Teachers across England are going on strike on 5 July. 91.7% of voting members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) backed strike action over the government’s education policy.
But why is this happening at a time when results are up? There is widespread positive press coverage of the quality of English schools at the moment, and schools in London have improved so dramatically that tone-deaf commentators have begun asking whether white school children are now an ‘oppressed minority’ since schools in the shires have lagged behind their more diverse metropolitan cousins.
Gone are the days of jaded, bored teachers plonking a textbook on the desk and asking the class where they got to last lesson. Teachers are almost universally highly professional, lessons are meticulously planned, resources are stimulating, challenging and entertaining, and almost all students’ needs are recognised and accommodated.
In many ways, we seem to be living through a golden age of English education. So why are teachers striking?
1. Increased expectations, squeezed funding.
Schools got off fairly lightly when Osborne wielded his axe back in 2010. Real terms per-pupil funding was more or less maintained under the coalition government. In theory, this should have enabled schools to weather the storm relatively unscathed.
But this funding freeze took place in the context of ever-rising expectations of teachers, a process which has been ongoing for years.
This is, in itself, a good thing – teachers have overwhelmingly responded to raised expectations by upping their game and providing an ever-improving education to their students.
But stagnated funding and skyrocketing expectations have translated into a massively increased workload for teachers.
Last year my head of department – who has made a huge contribution to the history teaching profession in her career, having written articles that almost every history teacher in the country will have read and used in their own practice – told me how when she joined the profession in the late 90s teachers had enough spare time to do things like set up and run social clubs in their communities, go out with their colleagues during the week, and generally live a normal life outside of their classroom. She left the profession last year because she wasn’t prepared to continue dedicating what essentially amounted to every waking moment of her life to her job.
Instead of increasing funding to pay for an expanded workforce to perform this increased burden of labour, the past few years have seen the books balanced by dumping the bill on the social lives, family lives, and physical and emotional wellbeing of teachers. I barely know a single teacher who honestly thinks that they can survive a career in the classroom with a full timetable for more than a few years.
2. This has led to a recruitment crisis.
The government has managed to miss its target for the number of new teachers trained each year for the past four years in a row, accepting only 32,000 people onto teacher training courses in 2014/15.
But the real scandal of the recruitment crisis is the shocking rate at which trained teachers are turning their backs on the profession.
In the 12 months to November 2014, 50,000 qualified teachers left the state sector.
That’s 10% of all teachers in England. Meanwhile a survey carried out by the Guardian showed that 43% of teachers planned to leave the profession within the next five years. Teachers responding to the survey cited that they are under increasing pressure (98%), their workloads were unmanageable (82%), and their workload was having an adverse effect on their physical (73%) and mental (75%) health, which might go some way to explaining this exodus.
This has led to the number of teaching positions going unfilled in English state schools increasing rapidly, by a third in 2014/15.
3. Plugging the gaps with supply teachers.
Schools have been forced, in the short term, to plug these recruitment gaps with supply teachers, with more than £800m being spent on them last academic year. Many of these supply teachers, incidentally, are young, recently qualified teachers from Canada who can’t find long-term jobs in the Great White North because conditions there are so good that people aren’t leaving the profession and so new jobs aren’t opening up.
But this short-term stop gap is exacerbating the long-term problems. These supply teachers don’t do the work of a full-time member of the department. They teach classes, and some of them will also mark those classes’ work. But they don’t contribute to other jobs around their departments such as planning, or revision sessions for exam classes. Why would they, when they’re often not paid to and have no long-term future in the department?
This means those teachers who have been able to hack the increased workload and who haven’t quit in the past few years are now finding their workloads increasing even more as the number of people available to carry out these tasks continues to dwindle.
Moreover, this is coming at a time when every department in the country is having to replan their GCSE schemes of work from scratch in order to teach the new GCSE specifications that will be examined next summer for English and Maths and the following summer for other subjects.
Nick Gibb, the schools minister, recently described the increased planning burden for teachers as “a chance to re-engage with the subject they love.” For too many it seems more likely to be the final straw.
4. Further cuts are pushing teachers to breaking point.
As the idea of an education system staffed by fully-trained subject specialists teaching manageable class sizes hangs by a thread, and a large portion of the teaching profession stands on the brink of a physical and mental breakdown, the Conservatives have decided to freeze education funding in cash terms. This means a real terms cut over the next few years of as much as 8%. Something will give.
This at a time when school budgets are already stretched to the limit, with 64% of heads recently surveyed by the National Association of Head Teachers having to make significant cuts or dipping into reserves in order to stave off budget deficits even before these cuts hit.
A likely result is that teachers’ workloads will be pushed beyond breaking point.
Another likely outcome can be found in the small print of the Tories’ Education For All Bill announced in this year’s Queen’s Speech.
Although the headline policy of forced academisation has been dropped, the government is still going to force all schools to become academies over the next few years. This particular sleight of hand has been pulled off by introducing provision to convert all of a local authority’s remaining schools to academies if that local authority can “no longer viably support its remaining schools.”
As more schools become academies, local authorities will struggle to fund their remaining schools, and will find themselves crossing the government’s threshold of non-viability. The think tank CentreForum found that the lines have been so drawn that, surprise surprise, almost all schools will have been forced to become academies by 2020.
Once this has happened, the two pillars propping up pay standards and conditions of employment in England and Wales – the STPCD (School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document) and the Burgundy Book – will go up in smoke. Meeting the first is a statutory obligation for local authority schools, and the second is an agreement reached between teaching unions and local education authorities. Because of this most academies have, despite no obligation, agreed to meet these standard terms in their pay and conditions up to now.
But turning all schools into academies will mean no schools are bound by these standards, and so there will be no reference point against which academy pay and conditions can be compared. Teachers’ pay and conditions will become completely deregulated and academy heads will fire the starting gun for a race to the bottom.
Moreover, as budgets get squeezed and heads desperately look around for a way to make ends meet, they’ll have little choice but to cut pay and degrade working conditions in order to balance the books. All of which will doubtless help them keep existing staff and hire more…
5. It will be hard to put this toothpaste back in the tube.
Once the floodgates open, teachers will be pushed beyond breaking point, begin to quit in ever greater numbers, and our education system as we know it will collapse quite quickly. It will take years and years to reverse this – existing teachers are the people training future teachers, and the body of professional knowledge and expertise which has been nurtured over decades will go through the door with the teachers who are no longer able to cope.
Once this happens, students in the state sector will be taught by unqualified teachers with little or no subject specialism. Teaching will become casualised. I’m sure schools will be kept open and children will still be taught in classes by adults with the job title ‘teacher’, but our children’s education will be fundamentally different.
The NUT’s strike is a symbolic, one-day action intended to demonstrate to the government the teaching profession’s opposition to their proposals for English schools.
In the very near future it is going to require far wider-ranging and longer-lasting action to resist the destruction of our schools and to begin to articulate alternatives which might be able to save our state education system. First on this list needs to be an expanded education budget used to fund a meaningful and nationwide reduction in teacher workload to secure the continued existence of a teaching profession working in our state schools. One way of doing this might be to increase protected planning, preparation and assessment time (free lessons) for teachers from 10% of the timetable to 20% or more.
As with so much else, the Tories are unlikely to change their minds unless they are forced to.
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