• Teachers’ Strike

    Workers who go on strike, and thereby cause some inconvenience to the public, cannot usually expect much by way of public sympathy.  But last week’s striking teachers, like the nurses before them, seem to have been met with a great deal of understanding.

    This was, I suspect, because it was seen that their protest was not just on their own behalf as individuals, but was also directed at securing a better education for our children.

    I know from my own brief experience as a teacher that teaching is a much more difficult and demanding occupation than most people realise – and a recognition of that fact seems to have at last penetrated the public consciousness.

    Yes, the goal of the strikers was to secure better pay and conditions for each individual.  The sentiment that teacher s were under-paid was no doubt prompted by a sense of unfairness – that they were under-valued by comparison with other workers of comparable skill and responsibility, and that the way to remedy this was to put more money into individual pay packets.

    But the teachers were able to persuade most observers that their concern was not just for the size of individual pay packets but was also for the future of the profession and therefore for the future of education.  They were able to show that the consequence of paying less than teachers deserve was that it is proving increasingly difficult to persuade new recruits to join the profession, and then to retain them once they have joined.

    A shortage of teachers, and particularly of good teachers, is of course very bad news not only for the current generation of school children but also for our future as a nation.   We cannot afford to see a profession on which so much of our future depends in a state of such low morale and short of basic capacity.

    Yet, while the reasoning behind the strike may be widely accepted, there is still a puzzle at its heart.  As the strikers made clear, the problems facing teachers have not arisen overnight.  Indeed, they made a point of reminding us that it is 24 years since they last found it necessary to strike – their current plight has been building over much of that 24 years, and more particularly over recent years, when any attempt to avert the current crisis was abandoned in favour of cutting public spending.

    The puzzle is this.  Why did they not strike, or take other appropriate action to draw attention to the growing crisis, during the term of the government whose policies were largely responsible for creating it?  Why wait till a government more sympathetic to their claims was in office?

    The answer to that question is presumably that they feel that putting pressure on the new government is more likely to produce results – and that is probably true.  A Labour-led government has generally been better disposed to public sector workers, and teachers in particular, than governments further to the right.

    Yet the puzzle remains.  The strike will be widely seen by voters as a count against the new government, wherever the responsibility for its causes may lie.  The strike, in other words, is likely to deliver a political bonus to the political party whose government held down teachers’ salaries and created the current crisis in the first place, and it thereby makes it more likely that a government of similar persuasion will be elected at the next election.

    In education, as elsewhere, the new government is having to pick up the tab for the cuts in public spending perpetrated by its predecessor – and that tab is not merely a financial one (though the financial cost of making good the backlog is certainly significant).  But it is also the case that the new government must, in the national interest, face and meet the need for restoring necessary standards in a profession that has been underfunded and prevented from doing its best over a long period.

    Yes, the strikers’ case is a pressing and persuasive one.  But some strategic thinking would not come amiss.  It is in no one’s interests, least of all for teachers, that a leg up should be given to a party that would, returned to government, as the record shows, plunge us back into crisis.

    Bryan Gould

    16 August 2018