One of the challenges of industrial action is ensuring that the message a group gives is clearly received by the necessary audience. Unfortunately, this is a difficult one for teachers. Firstly, we are generally not in the habit of discussing politics with the parents of the students we teach; much less with the students. Secondly, most Heads – quite reasonably in my opinion – don’t wish to engage with political and industrial issues through the school newsletter other than with the necessary facts. Since teachers are unlikely to start leafleting outside the school gates (although the thought had crossed my mind!), it means that the message parents receive is usually simply that teachers are striking.
So here, addressed to no parents in particularly, is the message I’d like to convey.
It is with great regret that I am writing to inform you of my absence from school this week due to industrial action. I realise that this causes considerable inconvenience to you, and for that I am sorry. Unfortunately I feel that my colleagues and I have few other options remaining to us to make clear to the government our concerns.
I have spent a good deal of time this term impressing on your children the importance of learning. It is that value which keeps me teaching each day, and which drives me to provide the best possible lessons I can for your children. I frequently appreciate the value that you as families also place on learning and the work which we undertake in school. Sadly, such support has not been felt from the national government.
Pay is rarely a draw in teaching. Few teachers would rate its importance in choosing their careers, and frequently I am told by parents and others that no amount of money would bring them into the profession. Nevertheless, like all other professions, ours is feeling the squeeze. Teachers understand that in times of austerity pay rises are rare, and indeed pay freezes common. However, in the case of teachers the central government has long been able to plunder the teachers’ pension fund for its own end and now expects teachers to make up the shortfall. Or rather, to continue to top up the treasury. Tens of billions of pounds more have been paid into the teachers’ pension fund than have been paid out, yet some teachers are being asked to double their pension contributions, work for several years longer, and receive less in their pension in return.
But pay, as I say, is very rarely a key factor in a teacher’s role. Rather, most teachers I work with are keen to do as much as they can to support your children’s learning. Sadly, this too is undervalued by the current government. I will be spending my “strike day” fully engaged in work. I shall be able to dedicate time to detailed marking, feedback and target-setting for the children in my class. This is an essential part of my role, but one for which the current Education Minister does not think teachers need time. Currently teachers receive some protected time to ensure that this vital work is done. It is usually less than 3 hours per week; a small amount in the 50- or 60-hour week of the average teacher, but vital time all the same. Removing this entitlement would only worsen my ability to help your children make progress.
In addition, the government would happily see changes that removed teachers’ right to a lunch break, to demand that teachers cover lessons at short notice in subjects which they have no knowledge of, and return to spending their time on administrative tasks like collecting dinner money and filing attendance records. All of these tasks, while important to the running of our school, would only have a negative impact on the time and energy teachers have available to plan lessons and support students.
It is always difficult for a teacher to take action which they know could be detrimental to the students in their care. Equally, few employees of any sort can afford to take unpaid time off. However, on this occasion my colleagues and I have decided that the loss of pay is a sacrifice worth making to make clear our point that we wish to be supported in providing the best possible education for your children. We can only apologise for the fact that this on-going refusal of government to engage teachers and their unions has led to this action.
I shall, of course, look forward to welcoming back your children on Friday and continuing to pursue our shared goal of providing them with excellent, well-planned learning opportunities. I hope you will feel able to continue to support us in that work.