The Day the Teachers Strike

1

On Thursday the 30th of June 2011, teachers staged their first mass strike in 25 years[1] after both the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action. Strike action was backed by 92 per cent of NUT members who actually voted, while the ATL ballot was 83 per cent in favour.  Controversy has been caused by the low turnout of the ballot as 40 per cent of all NUT membership and 35 per cent of all ATL members took part in the vote[2].  All critics of the strike action have jumped on this figure to attack the validity of the strike.

In a debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove repeatedly criticised the strike action on the grounds of this low turnout.  This is a hypocritical position for him to maintain considering his consistency of Surrey Heath contains an electorate of over 78,000 yet only just over 31,000 – so less than half – actually voted for him[3].  What’s more, Mr Gove made no qualms over the validity of the No vote in the recent AV referendum which in some places (where there were no council elections) had a turn out lower than 35%, with a total national turnout of 42%[4].  Seemingly voter turnout only counts when the result goes against this government.  This criticism of strike action on the grounds of low turnout has been repeated throughout both the government and much of the media.

The Daily Mail, for example, recently published an article on its website citing alarm at this low turnout of 40%, which is strange as, like Mr Gove, it was very happy with the turnout of the referendum; running the headline ‘The Day Britain Stood up for Democracy’[5].  But then biased hypocritical reportage is something we in Britain have gotten used to from this so-called newspaper.

Of course the alarm over the lower participation in the ballet is not unjustified, merely sad that those voicing them don’t share (or at least don’t express) the same alarms over low participation rates in politics in general.

This has further fuelled calls by some for the Government to change the law so that strikes are only permissible when at least 50% of union members participate in the ballot. London Mayor Boris Johnson, who got his job in an election that only 45.33% of the total electorate participated in, is one of the more vocal proponents of this legislation[6].

Teachers could also be joined by Britain’s biggest head teachers union – the National Association of Head Teachers – which has never taken strike action in its long 114-year history. [7] Russell Hobby, NAHT general secretary, said: “With great reluctance, faced with threats and a refusal to negotiate from the government, we feel we have no option but to demonstrate our anger at this attack on the teaching profession.”[8]

The dispute is over government plans to change public sector pensions in line with suggestions in the Hutton report. At the moment, public sector workers receive ‘final-salary scheme’ figures in proportion to the highest final salary in the years before they retire, based on how many years they worked in their profession.  Teachers receive 1/80th of their final pensionable salary for each year they work.[9] This will be scrapped and replaced by a career average based pension, a higher rate of pension contribution, and a later retirement age. Teachers and all public sector workers are being asked to pay more into their pensions, for longer, whilst receiving less in the end.

The general secretary of the ATL, Mary Bousted, surmised the changes saying: “For the average member [the changes] will be £1,500 a year in increased pension contributions. At a time of a two-year pay freeze, its a 3% cut, which has nothing to do with the health of the scheme. It’s a tax on pensions to pay for the deficit.”[10]

This seems to be a point of view Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, supports saying: “We know that public sector pensions are affordable – this is really about piling the UK’s debt burden onto the people who did the least to create it.”[11]

However, this accusation may not be completely fair; the government says the cost of paying for teachers’ pensions is forecast to rise from around £5bn in 2005 to almost £10bn by 2015 as more staff retire and life expectancy increases.[12]  However, the accuracy of their projections has been called into question, as has the accuracy of PCS counter projections.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said:  “A strike by teachers will only damage pupils’ learning and inconvenience their busy working parents. The well being and safety of pupils must remain paramount.”[13] The government has been continually attempting to further this view that striking will accomplish nothing, and is blaming teachers alone for any damage to pupils learning and inconvenience for their parents.

However, the date for the strike, as the 30th ATL president Andy Brown points out, has been picked to “avoid external exams and important school and college events so that any strike causes as little disruption as possible to children’s education”.[14]  Perhaps indicating that though teachers feel that striking is the only option left open to them to fight for their pensions, they are still committed to putting the educational needs of pupils first.

