I can’t decide whether to strike next Wednesday (30th) or not.
A few months ago, the decision felt a lot simpler: pensions are the one good thing about teaching – I have to strike. But now I’m not so sure. Over the next few paragraphs I’m going to sketch out my indecision in more detail.
Pensions are not the one good thing about teaching.
The first thing is that pensions are not the only benefit of being a teacher. I didn’t become a teacher because of the pension. I had finally found something that I was good at and I enjoyed doing. I had previously tried engineering, selling computers and even being in a band, but I either wasn’t good at them or didn’t enjoy them. I enjoy teaching. And I’m good at it (most of the time).
The pay isn’t bad either. When I started teaching the highest pay I could expect in about the year 2000 was about £25000. Now I could expect £39000 – that’s over a 50% increase in 10 or so years – well above the rate of inflation in that time.
The holidays, hours and general flexibility are brilliant. Like most teachers I’m in work by 8 and I work late some evenings. I work at home. I work in the holidays. But I don’t work all the time. Being a teacher has enabled me to support my wife get back to work after having children and it helps us with childcare during school holidays.
The exaggeration of my union
I’m disappointed with the language coming out of my Union. According to them I am “demoralised” and desperate to have my “classroom released from the shackles or paperwork”. I am, in fact, neither of these things. I am concerned about pensions, but I’ve been taken aback by some of the mouth-frothingly* emotive language I’ve had emailed to me over the last few weeks. What’s more, I did some digging and found a report that I’ve posted (above) which seems to indicate that the teaching unions were in a no-compromise mood from as long ago as 1997 when the at-the-time New Labour government took office and set up a working party to look at the Teacher Pension Scheme. The government in 2004 was frightened off making significant changes to the pension scheme by the teacher unions. It made me wonder whether a more conciliatory stance back in the 2000s (when we were all living in our heady credit bubble) might have led to a more constructive dialogue now.
In addition today my local association have been tweeting: “Remember there’s no requirement to tell your Headteacher if you intend to strike on #N30. NASUWT advises you do NOT tell them #sufs #nasuwt” Now that may be true, but it’s really unhelpful to school leaders, some of whom are in that union are just trying to find out whether they can keep their school open or not. Most headteachers have a positive relationship with their staff and it seems a shame to jeapordise it by telling union members to communicate less with their senior leaders.
Two issues in one strike
There are two issues that dominate discussion on pensions – the pension age and the pension contribution. I’m a primary teacher with the belief that a certain amount of role modelling is important to the primary age child. My pension age is 68. At that age I can’t quite imagine myself being able to perform a Cruyff turn, or somersault or even jump off a bench. I’m sure some sixty eight year-olds may be able to, but many won’t. I know some may find that a rather fey reason, especially when firemen are expected to work until 60 these days, but a reason it is. The contribution for me is another matter – I know paying more represents a pay cut, but the sliding scale that hits teachers on the leadership spine worse than teachers who aren’t seems fair to me. Why shouldn’t the rich contribute more? It’s an idea that old Labour would have been proud of.
Suffice it to day that I’d like to see these two issues separated. Strike about the age thing – yes I’ll go with that. Strike about the contributions? Not for me.
The mandate of the vote
I’ve been told twice, via email and letter, that an ‘overwhelming’ 82% voted for strike action. But it’s an 82% of only a 40% turn out. That means about seventy thousand teachers in my union positively chose to strike out of a possible two hundred and twenty thousand. I don’t see that as overwhelming. Given that this is a really important issue that could affect the future of many people and will cause many families a severe headache next Wednesday, how can only 40% have bothered to vote about it? And how can that justify this strike action? What I suspect is that many teachers aren’t that bothered about it, but quite fancy 30th November as a Christmas Shopping Day. Letting a keen minority make the decision for them, they will gleefully take the day and when challenged say “well my union are striking, I can’t go against them.” Worse, I suspect that some staff are hoping to tell their schools that they are not striking that day so that they can still claim their pay, but that the school will have sufficient strikers out to close the school. OK, maybe I’m getting a bit paranoid here – I’ve certainly not seen any of this behaviour in my own school – but now the thought is there I’m struggling to get it out of my head.
The importance of unions
The flip side to my previous argument is that I really believe unions are important. For many years, my union has given me helpful advice, great opportunities and that legal protection just in case something should go wrong at school. I also think that it’s important to stick together about key issues – for my part I think the changes within the new curriculum might be more important than changes to pensions. I don’t want to go against a union decision, because I think unions are important.
School is important free day care
I hear a lot of teachers moaning that parents just view school as free daycare and yes I agree, school is a lot more than that. Schools provide knowledge, understanding and skills for future life. They are important social structures within our communities. But they are also free day-care and as such form part of our economy. With our economy being in such a fragile state at the moment, is it wise to close them for a even a day?**
My prior experience of strikes
As a secondary school student in the 1980s I was negatively affected by teachers’ action. All the clubs stopped. As a twelve-year old treble I had sang that part in Carmina Burana at the Town Hall. I never got the chance to develop my baritone, because by then the choir club had shut down. It also seemed to affect the teachers badly too. I remember them being bright and happy at the start of secondary school (1983), but gloomy and miserable by the time I left – I’m sure there were other factors, but such things stick in the mind.
I read articles like this
and I float one way, then I think about the whole 40% turnout again and I float back the other.
I think about the looks I had from other dads at my son’s scout group and how each of them in the private sector have had to make all sorts of financial sacrifices over recent years just to stay in work and I think “Nope, I can’t strike.” Then I think about myself teaching PE to 30-ten year olds when I’m 68 and I think “I really should strike.”
My union tells me I don’t need to tell my headteacher, but he’s given me until Wednesday.
* – note how I’ve used some emotive language of my own here.
** – you could argue with all the teachers Christmas shopping, it may actually boost the economy.