This November, teachers and education workers across the country will receive their ballot papers for the National Education Union’s strike ballot. (Members in 6th form colleges are already mid-ballot.) The ballot, which the union calls ‘the biggest in a generation,’ comes against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis, a Tory government reeling from its own contradictions and an upsurge of industrial militancy that gives us an opportunity to fight for a better education system. Teacher and NEU activist Andy Cunningham argues that it’s time for strike action.
The cost of living crisis
Like all workers, teachers and school support staff are finding their bills going up and their money running out. With the cost of basic foodstuffs going up by nearly 17% according to the ONS, the current offer from the government to teachers and support staff represents a further massive wage cut. The current wage cut follows on from 12 years of pay cuts for education workers that have seen teachers’ pay fall by 20% and support staff pay fall by a whopping 27%. Education workers simply cannot afford another pay cut.
The pay situation is a real challenge for education workers, but it is also the demand that unites education workers with others – bus drivers, posties, Liverpool dockers and rail workers, to name just a few. The general assault on our wages, spearheaded by our new super rich Prime Minister, is reaching a crisis point for many workers. The fact that there is a general upsurge in industrial action and robust public support for strikes makes this the best time in a generation to hold a ballot of teachers. This backdrop will mean that reaching the ballot thresholds should be a little easier.
The funding crisis
A key element of the ballots is based on funding. School and college funding is allocated by pupil numbers based on a Department for Education formula that means that school budgets are static. The offers currently on the table from the government (a pro-rata’d £1925 for support staff and 5% for teachers) are unfunded, meaning schools and colleges must meet these costs from existing budgets. But how? Unfunded offers lead to overcrowded classrooms, job losses and teacher burnout.
Support staff job losses
The first area of school life that will face cuts is that of support staff jobs. Lab technicians, office workers, school caterers and teaching assistants (TAs) will all face a more uncertain future, as their role doesn’t necessarily bring in any direct funding. The implications of this are enormous: how are children with educational needs supposed to access the curriculum without their TA? How will children who rely on their school meal feel when there aren’t enough caterers to cook it for them? How will schools operate when more of the administration work is being passed on to overworked teachers? The current government plan will see even necessary roles cut from the staffing budget.
Stack ‘em high
The only way to increase school budgets is to pack more children into classes. Increasing class sizes have become a feature of the educational landscape in the twenty-first century – every new pupil on a seat is an extra packet of funding. For teachers, this means extra workload on top of the already punishing working hours.
But for children, this leads to a qualitatively worse educational experience. Every extra child in a class means less teacher time to go round, but it also leads to more didactic, more ‘efficient’ teaching with less space for discussion and exploration. This is before you consider the practical elements, like where the thirtieth child is going to sit in a classroom designed for twenty-four. It is not the type of educational environment I, and most other teachers, would choose to teach in.
Parents and pupils should support the strikes
The current funding model for education leads to a much worse experience for children. It is a school system based on didactic rote-learning rather than creative exploration. It is a school system that leads to teacher burnout and pupils having to get used to several different teachers in one year. It is a school system where anything ‘extra’ (including basic provisions like TAs) is stripped out, impoverishing young people’s experience. All of these negatives are a choice. They are choices made by successive governments over the last twelve years to provide the barest, most basic education possible for the next generation of workers. They are choices made by people who went to private, fee-paying schools where the educational experience is significantly broader. They are choices made for our children by people who would never accept them for their own children. They are simply unjust.
The ballots of teachers and support staff aren’t just about a little extra money in the pocket: they are about trying to affect the direction of an education system that isn’t working for our children. As such, the ballots deserve and must receive the support of parents and pupils.
If you are a worker in a school or college, now is the time to get all of the education workers together and push for a big yes vote for strike action. From the cleaner to the headteacher, everyone in schools should be supporting this call for a funded pay rise. Having an NEU rep in as many schools as possible is the only way we’re going to get over the 50% threshold in this ballot. So if you’re not a rep, become one; if you are a rep, speak to every member and recruit as many new members as possible.
If you’re not in a school or college – if you’re a parent, pupil or supporter – try and talk to education workers about the strike action. Teachers often feel attacked by the media, so offering support at this stage will be crucial.
Lastly, we must link this ballot to the general industrial fightback that is taking place right now. The more we can get teachers and posties, rail workers and school caterers, nurses and teaching assistants together, the more likely we will be to win this immediate battle, and challenge the ideological direction in our schools and other public services.