Why strike? Because teachers are desperate and so are their pupils

Teachers have voted to walk out of their classrooms in a desperate attempt to stop so many from walking out of the profession altogether, writes Niamh Sweeney

Teachers have voted to walk out of their classrooms in a desperate attempt to stop so many from walking out of the profession altogether, writes Niamh Sweeney

16 Jan 2023, 17:01

Education is in crisis, and educators are desperate. The fact that teachers and support staff in the NEU voted in such huge numbers shows how broadly that desperation is felt. And the fact that teacher members exceed the unjustly high thresholds imposed by government is testament to its depth.

In England, 53.27 per cent of our members cast their ballots, and of these 90.44 per cent voted to strike. In Wales, the turn-out was 58.07 per cent, and 92.28 percent voted for action. No member cast that vote lightly, and none will take strike action easily either. NEU members want to be in the classroom. This is their cry for help.

One-quarter of teachers leave the profession within two years of qualifying, and one-third within five years. Thirteen per cent of teachers who qualified in 2019 have already quit. What a waste.

Teachers are leaving because of excessive workload and poor pay. This toxic mix is having a detrimental impact on their mental health and financial independence. NEU members tell me the cost-of-living crisis means they are reliant on parents for financial support, unable to provide for their own children and families, afraid to put petrol in their cars and taking second and third jobs.

This is the longest suppression of wages since the Napoleonic wars, and the insult of poor pay is made even worse by impossible workloads. Primary teachers spend nearly 32 hours working in addition to their teaching timetable. This means working weeks of 55 to 60 hours – more unpaid overtime than any other profession. Too many see leaving as the only way out of this untenable workload; 44 per cent of NEU members questioned last year plan to quit within five years.

Gillian Keegan recently professed that teachers were in the top 10 per cent of earners in some parts of the country. This is simply not true. The average teacher earned just over £35,000 in 2020/21. Teachers would have to be paid on average £68,000 to be in the top 10 per cent of earners. The pay differential between teaching and other jobs – even those without a degree requirement – has disappeared.

The insult of poor pay is made even worse by impossible workloads

The combination of public sector pay freezes and below-inflation pay offers since 2010 mean a teacher on the top classroom pay scale has cumulatively lost a minimum of £64,350 of earnings in real terms.

We need pay restoration now.

“But what about the children?” some will cry. “They have suffered so much through the pandemic.”

The truth is that children and young people are already losing out. Parents, carers and grandparents know this is true. They’ve heard the stories of ‘cover’. They’ve received the invitation to another ‘meet the new teacher’ event. A friend of mine, a physics teacher, changed schools recently. His year 11 class ask him at the end of each week if he is coming back on Monday. They have had so many that they are anxious. They take their GCSEs in 5 months.

Even when there is a teacher in the classroom, they are increasingly not qualified in the subject or phase they are teaching. Ask any young person taking maths GCSE this year, particularly ones on target for a knife-edge 3/4 grade, how many teachers they’ve had. One in eight maths lessons is taught by a teacher who is not qualified in the subject. How are these young people supposed to gain the skills they need? I taught out of my subject once; it made me ill and had me contemplating leaving the profession for good. That was not a good experience for my pupils.

Meanwhile, school leaders report that they are unable to recruit to every phase and subject, not just to the traditional shortage subjects. IT, DT, art, music and subjects like psychology and politics are becoming the privilege of the elite. This shortage of teachers means secondary class sizes are at their highest in 40 years and primary classes at their highest since 2000.

And that’s not to mention that all of this is happening in unsafe buildings in dire need of repair or rebuilding.

It is indeed time we thought about the children. And that is why NEU members have so overwhelmingly voted to take strike action next month.

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