I’m not at school today. School’s closed. If you’re in the North West, where I teach, you’ve probably seen it on the news or you’ve been directly affected it. You may have had to find childcare or been forced to take a day off work or work from home. If you’ve been put out, I’m sorry. I really am sorry. However, I don’t think I’ve got a choice.
I’m going to give you my reasons for striking. Once you’ve read it, you can call me the names I’ve been called previously: “lazy’, “workshy” and “parasite” are just a few. I would ask you, please, to read to the end before you comment, though. If you feel any of those labels are right for me, or if you think I’m doing the wrong thing, please do tell me… but do give this a read first.
Teachers are going to be called a lot of things today, but we’re used to that. Recently, we’ve been told we’re Marxist “enemies of promise”, lazy, fail poor kids and are responsible for the rise of fascism. Today’s different, though, as we’ll have politicians suggesting we’re greedy, self-centred and aren’t thinking about the rest of the country – and you – as we take industrial action. I can understand why the government has to say this and I can also understand why you might agree with them. After all, you’re feeling the effects of my actions and, to be frank, my union (it doesn’t matter which one) hasn’t done a good job of telling you why I’m striking. The unions are very good at getting teachers out on strike, but they haven’t sold our cause to you. Had they told you why our actions are in your and your child’s interests, I think we’d have far more support from you and everyone else in our communities.
Why am I on strike?
There are a number of reasons, and I’ll list them. They’re not in the same order or the same explanations given by my union: these are my personal reasons why I’m not in school.
Firstly, class sizes are bigger. There are fewer teachers teaching more students. Teachers and others in education are losing their jobs. The number of teachers is dropping (Teacher numbers fall by 10,000 in a year) and this comes at a time when the number of students in schools in rising, with some describing the shortage a ‘crisis’. This has led to the government removing the requirement that your child must be taught in classes of no more than 30 pupils – the government is increasing class sizes.
There’s a simple reason for this: cost. Your child’s education isn’t worth paying for, say the government. More students per teacher means a lower cost per child. Indeed, Sir Michael Wilshaw, appointed head of OfSted by the current government, says that schools will soon be required to choose between high-quality staff and smaller class sizes – your child can either have a highly skilled, experienced and qualified teacher in a very large class, or can be in a smaller class with a less experienced (possibly unqualified) teacher.
Secondly, teachers don’t have to be ‘teachers’. The government is removing the requirement for the person in charge of your child’s education to be a trained teacher. The government has removed the need for staff in academies and free schools to be fully qualified teachers, and they are expanding this to state schools. Most people agree that this is simply a cost-cutting measure. The government says that there are some fantastic people teaching who don’t have a teaching qualification and this isn’t about cutting costs, but is about raising standards. If that’s true, why are unqualified teachers paid so much less if they’re at least as good as qualified teachers? If these unqualified staff have the skills of qualified teachers, and can become qualified in school using their existing skills and experience in the classroom, and would get a pay rise when they did, why don’t they? Finally, I wouldn’t put a child on a school bus knowing the driver didn’t have a driving licence, so why is it OK for the person in charge of the class (or even the school in one case) to have no formal training or teaching qualification?
Currently our education system is seen the sixth best in the world. I want to make it the best, not the cheapest.
Thirdly, teachers’ pay and conditions are being hacked away. This one’s really hard for me to talk to you about. Why? If you’re like most of us, your pay’s gone down, your conditions are worse and your outlook is bleaker, too. You’re probably thinking “I’m having to pay for the mess the bankers got us into; why shouldn’t teachers pay too? We’re all in this together, right?” Well, I hope you don’t think me too self-centred or selfish when I disagree, especially as I don’t think you’ve been treated fairly either.
I’m being asked to pay more into my pension in order to get it later and receive less. In a hugely problematic time economically, the government has said categorically that our pensions aren’t financially viable – that our pensions are bankrupting the country. Wow! If this is true, it’s no wonder I should and must take a reduction in my pension. The problem is a report from the House of Lords, by a lord appointed by the current government, said that our pensions were already affordable, were far from the ‘gold-plated’ pots of money the government tells you they are, and measures such as the change from RPI (Retail Price Index) to CPI (Consumer Price Index) had already drastically reduced the value of teachers’ pensions and the cost to the tax payer for public servants’ pensions has already been slashed by 25%. But, if the government says they’re unaffordable, fine – show us your calculations, just like Lord Hutton did, so we can check your figures. The problem is, the government won’t. They would like us to ignore the figures given by their own appointee and trust their other secret figures which they won’t release.
