The well crafted and deliberate attacks on education by government are now being resisted by workers, who believe this is a critical point in the struggle to arrest decline…
After the huge disruption to education caused by the pandemic, and the subsequent impact on children’s learning and mental health, you might think that every effort would be made to remedy the damage to our children’s education.
But that’s not the reality in schools. The ongoing decline in education is actually accelerating. Teachers and pupils face a maelstrom of attacks by the government – failure to recruit, poor pay, high stress, underfunding, and an inspection regime correctly described as “unfit for purpose”. All feed off each other to reinforce this downward spiral.
The attacks are no accident, but education workers are now resisting. They recognise that they are at a critical point in their fight to halt the decline.
The National Education Union has for some years gone through the motions of wishing for an improvement in pay. At last, things have changed. At this year’s national conference the pay debate took place in an entirely different atmosphere. Far from making token gestures, delegates displayed real anger at the contempt government has shown for teachers in their ongoing pay campaign in England.
Support for the strike action was shown mid-conference when the result of the consultative ballot on the latest pay offer was announced. An overwhelming 98 per cent of teachers voted to reject it, on a turnout of 66 per cent. In less than six days over 190,000 serving teachers in English state schools had voted to reject the offer.
Commenting on the result, Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint general secretaries of the NEU, said, “The offer shows an astounding lack of judgement and understanding of the desperate situation in the education system...This resounding rejection of the Government’s offer should leave Gillian Keegan (Secretary of State for Education) in no doubt that she will need to come back to the negotiating table with a much better proposal.”
The union had already held four days of national strike action. It announced the addition of three further strike days to the two already planned for the summer term.
Other teaching unions had held strike ballots but failed to meet the required 50 per cent threshold of members taking part. Drawing strength from the position of the NEU, they announced that they also reject the offer and would now consider re-balloting their members.
In a ballot of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), 90 per cent voted to reject the pay offer, and 78 per cent said they wanted to vote again on taking industrial action. Like the NEU, headteachers have continually highlighted that most of the government’s offer is unfunded and will result in further cuts to staff.
Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said his members felt “insulted” by the offer but emphasised that even one so low is “not affordable in their (school) budgets”. It is not surprising that head teachers rejected such an unfunded offer.
Teachers know that any pay increase only partially funded by government would see teachers’ pay in England fall even further behind their counterparts in Wales and Scotland. It would also represent another two years of real term pay cuts.
The teachers’ pay and workload campaigns are highlighting the inadequate salaries and poor working conditions.
No wonder the recruitment of new staff is in crisis, as shown by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), an independent educational research charity, in its annual report on the teacher labour market. It makes grim reading. For example, teacher vacancies have doubled since the start of the pandemic.
There’s not much hope from government, which acknowledges that it has missed its overall targets for initial teacher training for this academic year. And missed them by miles: by nearly 30 per cent below target overall, for secondary teachers alone by over 40 per cent, and for physics by an astonishing 83 per cent.
The shortfalls in initial recruitment are exacerbated by the exodus of staff early on in their career. Government figures show that one in three teachers left the profession after just five years. This is likely to worsen. Surveys indicate that 44 per cent of teachers in state schools in England and Wales plan to leave within the next five years.
‘Any pay increase only partially funded would see pay fall even further…’
Despite token attempts to reduce workloads, most teachers surveyed for the NFER report felt that their workload continued to be unmanageable. The OECD five-yearly international survey of teachers’ workload showed that secondary teachers in England worked 20 per cent longer than the average of those in other countries. And only primary teachers in Japan had a longer working day.
Ofsted is often cited as a source of added stress and as a big reason for teachers leaving the profession. Teaching unions have long campaigned for its reform, or replacement by a more effective means of supporting schools and informing parents.
The tide is turning as teachers’ anger grows. There is more willingness to take action to defend education. The BBC summarised this with the headline “The dam has burst on strength of feeling”.
The tragic death of Ruth Perry, head teacher of Caversham Primary School in Reading, has highlighted the poor mental health of teachers, particularly among senior leaders. The punitive nature of Ofsted inspections has caused some within the organisation to reflect on their role.
An experienced inspector, Dr Martin Hanbury, left his job saying, “You're conscious that you're causing perhaps more harm than good.” The one-word grading system is, he said, “totally unfit for purpose”.
The quality of Ofsted inspections has always been a concern for schools. Coupled with an arbitrary grading system, this has meant that many in education regard the process as having limited authority, and providing poor support for schools.
The government claims that the four Ofsted grades of “outstanding” to “inadequate” are a guide for parents and a spur to schools. Schools reject this as inaccurate and simplistic. And education researchers have also panned the claims for misleading parents choosing a school for their children.
Ofsted’s claim to independence is now in question. It has tried to bolster the government’s contentious changes to the curriculum by looking for support from evidence-based research. This has backfired.
Academics complain that some of their research has been misrepresented to fit with the government’s agenda. Other research cited is of poor quality – for example, relying on small samples or no investigation at all.
Ofsted also included many research papers which did not even support its conclusions – over 25 per cent, according to the Association of Mathematics Education Teachers. Even by cherry-picking research, Ofsted has not made the case, which seems particularly desperate – one might say “inadequate”.
The issues causing the spiralling fall in the quality of education have become entrenched and are reinforcing each other. This decline is likely to develop further over the coming months. These problems cannot all be resolved quickly, but the government isn’t going to solve any of them unless forced to do so.
Those with a vision for education’s future will need to be ready to tackle and overcome the trials ahead. The willingness of workers in education to stand and fight is a step in the right direction. It will help give them the clarity of thought and resolve they will need for their long-term struggle.