“These people despise teachers and they despise trade unions. They despise anyone willing to stand up to them but that is why we need to continue to stand firm.”
By Robert Poole
On Tuesday this week the streets of Northern towns were filled with crowds of angry teachers demanding that the government “Pay Up” and save our schools. The slogan “Save our Schools” is not hyperbole, it is the expression of a genuine fear amongst educators that if something is not done soon then our education system faces collapse.
Teachers teaching in crumbling buildings, a teacher retention crisis and shrinking pay are the catalysts for a wave of anger amongst educators. Smashing Tory anti-strike legislation teachers in the National Education Union voted overwhelmingly for strike action. The first day of action at the start of February saw tens of thousands take to the streets to demand a fair settlement. Strike Map listed over 30,000 picket lines on that day, many of them at schools.
The government had every opportunity to avert the further strike action but failed to offer any reasonable increases in pay. Instead threatening to impose real terms pay cut again next year. With the cost-of-living crisis still looming over us, anything less than an inflation proof pay rise will further add to the misery of educators up and down the country. To add insult to injury any pay rises are not being funded meaning that schools must take the money from their already insufficient funds.
The government is perhaps hoping to starve us back to work but as I spent another cold morning with comrades from my school on the picket line this week it was clear to see that our spirit and willingness to fight has not been dampened. Car after car beeped and waved and parents stopped to offer words of encouragement – they know we are fighting not just for ourselves but for their children too.
Teachers’ pay, terms and conditions are directly linked to children’s’ learning conditions. Without a competitive pay rise how will we hope to deal with the crisis of teacher recruitment and more importantly retention? One in eight maths lessons are currently being taught by non-specialists for example and the government is missing even its own targets for teacher recruitment by a staggering 41%.
Once the picket lines were dismantled for the day teachers headed to towns and cities throughout the region to make their voices heard. Thousands of NEU members as well as parents with their children marched through Manchester creating a carnival atmosphere. 3000 people made their voices heard led by joint general secretary Mary Bousted who addressed the crowd calling for unity and rightly telling teachers that they are “the greatest asset our country has”.
This fight will not be a quick one and it will not be an easy one. We are halfway through this round of strikes and the government is yet to show any sign of negotiating in good faith.
In many ways the strike over pay is in fact a proxy for many other issues in education. Every teacher I have spoken to has given different reasons for their individual decision to strike. Daniel Kebede wrote in Schools Week about the dangers of centralisation while others voiced concern about the increasing power of MATS. For some they are doing it over excessive workload, for others it is for the ill-treated support staff at their workplace. For many it is about respect and dignity. Teachers feel undervalued and overworked, they feel over-surveilled and under-appreciated.
We have also been allowed a glimpse behind the curtain this week with the leaking of government WhatApp messages and for once been allowed to see what the government really thinks of us. These people despise teachers and they despise trade unions. They despise anyone willing to stand up to them but that is why we need to continue to stand firm.
I am proud of my union and what we have built. Since the strike was announced we have grown by 50,000 new members and we’re going nowhere. The strike wave continues with other regions joining the fight up and down the country but the big day will be the next national strike on the 15th and 16th March.
We will be joining hundreds of thousands of other workers in withholding our labour on that day. From university and college lecturers in the UCU to civil servant members of the PCS. From bakers at Hovis in Belfast to journalists at the BBC. I will be heading down to London on that day and be joining my comrades to fight not just for pay but for our future.