These attempts to pile blame on teachers and their unions was further repeatedly propagated by Michael Gove as he took flack from all sides on Tuesday’s debate in the commons.  Unfortunately, he seemed unable to muster any real convincing reassurances or defence as concerns and criticisms were raised by both Conservative and Labour MPs. At times, when confronting hostile Labour members of the commons, he could think of nothing better than to fall back on what seems like the catchphrase of the this coalition government; that these measures and thus the subsequent dispute where the fault of the previous Labour government  and the “Dreadful economic situation”[15] it had left the country in.

The criticism Mr Gove faces from all sides is a clear indication of the power a teachers’ strike has; bringing the education system to a halt and potentially damaging the economy as many working parents may have to stay home to mind their children.

Conservative MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, for instance, called for the government to “take the blame” for the disruptions the strikes will cause, a notion that appeared to be widely supported by those not on the governments front bench during Tuesday’s debate.

Teachers will be joining members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (which has around 290,000 members)[16], UK Uncut, The University and College Union and student activists in striking on the 30th with further sustained strikes throughout the summer and autumn.  These latter strikes will commence some time after negations have ended and will most likely also be including Unison (and its 1.2 million members), the GBM (and its 600,000 members) and the Unite union (and its 1.5 million members).

The Unions striking on the 30th have been heavily criticised by the government for striking whilst negotiations are still ongoing, with Michael Gove saying that any resolution to the crisis has been “pre-empted by the unions”.[17]  However, General secretary Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union has justified the actions, saying negotiations so far had been “a farce”.  He went on to say “There is no indication whatsoever that the government is having any second thoughts… What they’ve told us is at every meeting is that they will not compromise.”[18] Striking before negations end will strengthen the side of the Unions with a show of force, demonstrating how far they are willing to go and giving the government a taste of what is to come.

In a seemingly desperate attempt to negate the effects the strike will have, Michael Gove has urged Head Teachers to keep schools open, insisting schools have a ‘moral duty’ to break the teachers’ strike.  To do this he has suggested head teachers introduce super-sized classes, drop the traditional curriculum and introduce flexible timetables to make sure children remain in school.[19] As the day unfolds it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, these measure will have.

Clearly, with no quick end in sight, June the 30th could mark the start of a turbulent period for British politics as each side in the dispute tries to bend the other
to its will, one that may very well distinctly alter this country’s political landscape and see far-reaching changes to the public sector.

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2003658/Teacher-strike-pension-reforms-shut-23k-schools.html accessed 28/06/2011

[2] Ibid

[3] http://www.surreyheath.gov.uk/council/electoralinformation/GE060510.htm accessed 29/06/11

[4] Figures collected from the BBC

[5] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1384336/AV-referendum-results-The-AV-result-comes–No.html accessed 29/06/2011

[6] http://www.londonelects.org.uk/results/mayoral_technical_turnout.html 29/06/2011

[7] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8582819/Teachers-strike-heads-to-vote-over-pensions-walk-out.html accessed 28/06/2011

[8] Ibid.

[9] National Union of Teachers, ‘Teacher’s Pension Scheme – A brief guide’,  October 2009, page 4.

[10] http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jun/14/teachers-vote-to-strike-over-pensions accessed 28/06/2011

[11] http://www.carolinelucas.com/cl/media/fair-pensions-are-worth-fighting-for.html accessed 29/06/2011

[12] http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jun/14/teachers-vote-to-strike-over-pensions accessed 28/06/2011

[13] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2003658/Teacher-strike-pension-reforms-shut-23k-schools.html accessed 28/06/2011

[14] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-13782310 accessed 29/06/2010

[15] From debate in the house of commons broadcast on BBC Parliament

[16] http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/about_pcs/index.cfm accessed 30/06/2011

[17] House of commons debate broadcast on BBC Parliament.

[18] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-13772326 accessed 28/06/2011

[19] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8594666/Gove-Schools-under-moral-duty-to-break-teachers-strike.html accessed 28/06/2011

  • http://www.facebook.com/feetache Dave ‘Danger’ Bosworth

    Shit Quick you do your stuff well