We’re in the same boat as all public sector workers, with job cuts, pay cuts, and pension cuts – we all have to suffer a little for the greater good, right? No. You see, our MPs who are saying the public purse can’t afford to pay so much to people who serve the state, aren’t taking a pay cut themselves. In fact, they are pushing for an increase to their their pay whilst everyone else suffers. In May, John Bercow, the Conservative Speaker of the House, began pushing for an increase to MPs’ salaries of between £10,000 and £20,000 and, in private, MPs have said (on average) their salaries should rise from £66,000 to £86,000, with Conservative MPs suggesting a figure of nearly £100,000 a year is fair and reasonable. My salary has increased by 1% (so, with inflation, I can buy a lot less than last year) and yours has increased by 0.6% on average (so you’re even worse off than me) but MPs want at least 32% increase in pay. MPs argue that £85-100k a year is necessary to attract the best people into Parliament. Unfortunately, this is where my argument might fail – because I agree with them. I think changes to teachers’ pay and conditions should be resisted because we need the best people to teach our kids. If we are going to attract the best people to teach our children, we can’t pay the least. I don’t want the MPs’ ludicrously high 32%, but I do believe a good wage will attract the best the people into the profession and mean they can stay there and thrive. Something in line with inflation, so I can buy the same as I could last year, will do me this year.
I mentioned I’m already a bit better off than you: I got 1% and you got 0.6% so I’m doing better than you – sorry about that. Honestly, I am. I think we both deserve more, but in this time of austerity, we’re all in this together. Except, we’re not. Whilst our wages have increased slightly, and by much less than inflation, there are some who are doing much better – £10,000s better. The government gave millionaires a huge tax cut this year, and said it would trickle down to the rest of us, making us all richer. What’s actually happened over the last decade is that the bottom 90% of us (including me and, probably, you) have had virtually no increase in average income; the top 10% have seen an increase of £5k; the top 5% have seen an increase of £7k; whilst the top 1% have seen their average incomes double, an increase of £150k per year. All this at a time when tax for the top is dropping and every week the richest amongst us are being outed for using divisive and elaborate tax avoidance techniques – tax which would pay for the services your council is having to cut, pay for the cuts the government are making, and pay for the cuts to your child’s education, including new buildings, new equipment, new qualified teachers and, yes, my pay.
The truth is, though, that we are in a time of austerity, we have to be careful with money, and we have to make sure every penny is spent wisely – except if you’re in charge of the Department for Education. Michael Gove has said that your child’s education is too expensive, that your child isn’t worth the money we spend on him or her, that the future, the next generation, isn’t worth the money we spend on it – except if it’s one of his pet projects. In a time of austerity, his department has over spent by £1bn on academies and free schools. That’s £ 1,000,000,000 or 43,668 new teachers.
Furthermore, the government’s plans for the curriculum are wrong. I disagree with the government’s plans for what our children should be taught, how they should be taught it and how it’s being brought in. We’re the sixth best education system in the world – and that’s not good enough. I want us to be the best, and I want us to keep improving when we get there. I want our system to be amazing and wonderful; I want people to talk and talk about how good education is in this country until all superlatives have been exhausted… and then I want it to get even better. Michael Gove’s plans won’t do that; Michael Gove’s plans will send us backwards. Just about every one of his edicts has been shot down in flames because they have been ill conceived, ill thought through, or poorly implemented. Even when huge bodies of evidence have been put before him, he’s ignored them, and just last week, even his own advisors, experts he’d appointed and employs as consultants, told him, in no uncertain terms, that his changes would damage education, damage employment and damage children… and he’s ignored them and done what he thinks is best. I want to teach children the right things in the right way; Mr Gove wants to teach children the wrong things in the wrong way – just ask his experts.
Finally, I don’t have a choice but to strike. My union has asked Mr Gove to talk about these issues and a whole raft more. He agreed – and offered them one hour. One hour to talk about all my issues listed above and the dozens more teachers have with the direction the government’s taking education. One hour to discuss pay & pensions; one hour to discuss class sizes & teacher shortages; one hour to discuss teacher training & the use of unqualified staff in classrooms. One hour, in total, to discuss all that. If you had a problem at work, wouldn’t you expect more than hour of your boss’ time? If your child had a problem at school, would you expect me or one of my colleagues to limit you to an hour?
Michael Gove will not take my union’s request for a meeting seriously – so what choice do I have?
Thank you for reading this far. With all the rhetoric from the government, it’s hard to get our message across so I really do appreciate it. Today, I’ll be called lazy and workshy, greedy and a parasite, so it’s good to know at least you’ve listened. I hate being off school and I hate hurting you and your children today – and I’m sorry that I have to. I don’t take strike action lightly – I think my union’s only ever been on strike once before and this is the first time I’ve voted for and taken strike action – but I believe it’s the only way that the government will listen to my deep concerns about our children’s futures.