Tomorrow teachers in the North East, Cumbria, London, South East and South West will go on strike. This is the third in a series of rolling strike action by two teaching unions, the NUT and the NASUWT, who between them represent over 90% of serving teachers.
That they are striking together is significant. Historically the two unions have been rivals and relationships between them have often been fractious.
What has caused them to put their decades of differences aside and work together?
It can be summed up in one word: Gove.
This can’t be said often enough. Striking is a last resort. No one wants to go on strike. Teachers lose a day’s pay, and know that they will be accused of wanting the day off, of being lazy, of not caring about kids, or deliberately inconveniencing parents. Striking is something you only do when you have explored all other avenues and found them blocked off.
But Gove has united teachers in a feeling that a stand has to be made and, since he won’t sit down and negotiate with the unions we are taking strike action.
So what’s it all about.
Well, where do we start?
First of all Gove has announced that he wants teachers to work longer, pay more and get less for their pension than they agreed when they started the job.
So what, I hear you say. People are living longer, it’s a time of austerity and the country can’t afford to pay out for your “gold-plated” pensions. Them’s the breaks, right?
No. For a start our pension scheme has had £43 billion more paid into it than has ever been taken out. Let me repeat that. FORTY. THREE. BILLION. POUNDS. more has gone into our pension pot, paid for by serving teachers, than has ever been taken out by retired teachers. Our pension doesn’t need any input from the taxpayer to make it affordable; it’s fine as it is.
The increased pension contributions that Gove has demanded we pay combined with the pay freeze over the past few years means that by April next year teachers will have had a 15% pay cut in real terms since 2010. That’s a FIFTEEN PERCENT paycut. We simply can’t sustain such an attack on our wages.
And teaching is a physical job. Carrying heavy boxes of books around a school, standing all day, crouching down next to desks to offer help, standing on desks to pin up displays, intervening in physical altercations – these are all a daily part of teachers lives. Keeping 30 children focused and on task for the best part of six hours a day takes enthusiasm and energy. It’s mentally and physically demanding and while most teachers say they will struggle to make it to 65, Gove is now insisting they go on until 68. The cynical might say that, of course, he knows that’s simply impossible and means that many teachers will be forced to take early retirement, thereby losing many thousands of pounds from a pension that they have worked hard for for years, often decades. (It’s worth noting that already 43% of teachers don’t make it to retirement age before leaving the profession.)
Workload is another issue. While Gove would like to maintain that teachers waltz in at 9, leave at 3, and sun themselves on beaches for six weeks in the summer the reality is very different.
Any teacher will tell you that a typical day starts nearer to seven, doesn’t finish until well after 6, that breaks during the day are non-existent and that weekends and holidays are taken up with marking and planning. And that’s for more experienced teachers. These days tales of newly qualified teachers being at school until nine or ten at night and then going in again on the weekend are not uncommon. Which is why there is such a high burnout rate in teaching (nearly one in three trainees doesn’t stay in teaching beyond a year and 50% don’t stay beyond five years).
And Gove wants us to do more. While most teachers need the holidays to keep on top of their workload, see their own children, remind their family and friends what they look like, and physically and mentally recuperate, Gove says we should have shorter holidays and stay in school for longer so that we can have additional meetings and supervise after-school sessions.
But all of this, the pay cut, the stolen pension, the increased workload, he might have got away with all of this were it not for his devastating onslaught on education.
Amongst other things he has:
- Removed the Educational Maintenance Allowance that allowed poorer students to stay on into further education
- Done nothing to reduce the tripling of tuition fees
- Narrowed the curriculum into something one academic has called neo-Victorian
- Removed the need for schools to employ qualifies teachers
- Stopped the schools modernisation programme and diverted the money into free schools often in places where there is no need
- Destroyed university based initial teacher training so that we are now facing a significant shortage of teachers in key subjects
- Created a school places crisis
- Proposed phasing out all 230,00 teaching assistants
- Refused to listen to the advice of the profession
- Refused to implement policies based on evidence and research
- Constantly denigrated teachers
Teachers have had enough. They’ve had enough of the attacks on their pay, on their pensions and their working conditions. But most of all they’ve had enough of the attacks on education.
It’s time to stand up for education. It’s time to stand up for teachers.