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Today thousands of teachers went on strike. Over 8,000 schools were affected, and in the West Midlands teachers rallied in Birmingham to show their support for the action and their disgust at one man in particular: education secretary Michael Gove.
He claims that teaching has never been a ‘more attractive, more popular or more rewarding’ profession, insisting that changes to teachers’ pay, conditions and pensions – not to mention his controversial introduction of Free Schools and a further rolling out of academies outside of local government control – are necessary ‘reforms’.
Young teacher ‘Louise’ from Wolverhampton disagrees. She, like many of her colleagues striking today, are too afraid to give their real names on record for fear they will be targeted by employers looking to get rid of ‘troublesome’ teachers. ‘I became a teacher because I believe education is the key to young people’s future,’ she tells me with great passion. ‘Having qualified strong teachers who want to and are able to teach is of vital importance.’
She is incensed just at the mention of Gove’s name and is concerned about her own prospects for development in her job. A two year pay freeze, increased pension contributions and the ripping up of pay progression, linking it instead to performance, have taken their toll on Louise.
‘I can’t adapt to the changes. I work 55-60 hours a week and me and my partner can’t afford to have a family or buy a decent house. I am stuck in a damp two bedroom house,’ she says. ‘Teachers will be and are being de-motivated. The changes being proposed will lead to further staff turnover.’
But she adds that a major concern is for the next generation and her colleagues who are suffering unprecedented levels of stress. ‘You are more susceptible to illnesses when you are being worn down by ever increasing demands and poor behaviour in classes,’ she says.
Nodding her head in agreement, fellow union activist and teacher Jane says: ‘It is a physical job whatever people say. Teachers feel threatened by some difficult pupils. Other places have warnings about assaults on staff. Yet at all times you have to be professional whatever the provocation.’
With more than 30 years experience in the job and with all the stresses and strains, Jane still loves teaching and marvels at young teachers like Louise who have trained for many years, endured rigorous testing and checks and who are now taking a stand. ‘When I started you didn’t have to do the detailed lesson plan. Now if you don’t tick boxes, you are deemed not good enough,’ she says.
‘For example, Ofsted [the school inspectorate] visit you for 20 minutes and you have to meet 25 criteria in order to get an “outstanding” [rating]. It is impossible. What politician is subject to that level of scrutiny?’ She adds that a major concern is the greater use of teaching assistants to perform teaching duties despite the fact they are unqualified for such a role.
While conducting our interview over half an hour, Wolverhampton NASUWT official Jenny Battell takes three urgent calls from members – all with serious stress related issues.
‘Teachers feel alienated and are suffering physical and mental illness,’ she tells me candidly. ‘It is [teaching] becoming a toxic place to work. Teachers are increasingly seen as collateral damage. No one expects to be in that position.’ Her argument about toxicity in the workplace is further buttressed by her suggestion of the need for a study into employers’ use of ‘capability assessments’ as a means to sack perfectly good teachers from their jobs.
Both Louise and Jane agree and insist that strike action is a last resort but one they have no choice but to take. ‘I am quite a meek and mild person. I don’t even like politics,’ says Louise. ‘But I do feel enthused, supported by my union and that there is no other option but to strike.’
Jane takes it further and hopes the NASUWT and sister teaching union the NUT will take part in a general strike at some point if the education changes are not reversed.
Much of the media coverage has focused on the inconvenience being caused to parents by the strike. However many do support the action. Mother-of-two Julie from Walsall says she understands why the strike is going ahead. ‘Surely we want the best, most qualified teachers educating our children and I feel if pay and conditions are changed this could have a detrimental effect on the education system and for a children in the future,’ she says.
‘If they are striking for teaching standards then I support them. After all, I want the best for my children too. The government should want that too, but unfortunately it seems that the “Bigwigs” just do what they like.’
Today’s strike will not be the last act in this bitter dispute. Public opinion will be a key factor but with more strikes planned in the coming weeks, Jenny says the union is committed to an entrenched ‘war of attrition’ if the government refuses to sit and talk to teachers.