In 2011, in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, I entered the teaching profession. Eleven years later, I’m still teaching in a state school. Statistically, a third or more of my cohort has probably left. Teacher numbers are falling as pupil numbers rise.
The obvious reason for the decline in the number of teachers is the attack on pay. The cost of living is on a steep incline, with a projected increase in energy bills and petrol of thirty percent. Meanwhile, since I started teaching, I have lost seventeen percent of my pay. That’s the equivalent of £6,257.
Teachers’ pay is set by an ‘independent’ body, the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB), but only once has it recommended a pay rise not in line with the recommendations of government ministers. The government, no surprise, ignored it.
Teachers in Scotland, meanwhile, have won a 13.5 percent pay rise. The point of saying that isn’t to put ourselves in competition with comrades north of the border, but to look at the reasons for the attack we face. The pandemic has shown that the government is well able to find money when it needs it, usually to give to Tory Party donors—so why not spend it on educators? (As a side note, the basic salary of an MP has risen by £19,000 since 2010.)
Alongside the drop in pay, we’ve seen an increase in workload. Teachers take it for granted that their job is stressful and exhausting, but that’s not the case internationally. Comparing the working lives of teachers across forty-five different countries, the Teaching and Learning International Survey found that teachers in England are some of the most monitored, surveilled, and scrutinised of any in the OECD. They also rank one of the lowest when it comes to being consulted on curriculum and assessment.
The neoliberal turn in the 1980s hit education hard. The privatisation and commodification of the education system has led to an alienated workforce, and draconian anti-trade union legislation has reduced the ability of the once powerful education unions to affect real change for their members, who see membership as more of an insurance policy than an act of solidarity. Unable to completely place education into the market system altogether, neoliberal politicians have instead tried to impose a system of ‘new public management’ on schools and school leaders, leading to league tables, privatisation, and fragmentation, and, of course, Ofsted.
This year, the inspectorate will mark its thirtieth birthday. Since its inception it has sown confusion and angst in the teaching community, not driving up standards as claimed, but instead serving to discipline schools and teachers that don’t follow the current trend in education.
In my first three years of teaching, we were inspected three times at two separate schools. Staff and senior leaders were tense, with fear the overriding emotion. Teachers stayed up all night preparing, and I heard of one member of management sleeping in his office. Worse than this was the effect this tension had on these schools all year round. Everything was done for Ofsted, rather than for the good of the pupils.
On top of all this, teachers have a growing sense of being undervalued by the government. No one is under any misapprehension as to the real reason Tory ministers are suddenly so keen to keep schools open: it’s the economy, stupid. The head-in-the-sand response to the Covid pandemic has left teachers feeling expendable, like sacrificial lambs on the economy’s altar.
Even with soaring cases and schools barely able to cope, the government refused to switch to remote learning in the winter of 2020, instead threatening schools with legal action if they didn’t open. It was only when brave trade unionist educators stepped up and served unsafe workplace with Section 44 notices that the government finally took action.
Now, one year later, the response is no different. The government knows that schools are engines of virus transmission but refuses to fund ventilation. 7,000 air purification devices have so far been distributed, a paltry amount when you consider that there are some 300,000 classrooms in the country. Schools are instead being sent CO2 monitors but given no real advice on what to do when classrooms are showing readings thousands above the recommended safe levels.
The crisis should not be seen one merely affecting educators, though. An inadequately funded and narrowly focused education system is to the detriment of all: the pupils who have to suffer it, and society as a whole. In real terms, spending in state schools is lower now than it was in 2009. Even more worrying is the fact that the gap between spending in state and private schools has widened.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated last year that the gap between private school fees and state spending per pupil has risen to £6,500. While private schools lavish their pupils with luxury facilities and small class sizes, working-class kids study in overcrowded classrooms with leaking roofs and windows that don’t open. Private schools celebrate the sporting achievements of their pupils, made possible due to their Olympic-size swimming pools, while state schools sell off their playing fields and new schools are opening in office blocks. All the while, private schools benefit from billions in state subsidies for their charitable status, offering crumbs from the table to the rest of us.
Not satisfied with cutting funding for education in real terms, the government has announced it will also be slashing more than £40 million a year in school improvement funding from state schools, leaving schools to foot the bills themselves. Stretched state schools of course respond by cutting costs: the arts are the first to go, class sizes increase, and teachers are expected to do more and more for free.
The National Education Union is sending out a survey to members this week, testing the waters by asking members to indicate if they would be willing to take action over pay. Pay, of course, is not the only problem in our education system, but fixing it would be a step on the road to fixing the morale of our education workers. Teachers, often not the most militant of workers, have been pushed far enough. It is time for a reckoning.
Record numbers of teachers joined the National Education Union during the pandemic, and thousands of new reps signed up to represent their members. We can’t wait for the Tories to do the right thing, or for the opposition to stand up for us and our children, or for Jeremy Corbyn to descend like a Deus ex Machina and lead us to the promised land. We need to take the fight to them. We must look to other unions, outside of our sector, and learn from their victories. We need to go back to our workplaces and build power. We need to win there and show our members that we are not powerless—and we must teach the government to fear us again.