By reading the news, it would appear to look as if the Brexit vote has obscured all other political issues. Regardless of the Conservative party being in turmoil at this present moment, they are continuing their ideological vandalism of our most essential public services. Indeed, despite the Tory’s being forced to backtrack on some of their key education policies such as the forced academisation of every school in England, as this is being written teachers from across England are having to go on Strike over the government’s unfair education policy. This comes after a large majority of 91% of National Union of Teachers (NUT) members, backed strike action. Some may regard it as strange that this strike is happening at a time when there is widespread positive press coverage of English schools, and when schools in London have improved dramatically. Sure there are big problems with how our overall education system still forces students to memorise a lot of information, in order for it to be regurgitated in a standardised exam, but at least teachers no longer need to slap a text book in front of students and ask where students got to last lesson. Indeed, they are very often highly professional, meaning that lessons, as well as being planned, are often stimulating and entertaining. This is aided by the development of technology, which schools can now harness to their advantage. So why are teachers striking?
Underfunded and Overworked
When the coalition government between the Tory’s and the Liberal Democrats were in power, David Cameron appointed to the Job of education secretary to Michael Gove. Schools underwent mass privatisation and were stocked to the brim with underqualified staff. However, as far as budgeting was concerned schools got of relatively lightly. Real terms per pupil funding was maintained under the government. This should have meant that schools could whether the storm of a Tory led coalition quite easily. However, this funding freeze took place in the context of ever rising expectations on teachers, something that had been going on long before David Cameron took power.
This is not to say that teachers have not responded to increased expectations well. In fact, it can often have the effect of allowing teachers to double their efforts, providing better and better education to students. Despite this, in the current political and economic climate, stagnant funding and pressure to do more has translated into a larger workload for teachers. Not to say everything was perfect years ago, but in the late 90s teachers had the spare time to do things like run social clubs, go out with colleagues and generally live a normal life. If the pressure on teachers continues, many will be forced out of their profession, not able to dedicate every waking minute of their lives to working. Instead of providing increased funding for extra staff, the government have expected teachers to foot the bill with their social and family lives, and crucially with their physical and emotional wellbeing. This strike is about making the government realise that, however fulfilling teaching might be as a profession, people should work to live, not the other way around.
A Staffing Crisis
The government have to set targets for the number of teachers trained and recruited each year. However, far from simply missing this target by a small amount, they have manged to miss it for four years in a row, and accepted only 32,000 people onto teacher training courses from 2014 to 2015. In addition to this, in the 12 months to November 2014 a shocking 50,000 fully qualified teachers left the state education sector. Meanwhile, surveys have found that 43 per cent of teachers plan to leave the profession in the next five years, citing problems such as increasing pressure and physical and mental health. This has led to an increasing number of teaching positions going unfulfilled in state schools.
As a result of this, Schools have had to resort to the short term option of plugging recruitment gaps with supply teachers. Many of these are young and recently qualified. Supply teachers are necessary, but this short term solution is escalating problems. The fact that supply teachers are often not paid the same amount as long term teachers, mean they do not have to deal with the same workload. While they do teach classes and sometimes mark work, they don’t need to contribute to planning or department work. This means that, long term teachers are finding their workloads increasing even more, as the number of people available to act as short term staff continues to dwindle. This is coinciding with schools having to change planning surrounding exams, in order to teach new specifications. Recently, the governments schools minister Nick Gibb had the audacity to describe the increased workload as a chance for teachers to ‘re-engage with the subjects they love’. The truth is however, that many of them are already extremely engaged with it, and need the freedom to enjoy their own lives.
Cuts and forced Academisation
As if the idea of schools staffed by newly trained teachers and the mental health of staff deteriorating, was not enough to make you want to support the teachers strike, what should shock you is the Tory’s decision to freeze the amount of money that goes to education. This means a real term cut of as much as 8 per cent, is about to take place. This will have disastrous consequences for our schools.
Anyone who is living in the real world should be able to see that school budgets are already being stretched past the point of anything that can be remotely considered reasonable. In fact, 64 per cent of head teachers have had to make significant cuts and dip into reserves in order to ward off budget deficits. This is even before cuts actually hit. A likely outcome of this can be found in the small print of the queen’s speech. Although the Conservatives were forced to backtrack on making it official policy, they are still going to force all schools to become academies. This has been pulled off by introducing legislation, saying that all local authorities that can ‘no longer support its remaining schools’ should convert those schools to academies. As this process goes on, local authorities will struggle more and more to fund their remaining schools, finding themselves crossing the governments ‘non viability’ threshold. Think Tank, Centre Forum, found that if this process is allowed to continue, all schools will be academies by 2020. Once this has happened all the regulations governing pay standards and working conditions will evaporate, with academies being under no obligation to stick to them. Everything that protects teachers, and indeed students, will be deregulated and a race to the bottom will be started. In addition to this, as budgets get squeezed, head teachers will have little to no choice but to further cut pay and working conditions.
Once the plans get pushed through on more cuts and forcing more schools to become academies, there will doubtless be more teachers leaving the profession and more students being taught by underqualified teachers. This absolute ideological assault on anything that can be considered decent education, will take years to reverse. This strike, despite being a good start, is mainly a symbolic gesture, to demonstrate teacher’s dissatisfaction. However, the near future is going to require much more effective and longer lasting action to resist the destruction of our education system.