It’s lesson 1 on Wednesday. Year 11, and That Time of year, of literally chasing our C-D grades around the school for their assessments, whilst simultaneously offering encouragement and reassurance to our stressed-out high achievers. But I’m not in the classroom with them. I’m at home, in front of my computer, because I’m on strike.
I’m not expecting this post to earn me extra friends, and under no illusions that my decision is highly controversial. I deeply sympathise and empathise with the need to organise last-minute childcare for kids out of school. I can see the logic of colleagues who have chosen not to fight this time. My friends in the NHS and Armed Forces don’t have the strike option, despite the fact that they have as much as we do – if not more – to protest about. I’m also acutely aware of the apparent paradox: we’re fighting for greater esteem for teachers, to result in better teaching for pupils – and yet we’re not with our pupils at all.
Teaching is an pragmatic job. It involves working with people, with their imperfections and unpredictability in a context of constant changes in political priorities. Decisions we make are rarely about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ but about what’s best for our students at a given time, in a complex and fluctuating set of circumstances. School leaders are constantly having to negotiate some of the most complex decisions – around the transition to academy status, ‘choices’ at leadership level which boil down to a choice between improved results or improved finances, choices around retakes, the cost-effectiveness of support teachers – none of this is black-and-white, and decisions involve an intricate negotiation of what we mean by ‘best’ for students and ‘best’ for staff.
So why I am I striking today? Here are my reasons:
1. Our children’s education is not a social experiment
In my seventeen years in the classroom, I’ve seen dozens of knee-jerk changes and swinging pendulums. Languages as optional, then essential. Coursework over exams. Exams over coursework. Completely rewritten exam specifications, on average, every three years. Education as a political football, as a source of taunting and jeering across the House of Commons. Sweeping changes that can’t be undone, without consultation with teachers. Who suffers? Our students, of course.
2. Division and fragmentation
League tables, competition, Free Schools, Academies, Grammar Schools, Private Schools – it’s a minefield to negotiate the differences from area to area. This threatens to erode any sense of community between teachers.
3. Mental Health and Wellbeing
Teachers are leaving the profession in droves. I conducted a recently survey of more than 1600 teachers, which saw the majority of teachers regularly suffering from stress or depression. Teachers don’t feel valued. They don’t feel listened to. Perhaps today, someone will listen.
It’s a word straight out of the seventies. But the timing of this strike, coming within days of the deaths of Tony Benn and Bob Crow, feels significant to me. These people weren’t out to ingratiate themselves or seek approval, but stood up, unapologetically, for what they believed. They represent a set of left-wing values which I have held close through my life and career: a belief in the fundamental right to equal opportunities, in our duty as a society to nurture and empower those less fortunate than us, a believe in inclusion, comprehensive education, tolerance, diversity…
It is ok that thousands of schools are closed or partially closed today? Absolutely not. Is striking the best possible way of making our feelings heard? Almost certainly not. But for now, it’s the only one we have. Will it make a difference? I can only say, I hope so. Is it necessary? Yes, because, out of all the greyness and complexity, it’s about standing up for what we believe is wrong, in the name of the values we hold dear.