Yesterday the National Education Union (NEU) was out on strike across the country. What are the details, why are they on strike and what does it mean?
The details: The two other education unions are not on strike (their ballots did not have enough support) but the NEU is by far the biggest. So all schools in Gloucester have been affected, with some closed completely (eg Barnwood and Linden primaries), and others maintaining classes for those with major exams (GCSE & A levels) this year, the vulnerable and children of key workers – a bit like during the pandemic. The extent of the closures, schools closed, lessons lost and parents/homes disrupted will only become clear over the next few days. The next regional strike affecting Gloucester will be on March 2nd and then the 15-16th March have been pencilled in for further strikes across the country.
Notice and impact: Because teachers have been told by the NEU they don’t have to tell their Heads in advance if they’ve decided to strike, Heads in many cases didn’t know who was coming and who wasn’t. That in turn made it harder for parents to plan and make other arrangements. It’s manageable for parents who can work from home, like three of my office, but not possible for most of those working in eg the ‘front office’ jobs: retail, caring, hospital, customer facing, leisure, train and bus operators, court, police and waste collection sectors etc. It cannot help the efficient delivery of other public services, especially the NHS, let alone retail or other consumer facing roles. I welcome your thoughts, for those in these sectors, on how this has affected you.
Why? The NEU leaders Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, have said:
"Today, teachers in schools and sixth form college in England and Wales and support staff in Wales schools, took strike action in pursuit of a fully-funded, above inflation pay rise. The government has short-changed them for over a decade, with significant real-terms cuts to pay and persistently unfunded rises which schools cannot afford.
"The legacy is all too clear, with schools having to cut services to the bone and a recruitment and retention crisis that is a detriment to children's education every single day. One day's disruption through strike action is dwarfed by the long-term damage caused by government policy on education funding, on workload, and on pay.
"Gillian Keegan, in her continued refusal to take on board the concerns of teachers and support staff, is letting this generation of children down. The Government needs to invest in education. You can't have decent growth in an economy if you don't invest in education, if you don't invest in public services. The Government has got to get to grips with that.
"Our own research tells us that around 85% of schools in England and Wales were affected by our strike action today. This is no cause for celebration, but an indication of the level of anger amongst our members. It is a huge statement from a determined membership who smashed through the Government's thresholds that were only ever designed to prevent strike action happening at all.
"Today, we put the education secretary on notice. She has until our next strike day for England, 28 February, to change her stance. NEU members do not want to go on strike again. They want constructive talks that deal directly with the long-standing concerns they experience in their schools and colleges every day. So that they can get back to doing what they do best, working with pupils in the classroom. However, be in no doubt that our members will do whatever it takes to stand up for education, including further strike action, if Gillian Keegan still fails to step up with concrete and meaningful proposals."
An alternative view: Cabby in London: “All the left wing unions are ganging up in the hope of bringing down the government aren’t they? Their goal is political more than anything else.”
My analysis: The joy of this e news is that it has to be non party political. So let me frame these as neutrally as possible in practical terms. Take the central accusation first – that the government has not invested in education, that schools have cut services to the bone and that a generation of children have been let down. Do the facts support this?
Here's a chart from The Times showing spending for school by OECD countries in 2019. It does not suggest that English schools, fourth best funded of all OECD countries are being starved of resources. I doubt the relative figures have changed greatly during the pandemic, and the Autumn Statement gave an additional £2.3 billion for education specifically because it is one of the four Es the Chancellor prioritises (Enterprise, Education, Employment, Everywhere).
Are children being let down?I have recently put on my Facebook page (@richard4gloucester) the news that Holmleigh Park and Gloucester Academy had the 10th and 11th respectively most improved 2022 GCSE results in the country. Remember that one of the two predecessor schools of Gloucester Academy, Bishops College, had the second worst GCSE results in the country in 2009. It has been quite a journey, from rock bottom to stellar turnaround - and frankly not one given any support from the NEU, which has resolutely opposed academisation.
I well remember Dr Mary Boustead coming to Gloucester some years ago and telling us that all our education woes were because we had grammar schools. In fact our problems were not in the grammar schools, whatever your views on them, but in our comprehensive schools. Heads needed to increase the discipline, approach things with an approach of tough love - and above all have a strong belief that our pupils and our comprehensive schools can deliver outstanding results, given the right leadership, encouragement and support from teachers and parents alike.
This is now happening – the results have come through, they’re not a fluke as Henley Bank has shown (the third comprehensive of the Greenshaw Learning Trust academies in Gloucester), and the pupils know what has changed and for the better. What’s needed now are new Ofsted visits to review their ratings, which I believe will when they happen reflect the results from our secondary schools, as they have for the latest ratings elsewhere (St Peters, Barnwood CofE and Robinswood all back to good).
What about the pay? It’s not my role to negotiate pay, and the Unions asked for and got some 20 years ago Independent Pay Commissions set up to recommend pay – which the government has always accepted. But it’s worth noting that starting pay for teachers is up 8.9% this year and experienced teachers are getting increases of 5% - in both cases the highest increases for 30 years. The average salary of a secondary school teacher is now £41,600 (primary schools £38,200), and the average secondary school head £94,900. The government expects that this year “around 40% of teachers will get pay rises through promotion or progression of up to 15.9%”. That’s not taking into account the 23.6% of salary contribution by taxpayers to pensions.
Lastly I do not think asking for an above inflation pay increase is either realistic or desirable for the country as a whole. It would do nothing for inflation – the biggest problem for all my constituents in paying bills.
Do you appreciate the work done by teachers? My wife was a teaching assistant, my mother and eldest sister deputy Heads, my other sister, her daughter and our elder son all teachers. I think teaching is one of the if not the greatest professions, and an inspiring vocation that lasts a lifetime – my sister has been teaching for over 40 years. No-one could be more aware of the value and importance of teaching – which is one reason why I’ve visited more schools more often in Gloucester than anything else.
I’m also acutely aware – as with many public servants – that teachers felt unfairly criticised during the pandemic and, rightly, need to feel recognised. So although I may disagree with the NEU and its policies, just as they disagree with mine, I have nothing but admiration for teachers and the job they do and the stresses they’re under. I would love to see their paperwork reduced – as for many in the NHS – and I know the government feels the same. So I hope there are other things that government can do to make teachers appreciated and their job made easier.
..but who will this strike hurt and benefit? My last thought is this. Many would like more money. Many are feeling the pinch. But teachers striking will affect not just them but many others badly. I do not feel this helps pupils, heads or parents.
What do you think? Please e mail me on email@example.com