The Teacher’s Strike is not Black and White

Today Boy’s school is closed due to a strike. Having written about my concerns over his education (and my growing opinion that Michael Gove is an imperious cockwomble) you would perhaps expect me to be in full support of the walk out. But it’s not quite that simple.

Firstly his school seems to be ever more at odds between what they say to parents and what they do. A stream of letters arrived last school year urging parents to make every effort to get their child to school whenever they could. “Even missing one day can have an adverse effect on their education” we were told. The head teacher was even in the local paper saying that she would be requiring a letter from parents’ employers if they requested holiday time in term , to prove that was the only time off they could get.

This was rather unfortunate as the school’s reopening was delayed by over a week due to the building work needed to turn it from an Infants to an all-through Primary. A week of “inset days”. Now they are just beginning to settle in to the new routine and they suddenly have another extra day off. If you believed last year’s letters home this will be an absolute disaster for them. They’ll probably forget how to count or something. Or maybe parents are just expected to take education more seriously than, say, building contractors employed on school projects. Or teaching unions.

Obviously, education apart, the strike means parents (including us) suddenly have to change our plans to provide child care. As an employee on a regular salary at least I’m not losing any money myself but this won’t be the case for all the parents. The school is in what is euphemistically known as ‘an up and coming area’ and many parents will lose a day’s pay or have to spend today’s money on childminding. Some of these will be earning considerably less than a teacher. So is it fair to economically and educationally inconvenience parents in a deprived area to protect a middle class salary and final salary pension?

You may find this surprising given what I’ve written about Gove in the past but if the strike was just about pay and pensions then teachers would not have my support at all. Working, as I do, in the private sector then pay freezes (or even reductions) are common place. At the lower end of the sector zero hours contracts have become more and more enforced. At the upper end it is now impossible to get a final salary pension. The company ones based on fund value have been devastated both by Gordon Brown’s tax changes and a volatile equities market. While pound cost averaging  will help the long term prospects of pension funds there is no guarantee at all that a future government of any colour will not further raid the tax concessions offered by a proper pension. If they do we won’t be able to strike.

I know. I sound like a Tory. It’s actually quite liberating.

But here’s the flip side. Firstly there is another issue being raised by the strike, that of workload. I know several teachers and trust me, it is not the 8-4 job with enormous holidays that some people like to paint it. There are lesson plans, marking, inset days, parent’s evenings to be done. Again comparing my hours to a teachers there was actually very little difference. Since the pay issue being raised is that performance related pay will be introduced then it’s not hard to forsee a situation where teachers have to work even longer hours just to keep their salary the same in real terms.

Which begs the question is teaching a career or a vocation? Strike action, for me, should be a last resort. There is no doubt that the miners in the eighties, while led by the truly hideous Arthur Scargill, were facing not a pay cut but the devastation of the industry and their communities. I’m not suggesting that we will suddenly see mass school closures and long term graduate unemployment, but what if teaching becomes so unattractive that young people no longer want to become teachers? A shortage of newly qualified teachers, particularly in the many areas where there is already a shortage of school places would be disastrous.

Already the government have allowed Academies to employ unqualified teachers. My strong suspicion is that this is a way to save money and put bums on seats. If the teaching unions genuinely believe that the new conditions will stop teaching becoming a career choice then the strike becomes far more justified.

Is it a just strike? I can’t decide. But just in case, how about we just have a national “Michael Gove is an Imperious Cockwomble” day instead? That should be fairly memorable when it comes to the 2015 election.

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