Teacher strikes – will history repeat itself?


Finding himself in a London staffroom during a debate about the current industrial action, Sir Tim Brighouse recalls the teacher strikes of the 1980s and asks whether things will turn out differently this time around.

“I’ve never been more torn. I can’t stand the government and what Gove is doing to education and I want to support my union.” 

The young teacher was sitting on the edge of her chair frowning and clutching a mug of coffee as she went on, “but I hate the thought of going on strike for pay, pensions and conditions even though what they have done is underhand and dishonest. It’s wrong. But I suppose I’ll do it”.

The extra pension contributions coupled with the pay freeze and inflation had reduced her standard of living but she spoke of people she knew on “zero-hours contracts” and the well-reported phenomenon of more people being in work but receiving less pay, which seems to be a peculiarly British response to the worldwide recession.

She was worried, along with others who joined in, about the impact on the youngsters she teaches as well as their hard-hit families, who were as she put it “much worse off than I am”. Everyone had their own slightly different opinions and many kept their own counsel.

It was an inner city secondary school staffroom with a few of what my old moderate friends would call “Trots”. They of course were vocal and saw this as the start of the longed-for revolution. That however was a minority view which provoked a lot of good-natured banter.

I had kept quiet as I recalled the last serious teacher action in the mid-1980s. I was an education officer then and remember the astonished letters accusing me of betrayal when I took the strongest line possible on deductions of pay.

The letters hurt – although I wasn’t sure what they thought a chief officer in a Conservative County Council could do. But the immediate worst pressure was felt by the heads who, even in those far-off days before the full impact of market forces had come to bear on schools, trod the tightrope of balancing pupils’ needs, staff morale and parental reaction. 

It was lonely to be a head at that time. Many found themselves doing lunchtime duties alone and supervising large groups in the assembly hall as they struggled with all sorts of situations arising from different unions pursuing different tactics including “no-notice midday walk-outs”. 

Crossing picket lines was a prelude to poisoned staff relationships and precipitated some to seek another school or leave teaching altogether. Indeed we entered a period in which teacher shortages became a real issue. The longer term damage was immense in some places and, more generally, undermined the public view of state schools for at least a decade.

Of course this time round it will be different. In the staffroom where I listened to staff talking about their proposed responses, there were people who were going to set work, others who were determined to take a day’s pay cut but “come in anyway”. There was tell of heads who were going to send home years 7 and 8, but keep the rest of the school in session with those staff not involved in the action.

The context is very different from the 1980s. Exam and test results are now published; they weren’t then. Ofsted didn’t exist and inspection reports weren’t published either. Competition between schools existed but not to the extent it does today. There were no academies or free schools, so the employer response was very much down to the local education authority, orchestrated by the local government associations.

I guess the secretary of state, who now has private contracts with the academies, will be issuing advice to his schools – or will he wash his hands of the whole affair and leave it to each individual academy to respond in the way they think fit? In that likely event, in these days of increased school autonomy and more powers for governors there will presumably be thousands of agonised discussions about how to respond and inevitably many different outcomes.

I heard so much in that inner city staffroom. Above all I was impressed by a group of skilled and dedicated professionals whose knowledge of teaching and learning far outstripped that of their predecessor generations and who were thirsty for opportunities for further professional development.

Like all this generation of teachers, they are outraged by the secretary of state intruding on matters that are properly professional, such as what and how to teach and playing ducks and drakes with the exam system. They were passionate about their students’ life chances. As one of them said: “I’d be happier striking for them rather than my pay and pension.”

Of course history never quite repeats itself, but it’s as well to remember that after the last main bout of teacher industrial action, Mrs Thatcher, who saw teachers as a side show after she had broken the miners, was re-elected for a third time. I am sure David Cameron and Michael Gove remember that. I expect Ed Miliband, who was a pupil in a London school at the time, remembers it too.

  • Professor Sir Tim Brighouse is a member of the 21st Century Learning Alliance. Visit www.21stcenturylearningalliance.org



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