NUT members in England will take national strike action on Tuesday. Any strike by teachers grabs news headlines and often divides opinion, within and beyond the profession. So why are NUT members going on strike and will it make any difference? asks Howard Stevenson

Any industrial action in the UK must be based on a legal ‘trade dispute’ which often focuses the strike on a narrow set of pay and/or conditions issues. The NUT has focused its action on three demands:

– An increase in funding for schools (in the face of imminent cuts and likely redundancies).

– Guaranteed terms and conditions across all types of schools.

– National negotiations to reduce chronic workload problems.

In reality any strike always reflects a much wider set of grievances than those on which the ‘trade dispute’ is technically based. For NUT members an anger about privatisation, testing and bungled curriculum reform will all be in the mix. Many of those grievances will be shared by teachers much beyond the NUT’s membership.

Strike action is always an act of brinksmanship and the NUT’s strategy is high-risk

Strike action is always an act of brinksmanship and the NUT’s strategy is high-risk. A number of factors work against the union.  For example, although the ‘YES’ vote for action was extraordinarily high (92%), the turnout itself was relatively low (25%). These problems are compounded by a divided teacher union movement so NUT members acted in isolation and this inevitably weakens impact. Some people will argue that such action alienates parents or that the timing is wrong (in terms of wider political events and/or timing in the school year). In my view a particular problem is the absence of a very clear goal so that those taking action understand clearly what they are striking for, and what success will look like.

These are unquestionably problems and critics will be quick to condemn the action. In particular they will argue that striking drives a wedge between teachers and parents and undermines the broad support required to change government policy. This is not an argument that can be readily brushed aside, but it is an argument that must answer to its own critics, and two counter-arguments in particular.

First, those who advocate for a strategy of ‘constructive engagement’ have to face up to how spectacularly unsuccessful that strategy has been for a very long time. It is precisely this approach that has made the unworkable work, and has made the unacceptable the new normal. By standing by whilst successive governments have refused to negotiate with teacher unions we have a situation where teachers in England face horrendous workload problems with concomitant impact on teacher retention. The school system is hopelessly fragmented, teacher supply is in chaos and the curriculum and testing system is out of control.  How did we ever let things get this bad?

Second, it cannot be assumed that taking strike action automatically alienates parental support. Parental views can never be treated homogenously. Parent opinion will reflect a range of views on the issue of teacher strikes as it does on other issues.  However, there is evidence to suggest a growing number of parents are prepared to support their children’s teacher taking strike action. More significantly, an even larger number of parents may not support striking teachers but nevertheless blame the government for their children’s teacher going on strike.  In the brinksmanship that is an industrial dispute, who parents blame can be more important than who they support, and in this dispute the current government’s handling of education issues, and its political problems more widely, make it extremely vulnerable.

Who parents blame can be more important than who they support

Whether one supports the NUT’s action or not, the union has offered an alternative pole to that presented in the white paper Educational Excellence Everywhere. Total academisation (still the goal), the break-up of organised teachers and a race to the bottom in pay and conditions all pave the way for a for-profit system of state education in which the public pays and the private sector provides. This is the future offered by the white paper and made more probable by a Conservative government in which Michael Gove is likely to have a bigger role than we have ever seen before (whether or not that is as leader).

Like the NUT’s tactics or not, the NUT’s action has already been successful in putting an alternative education prospectus on the public agenda.  The strike is more than an industrial dispute but rather it is part of a battle of ideas that poses fundamental questions – what type of education do we want, and who gets to decide?

Professor Howard Stevenson is Director of Research at the School of Education, University of Nottingham