Teachers know more than anyone that education is a rapidly changing thing. Its various laws, policies and guidance are updated on a regular basis to keep up with the changing times. In principle this is great –– it is right to operate with self-reflection and critique, as this drives good practice and progress in any field of work.
However, changes to teaching practice rarely reflect the suggestions made by teachers themselves. It therefore came as a great surprise when ex-ex-education secretary Nadhim Zahawi recommended that ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak meet our demands for a 9% pay rise. Many of us are wondering if Zahawi will stick to his words now he is chancellor.
I would like to argue that, even if the pay rise demands are met, the world of education is doomed to a cycle of crises –– just as the government is doomed to a cycle of useless education secretaries. Any future strike should highlight the need for a deep structural change in society, on top of a pay rise. Following the RMT strikes, which received great popular support, it is time for the NEU to be more ambitious in making demands beyond pay and working conditions. This is what will unite the workers in each sector of society.
Proper pay is of course a necessary and reasonable demand to make. After all, teachers are not asking for a pay rise as such, but an increase in pay to match inflation and undo years of real terms pay cuts. What makes this tricky as a sole focus is that many workers in other sectors have been alienated by matters of pay. Many sectors face a much lower wage than in teaching, and do not always expect the same pay increases that come with experience in a job. Even within schools, support staff (including teaching assistants, breakfast club and afterschool managers, kitchen staff) receive disproportionately less than teachers for the essential jobs they perform. Propped up by divisive rhetoric from the government and the press, many school staff may feel that teachers have little to complain about, at least by comparison –– and to some extent they are right.
This is why a strike for pay must also look towards the needs of the working class as a whole, both within schools and beyond. It must also resist anti-strike sentiment through explicit actions of solidarity with other workers. On a very basic level, teachers must support pay rises for other workers, such as with the recent RMT strikes. When transport workers receive a proper wage, trains run efficiently and safely; when education workers receive a proper wage, children access a broad, high-quality education. Each of these is invaluable in a healthy (and prosperous) society.
Yet teachers are in a unique position to make demands about wider society. Education does not end at the school gates. Although we are not responsible for the education of pupils outside of school, teachers are acutely aware of how disparities at home cause immense gaps in attainment and quality of education. It is contrary to most teachers’ instincts to turn a blind eye to this. As experts of education, we have a duty to challenge such disparities, even though they occur outside of the workplace.
This is why it is absolutely essential to push for change on a larger scale. Following the economic aspect of the Communist Party of Britain’s “fight on three fronts”, teachers must fight to improve the living standards of working people and their families –– so that our pupils can come in well-fed and refreshed each day. We should support other unions in the fight for free collective bargaining, and we trust that other workers have the expertise in their field to demand only what’s fair and necessary for the wellbeing of their families and themselves.
Needless to say, teachers also have a unique responsibility over the propagation of ideology. A progressive union, which should fight the ideology of the ruling class (another part of the “fight on three fronts”), might demand measures in striking law to enable pupils to participate. At the moment, pupils cannot participate in actions organised by their school. This cuts them off from action that is central to their own wellbeing and education. Surely, to resist the inevitable accusations of ‘holding children hostage’ during school strikes, the NEU could outline an age-appropriate programme of education that involves young people. This would also challenge the belief that a strike amounts to a few days extra holiday.
At the start of the next academic year, the UK will have had a summer of strikes and built up the power of working people and their unions. During this time, NEU members should work hard to build a striking agenda that champions the cause of all working people, through solidarity with others, in the fight for a better society.
Efrem Craig, is a member of the YCL’s London branch