Opinion

Teachers strike: 'We walk out not just for pay, but for our most vulnerable pupils'

Teachers like me don’t want to strike. But cuts are pushing us out of classrooms and stripping the most vulnerable children of what they need

group of elementary school kids and their teacher lying down while working in the library

The library is their favourite place to learn

Being a teacher in a state school often feels like trying to put out ten fires at once – except the government has cut your funding so the resources once available for quashing flames have depleted, and instead you’re left trying to do it with your bare hands. This week, teachers are set to strike again – after ongoing industrial action since the start of the year. Teachers like me don’t want to strike. 

Contrary to Matt Hancock’s leaked WhatsApps, we would rather be in the classroom, but with the government’s repeated refusal to put an offer on the table that even begins to redeem the deep-rooted and multifaceted problems in our schools, it’s difficult to see an end in sight. 

When you look at the facts, it’s little wonder that over 90 per cent of National Education Union members voted in favour of industrial action. Things are dire for teachers. Over a decade of stagnated wages (amounting to a pay cut thanks to the constant rise in inflation) have collided with austerity-driven cuts to public services and heightened pressures since the pandemic. 

And the outcome? A perfect storm which is pushing teachers out of the classroom and stripping the most vulnerable children of what they need to secure the best future. 

Pay is, of course, a massive factor. Teachers cannot feed their families with job satisfaction alone and end-of-year thank you cards don’t pay the bills. One in five teachers have had to take on a second job to make ends meet according to an NEU poll, while others reported relying on food banks, benefits and regularly skipping meals because their wages simply don’t cover the ever-soaring cost of living

When I think of the years of studying and experience accumulated by me and my colleagues in order to create the best outcomes for our students – the late night marking and early morning planning and the extra (unpaid) holiday revision sessions – it seems nothing short of insulting that many of us are not paid enough to make ends meet. 

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The problem is, a lack of funding doesn’t just mean less money for teachers and their families. Ever-bigger class sizes and a shortage of staff doesn’t just impact the wellbeing of teachers: it means that the most vulnerable students lose out as a direct result of government cuts. 

Schools across the country are having to make impossible decisions between hiring a teaching assistant or keeping the lights on, scrapping extra-curricular subjects in order to hire a much-needed maths teacher or even shortening the school week to save money or attract staff. And whether it’s in the lack of one-to-one support, a dearth of creative outlets or just a lower quality of teaching, it is only the most vulnerable students whose opportunities, and futures, are slashed as a result. 

Just this week, a BBC investigation revealed that a third of cash earmarked for post-Covid catch-up tuition remains unspent. To me, this exemplifies the problem in UK schools today. The money is there but it is being spent in the wrong places, and time and time again the voices of teachers and leaders are being ignored. 

The true, long-term impact of the pandemic on schools is yet unknown, but anecdotally teachers like me see the effect in students’ worsening mental health, regression of key skills and inability to concentrate in a classroom setting. 

To overcome this unprecedented knock on an entire generation of learners needs genuine change and proper funding. But first it needs the government to actually acknowledge the transformative potential of good schools and excellent teachers – especially if they are as committed to social mobility as they claim to be. And that means backing teachers.

In the run up to the next teacher strikes, like clockwork, we’ll see the same vilification in the media that we always do. Teachers portrayed as being greedy for even more cash to spend over our already excessively long holidays, people calling into radio shows to ask what’s so special about teachers and isn’t the whole country struggling anyway? 

We’ll even, I’m sure, be accused of holding the nation’s children to ransom whilst we line our own pockets. 

The fact is this: pitiful salaries and unsustainable workloads push excellent teachers out of schools and into better paid and more appreciated positions. 

And if the burgeoning recruitment crisis isn’t bad enough already, with 93 per cent more unfilled vacancies in schools compared to before the pandemic, the future looks worse still. A third of teachers who qualified in the last decade have left the profession and just under half intend to do so in the next five years, according to NEU research. 

Schools are where the doctors and engineers and leaders and changemakers of tomorrow are made. Many children spend more time at school, surrounded by their teachers, than at home. Without the very best minds in our classrooms to train them, what can we expect of our future generation? 

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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