is their first time on the picket line and for the rest of us who have not been on strike in over a decade. I would urge everyone to visit this map when the regional strikes start in a couple of weeks and when the national strikes resume in mid March.
If you can’t make it then there is also the facility to leave a message for striking workers. These kept us going when the rain started and the wind began to bite.
The strike action is not just about pay. It is about dignity. That is why it was so heartening to see hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets on Wednesday, finally realising that for once they had power and agency. The chant on the marches up and down the country was “Save our schools” which shows that what is at stake here is more than just wages – it is the very future of education itself.
- Robert Poole is a secondary school teacher and National Education Union representative from Bolton.
- You can find out more about Strike Map here, and follow Strike Map UK on Facebook, Instagram and twitter.