Class(room) War: Why teachers are going on strike

This post was written by Guest Post on June 24, 2011
Posted Under: Uncategorized

This is a guest post written for The Third Estate by teacher, writer and activist David Rosenberg.
What is the job of a teacher? The pressure from government backed by the media in recent years has been to make sure that teachers not only drum endless literacy and maths lessons into their classroom charges but also show they are moral guardians of the children they educate. To ensure that children know right from wrong, and become honest citizens who treat their peers fairly.

What would it be like, though, if the morality that teachers taught children matched the morality of the government in the way it treats teachers?

For levels of responsibility teachers take on and daily management requirements, teaching is poorly paid. Most teachers didn’t enter the profession to get rich, but they could at least feel satisfied that they had a relatively good pension scheme in place. Recognising the demanding and stressful nature of the job where problems and crises that families and communities endure are expressed through alienation and conflict in the classroom and playground, teachers have been able to retire on a full pension at 60 and get a reasonable deal for stopping at 55.

That is changing rapidly. The coalition government has not so much shifted the goalposts as totally dismantled them, with a plan to make teachers work much longer, pay far greater contributions into their pension and yet receive less at the end of the day. The most militant teacher union – the NUT – has a useful tool on its website: the “pensions calculator” so that members can actually work out how much they are set to lose, and weep.

The teacher unions have taken a battering from successive governments. The Tories, with their Lib-Dem fig leaf, did not have to invent a new philosophy to undermine progressive educational practice and comprehensive schooling. They could pick up where New Labour left off but do it more quickly, more viciously, and with a brazen class conceit.

The teachers’ weakness has been their disunity – divided into several competing unions, but this government has actually helped overcome that problem. Their pension plans have even antagonised that most cautious of unions, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) who last balloted for a one-hour lunchtime walk out about 30 years ago. Just recently the ATL’s ballot for a one-day strike on June 30th to protest this assault on pensions was supported by 83% of those returning their ballots.

In the NUT the result was even more resounding – 92% on the highest level of participation of any NUT national ballot for 20 years. With the UCU and the PCS also coming out on June 30th, there is a great opportunity for a serious show of strength among public sector unions, refusing to pay the price of bailing out the bankers. The NUT voted for “discontinuous action” – which means they can announce further strike days without re-balloting. They are prepared for a long battle, but one they sense they can win.

The bigger battle over education, though, will be much harder, and, less amenable to workplace militancy and strike action because of the straitjacket of trade union legislation. This is the battle to save the remnants of comprehensive schooling and democratic local education authorities from being dismantled by the creation of a critical mass of unaccountable, privately sponsored, institutions for private profit, aided by central government cash, that are misnamed “academies”.

Power hungry headteachers backed by enclaves of middle class parents with sharp elbows are relishing this opportunity. They are doing the government’s dirty work for them, but Michael Gove has his sights lower down the food chain, announcing that the 200 “worst performing” primaries will be forced to become academies, barely bothering to conceal that this is a punitive measure.

In the inner London borough where I teach, governing bodies of three local primary schools have just voted on whether to seek academy status. In one, a well-run local campaign defeated the more gung-ho governors, but in the other two it was bulldozed through. One of these, William Tyndale school, was once renowned as a bastion of progressive education.

Even if we win on pensions, academy status will allow schools to ignore national pay and conditions policies and the position of teachers within these school will become more precarious. Let’s make 30th June a day for us to remember, and one the government wants to forget but be aware that the bigger struggles on education are only just beginning to be fought over.

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Reader Comments

While agreeing with the concerns about pensions, academies and pay & conditions etc, on the subject of “morality”, going on strike sends the wrong message to students, setting an example of trying to achieve demands by force rather than negotiation.

Striking is a negative force that damages education and the public perception of teachers as professionals. Strikes disrupt children’s education and inconvenience parents, who may themselves lose money when they have to miss work or pay for additional childcare.

In the modern world, public sector strikes do not achieve anything and are counter-productive. Governments do not change their plans because staff have gone on strike.

As demonstrated by the positive achievements of the workforce agreement, the best possible outcomes are achieved by dialogue and negotiation, not conflict.
Teachers and those who represent them can only win the argument – which is a strong argument – on pensions at the negotiating table, not on the picket line. Strike threats are making the Government even more intransigent. The Government can’t afford to be seen to make concessions because of strikes or the threat of strikes. To do so would undermine its credibility and weaken its authority with it supporters, opponents, the media and the public.

Compromising and making concessions at the negotiating table, however, would show that the Government is prepared to listen.

The fighting talk (“war” ) from both ‘sides’ makes reaching agreement more difficult.

More on this at:

Written By Voice Blog on June 24th, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

“In the NUT the result was even more resounding – 92% on the highest level of participation of any NUT national ballot for 20 years”

And what was that turnout?

Written By Owain on June 24th, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

I know the previous comment is a bit old, but why is turnout so important for people opposed to strikes? There’s an assumption that abstentions count as a ‘no’ vote, which doesn’t make any sense – surely if those who didn’t vote felt strongly they’d let the union know via the ballot box? It’s equally likely that they just don’t have a strong opinion. The important thing is that all the members were balloted, and as such the result is the democratic opinion of the union as a whole.

Written By Matt on June 29th, 2011 @ 3:34 pm

The energy and enthusiasm and unity of teachers on the march in London today,and the size of the march, showed that the union had captured the mood of its members. From conversations I had and heard, many were clearly demonstrating publicly for the first time.

The ballot turnout was very similar to that for the AV vote which the government clearly acknowledged as a democratic outcome. The union can provide all its members with the opportunity to vote and express their opinion. It can’t force them to do so, and the union members who do take advantage of the democratic facilities surely can’t be prevented from advancing important campaigns by those who don’t participate. I’m not sure how many ballot papers were returned in the inner London borough where I work – but the result there was 97.5% of returned ballots voting for strike action.

As for the comments from the Voice Blog, there are many ways that the union has tried but failed to persuade the government to negotiate seriously on this matter. Striking is not a first resort but it is an important weapon that the Voice union eschews in all circumstances and they are depriving their members of this weapon. Even the threat of strike action has precipitated a bit of movement by the government.

As for disrupting children’s education and inconveniencing parents, many teachers are also parents and we are depriving our own children of a day’s education today in order to strengthen the teaching profession and its ability to provide quality education delivered by motivated educators in the future. Incidentally, the chair of governors at my school – also a parent – was also on strike today, as a member of PCS.

Written By DavidR on June 30th, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

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