Voices: The irony of teachers strikes? Many won’t really be striking at all

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There is an irony at the heart of the teacher strikes that are about to close down a load of schools across the country; and that is that many of the teachers who are striking won’t really be striking at all.

Yes, they won’t be in the classroom imparting knowledge to their students; yes, they won’t be on playground duty breaking up fights or telling little Harrison to do his coat up; but, no, they won’t have their feet up.

Some, of course, will form pickets or take to Twitter to make their case. And the rest? Surely, you might think, they’ll be at home keeping warm and watching Murder, She Wrote on UK TV Crime?

But you’d be wrong. A significant proportion of those teachers who have walked out will be using the time to – you’ve guessed it – catch up on work.

And this speaks to an interesting (and often undiscussed) truth about the forthcoming industrial action; it’s only partly about pay. It’s also partly about how the unofficial social contract between teachers and the state – that teachers will put up with slightly crap salaries in return for 12+ weeks holiday a year and reasonable working hours – has broken down over the last 15 or so years. But more on that later.

First, back to those non-striking strikers. Last week I had the pleasure of talking to some genuinely motivated and brilliant young teachers as part of a focus group I was moderating for the Education Support Teacher Retention Commission.

They were a lovely lot, driven by social purpose and a desire to work with children and young people – in short, they were brilliant. When quizzed, all but one had voted in the National Education Union’s strike ballot and all but one planned to take action. They then volunteered, to my surprise, that they would use their extra days at home to catch up with planning lessons and all the bureaucracy that so ways down the teaching profession. “If I don’t make use of that time,” one said, “I’ll just fall behind.”

In short, these teachers were verbalising a big issue that is being faced by today’s education system: teachers are being asked to do way, way, way too much work.

Long gone are the days of my youth when teachers were the butt of pub or dinner party jokes for being work-shy lay-abouts with endless weeks of holidays and a finish time of 3:30pm. The response, of course, was to point to the low pay.

These days most people know that teachers work almost unsustainable hours both at school and when they get home. And most people know that they’re not properly recompensed for the pleasure of doing so. This is the broken social contract that I mentioned at the top of this article.

And so teachers have snapped: workload has rocketed and pay has not even remotely kept track. The result is what the joint general secretary of the National Education Union Mary Bousted correctly describes as a “toxic mix”.

One cannot help but wonder if the strikes would be going ahead if ministers had driven down the pressure and workload on teachers – the kind of work that means they often feel more like social workers than school staff. But they have been trying to do that in the nearly ten years since Michael Gove was forced out as education secretary – and they have broadly failed.

The reality of the situation is that much better pay is probably the only way out of this dispute. Teachers need to be compensated for both the hours they work and the pressure they face with a salary that reflects both workload and inflation. It is very hard to see how the government will be able to avoid this fact in the difficult weeks ahead.

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