It had to happen, didn’t it? After the railway workers, the train drivers, the nurses, the ambulance crews, the civil servants, and in all likelihood the junior doctors, here come the teachers – although not quite as enthusiastically as their union leaders might have wished.
The National Education Union, representing 300,000 teaching staff has announced strikes through February and March, in pursuit of an above-inflation pay rise, saying that the 5 per cent offered amounts to a pay cut, given the double-digit inflation rate. Teachers are now set to join their Scottish colleagues, who have begun a series of ‘rolling strikes’.
The planned strikes will not involve all teachers, after the other main teaching union, the NASUWT, last week failed to muster the 50 per cent turnout necessary to validate industrial action. Union leaders suggested difficulties with the post (ironically, given that these stemmed from strikes in Royal Mail), among other factors, could have complicated voting. Turnout, at only 52 per cent in England, nearly scuppered the NEU vote, too, although those who did vote were overwhelmingly in favour of striking. The results suggest nonetheless that many teachers were in two minds about the wisdom of striking – and with good reason.
The NASUWT’s proposed 12 per cent (‘fully funded’ – i.e. not from school budgets) pay claim is almost as fantastical as the 19 per cent claim of the RCN on behalf of nurses (of which we have recently been hearing noticeably less). Although pay for many teachers has risen quite substantially in recent years, the unions argue that since 2010 they have suffered a ‘real terms pay cut’ of almost a quarter.
Let’s dispose of the ‘real terms pay cut’ at the start. Soaring inflation means that pretty much everyone – public sector, private sector, and especially those on fixed incomes – has suffered a ‘real terms pay cut’. This hasn’t stopped individual unions presenting their claims in the current strike season as though the public sector, and their particular bit of it, is uniquely affected.
It is beyond time that those in the private sector who have had either a sub-inflation pay increase or no increase at all called the public sector’s bluff. And not only that, but demanded that the vastly superior job security, pensions and other benefits enjoyed by public sector staff are factored in to the presentation of pay.
As for the supposed ‘real terms’ fall in teachers’ pay since 2010, all sides pick and choose their time scales to bolster their case. The Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, caught some flak when she insisted that teachers were not badly paid, pointing out that in some parts of the country teachers are among the top 10 per cent of earners. Starting salaries are around £28,000, rising to £34,000 in London, which is more than the UK average pay. Teachers also benefit from clearly defined career paths with rapid progression.
It might be invidious to mention the banker-level salaries awarded to so-called ‘super-heads’ – a product of the dubious practice of grouping schools – or the university Vice-Chancellors who increasingly fancy themselves as global CEOs, with salaries to match. But it could be argued that in schools, as in higher education, these exceptional salaries at the top have helped to fuel mutinous attitudes in the ranks.
Parents will rightly groan at the prospect of a return to home-schooling and Zoom lessons (or no lessons at all). So will employers, who stand to lose staff to child-minding duties. A teachers’ strike does not just close the schools, it has knock-on effects on the whole economy. It also widens the gap, perceived and real, between the state sector and the public schools.
Some pupils lost between one and two years of formal education, thanks to the pandemic – or rather, thanks to the ill-considered decision by the government to close the schools to most pupils (except the vulnerable and children of key workers) and the unions’ insistence that it was too risky for teachers to be in school. How diligently teachers applied themselves to providing Zoom lessons presents a mixed picture, but learning from home not only placed a huge burden on parents – who were essentially catapulted overnight into doing the teachers’ job unpaid – but widened the gap in attainment between the haves and the have nots. Strikes will only make matters worse.
Now it could be said that the NEU plan for strikes is at the more moderate end of militancy. For a more serious version, you need look only as far as higher education and the Universities and Colleges Union, which has voted to pick up last year’s strikes where they left off, with no fewer than18 days of (in)action announced for the coming weeks. With an average term of ten weeks amounting to 50 working days, that means students could lose more than a third of their teaching days. If lecturers, like teachers, claim they work dawn to dusk all year, how about an 18-day strike in the long summer vacation? I thought not.
Where the teachers, like the nurses, have a point is that there is a recruitment and retention problem. Fewer are training to be teachers and of those who qualify, a proportion either never practise their profession or leave after a few years. Would more pay solve this? Initially it might have some effect, but it is mostly not the pay that those leaving cite most often. It is the workload, bureaucracy, and the ever-changing political wind.
That said, there is a way in which teachers’ workload could and should, be lightened – but it seems not to be part of their claim. Increasingly, teachers complain that they are having to spend more time on tasks such as socialising children who are unprepared for school: that they turn up aged five without toilet training and unable to dress themselves; that some arrive unwashed and unkempt, and an ever-growing number are hungry because there is no food at home. So teachers find themselves increasingly organising breakfast clubs, providing items of uniform for those without, and then laundering pupils’ clothes in their own washing machines.
All this may be laudable. But is it what teachers should be doing? The head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, raised some eyebrows last year when she suggested that some teachers’ focus on providing food parcels and other help to the most deprived pupils during Covid lockdowns ‘may have meant they didn’t have the capacity left to make sure there was some kind of education offer for all children’.
She was of course roundly attacked for the very suggestion that teachers’ priorities had been skewed away from their prime task. But she was right. I cannot imagine most French or German teachers quite so willingly filling in for parents or the people we used to call welfare workers. Their job is to teach. Children who arrive hungry or dirty or in other obvious need should be referred for intervention by social workers. This is the job of social services. Yet they seem all too often missing, leaving kind-hearted people to spend their, or their employer’s, time helping to bridge the gap. This leads to police officers spending night shifts accompanying mentally ill people to long waits in A&E, rather than patrolling the streets.
Perhaps some of those teachers who packed food parcels for their pupils had missed their vocation and would be more happily employed in social services. For the rest, formalising a narrower definition of the teacher’s role might help soften the bad news that their coming strikes are unlikely to produce either the pay rise or the public respect they want. Worse, they will hurt the very pupils they or their colleagues wanted to help.