As a teacher, I quickly learned the value of respect. If your class knows you have their best interests at heart, then nine times out of 10, the children will work hard for you. But if they think you don’t care about them, then you risk classroom rebellion.
The government is learning this lesson too. Today, striking teachers like me in England and Wales will shut thousands of schools. Officially, it’s a pay dispute – but it’s much more than that. Teachers feel downtrodden, demoralised and disrespected. Workload is through the roof and pay through the floor. Pressure has never been higher and morale never lower. It’s tearing apart our education system, at the cost of children’s futures. Teachers are on strike because the government does not respect us or our profession.
At my primary school, I’ve had a front-row seat to conditions getting worse and worse over the past few years. The moment that convinced me to go on strike was when my school lost its specialist art teacher, and was unable to recruit another. Activities such as art, music and sport are the highlight of the week for a lot of pupils, but they’re the first to go when resources are short. It was yet another sign that this government is willing to leave pupils with the bare minimum.
No one goes into teaching to become rich. Our aspirations aren’t lofty: a stable income, a home near our work, and the choice to raise a family. Sadly, the reality often falls far short. It’s not uncommon for teachers to take a second job to keep a roof over their heads – and when you’re forced to live in a flatshare, raising children is a pipedream. This is no accident. The government sets our pay so it’s easy to assess how it values us. Not highly, it seems. Teachers have been subjected to a real-terms pay cut of 23% since 2010.
A toxic combination of low pay and high workload has driven thousands from the profession. One in four leave the classroom within three years of qualifying – and a third within five. Worse still, these missing teachers are not being replaced. The government under-recruits almost every year and this year missed its target for secondary teachers by a staggering 41%. It seems that no one wants to join a profession that’s undervalued and underpaid.
Despite all this, I don’t think many teachers voted for industrial action with just their own interests in mind. For most of us, the damage to the children’s education is a much bigger factor. In the National Education Union, we have a saying: “teachers’ working conditions are children’s learning conditions”. When the government treats us with disdain it denigrates education too. Too few teachers means supersized classes and less attention for each child. In secondary schools, classes are already bigger than they’ve been in 40 years, and in primaries like mine they’re the biggest in over two decades. It also means subjects are being taught by unqualified or non-specialist teachers, as is the case for one in eight maths lessons this year.
It was once taken for granted that teachers knew how to teach and could be trusted to do so. Now, the government seems to assume we’re either lazy or incompetent – and demands that we constantly prove we’re doing the job. At best, this leads to time-consuming administrative tasks that distract us from teaching. At worst, it means subjecting children to stressful, high-stakes tests that contribute little to their learning. For instance, when year 1 pupils have their reading ability screened, they’re only tested on made-up words. There’s no point in checking their ability to read real words, the argument goes, because they may have acquired this skill at home, so it’s not an accurate measure of our teaching. What a farce.
The proliferation of tedious tasks is not just insulting, it makes our workload unmanageable. We do more unpaid overtime than any other profession – and teachers in England top the OECD league table for hours worked outside of lessons. The Department for Education’s own research shows that 79% of classroom teachers consider workload a problem and just 20% “achieve a good [work-life] balance”.
The teachers on strike this week are the ones who stayed. These are the ones still in the classroom despite a decade of pay cuts, offensive box-ticking exercises and a suffocating workload. We do it because we care about children’s education. But by showing us so little respect, the government is sabotaging this too.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The government could raise enough money to fund pay rises for the whole public sector just by taxing unearned income (share, dividends and bonuses) at the same rate as wages.
Going on strike is always a last resort but we’ve run out of other options. We don’t want to lose a day’s wages nor the children a day’s schooling but we can’t afford to do nothing. The strike will cause short-term disruption, but inaction means long-term devastation.
Teachers have suffered from government mismanagement but it’s children who are paying the price. It’s grim to be driven out of a profession we love, but at least we have the choice to do something else. No such option exists for children. They only get one chance to go to school and if the education system fails them, they can’t do anything to fix it. But we can. Teachers are taking action in defence of our profession and of the children we serve.
James McAsh is a primary school teacher in Brixton, south London, and a Labour party councillor in Southwark