UK Teachers’ strike: Fighting poor conditions, pay and cuts to save children’s futures
If there’s one unifying characteristic of teachers, it’s that we can make the best out of a bad situation. After all, we take children broken by a system of entrenched inequality and turn them into young adults ready to enter the world with decent grades under their belt. We take a glaring lack of resources and turn it into creative and engaging learning. We find crumbling, leaking, dilapidated school buildings, and we transform them into places of warmth and safety, opportunity and success.
And where we stumble across flaws and gaps in an unequal system, we plug them by working extra-long hours, or buying equipment ourselves, or giving up our weekends, or even putting our own families last.
But teachers have had to make do for too long. And that was the recurring theme at last week’s teachers’ strikes. Whether it was English teachers borrowing Dickens’ famous line, “please sir, can I have some more?” or primary school teachers disproving the age-old adage that a wet paper towel can solve everything (but not this), the message was clear: enough is enough.
The massive holes in our system cannot be plastered over with colourful displays or fairy lights.
''Despite regularly working upwards of twelve hour days and studying for years to gain the expertise required to educate the next generation, teachers up and down the country are still having to rely on food banks, take second jobs or plan to leave the profession altogether. In fact, a third of teachers who qualified in the last decade have left teaching and a further half are predicted to leave within the next five years.''
This current wave of teachers’ strikes are often mischaracterised as being about pay. After all, it’s politically expedient for the government - and sections of the media - to present teachers as greedy, idle professionals who want even more money to spend during the ridiculous amount of holiday we get.
Whether it’s the assumption (by government ministers, no less) that we were boozing our way through the pandemic or that we are simply work-shy and lazy, these damaging and unrealistic stereotypes of teachers are rife, and all they do is discredit our very real and increasingly pressing demands. Take a recent headline from The Telegraph that reads ‘Teachers to negotiate to do less work for more pay,’ as a perfect example of how we cannot escape this negative image even when calling for what should be a basic requirement for all: a decent wage we can live on that reflects the work we do.
The thing is, even if the strikes were all about pay, this wouldn’t make them any less valid.
Despite last year’s 5% pay-rise for experienced staff, the Institute for Fiscal Studies holds that teachers are still working for a real-terms pay cut once inflation is factored in. And this is on top of a decade of cuts thanks to austerity.
As the cost of living continues to sky-rocket and inflation hits an all-time high, this is only going to get worse. In fact, the IFS predicts a further 2-3% pay cut this coming year for most teachers unless fundamental changes are made to funding in the sector.
Whilst it may be the case that society thrives off the expectation that teachers should be Miss Honey-esque figures who survive on nothing but job satisfaction and children’s smiles, we know that the reality is very different. Despite regularly working upwards of twelve hour days and studying for years to gain the expertise required to educate the next generation, teachers up and down the country are still having to rely on food banks, take second jobs or plan to leave the profession altogether. In fact, a third of teachers who qualified in the last decade have left teaching and a further half are predicted to leave within the next five years.
The picture when looking at pay alone is nothing short of dire. If we care about the nation’s children, then it is imperative we care about the people they spend every weekday in the presence of.
But it’s not all about pay. As Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), put it: “poor levels of teacher pay are only one symptom”. He explained that, “our members are taking action for the children they teach. This generation of children are facing increased class sizes, lack of permanent teachers, lack of special needs support. The cause of all these problems is the refusal of our Government to invest in education.”
Schools and teachers are transformative for children and their communities. Young people disadvantaged at every level of the system, grappling with poverty and homelessness, mental health problems and abusive homes rely on schools for sanctuary and hope. But this cannot continue as long as we are underfunded and starved of the government support necessary to address the social issues that they are to blame for.
The situation is the same everywhere. Class sizes rise to the detriment of every single student in the room who now has to share their teacher with thirty-five others, each with their own complex needs. Meanwhile, teaching assistants are becoming ever-more rare as schools are either forced to prioritise keeping the lights on over hiring much-needed help in the classroom. Some simply cannot recruit anyone qualified enough as teaching assistants leave for supermarket jobs that pay much better.
This is all against a backdrop of an ever-worsening recruitment crisis, a workload that feels less manageable every day, and more and more teachers suffering mental health problems as a result of poor conditions and a non-existent work-life balance.
Furthermore, the legacy of the pandemic and two years of lost learning that the government has failed to offset has meant that the sector’s issues look insurmountable.
This leaves little room to wonder why hundreds of thousands of teachers have taken industrial action over the last couple of months.
According to the Tories in power, teaching unions simply hate work and love nothing more than grinding the education sector to a halt for a day or two. But the reality is that the NEU, the country’s largest teaching union, gained over twenty thousand new members directly after announcing their intention to strike earlier this year. The demands of teaching unions are the demands of teachers themselves and these are the most pressing needs of our students.
For now, the strikes have paused as unions and the government enter talks about workload, conditions and pay. But I for one have little faith in a government who created austerity and orchestrated the very cuts that led to this mess to begin with, to enact the real change that this nation’s children and their teachers need.
So whilst our politicians twiddle their thumbs, gossip about us on WhatsApp or drag teachers through the mud - we will continue changing lives on a daily basis. And if necessary we will take to the streets and the picket lines once again. Because we care. And because as always, we step in when the government fails.
Nadeine Asbali is a secondary school teacher in London.
Follow her on Twitter: @najourno
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