• Mon. Apr 22nd, 2024

Teacher Strikes: A Headteacher’s Perspective

ByNaomi Wallace

Feb 20, 2023
School children looking at the camera

In January, the NEU (National Education Union) announced dates for teacher strikes across England.

The strikes come as a response to cuts in teacher salaries, excessive workload, and lack of funding for schools.

I spoke with the head of a primary school in the North-West of England about how they navigate strike action as a school leader, and their thoughts on the current working conditions for teachers.

Firstly, thinking about why the strikes are happening. How would you say that the situation in schools now compares to when you first started as a headteacher?

“The reality is that funding has become increasingly more of an issue for headteachers over the last ten years. So, not just since I’ve been a headteacher but since the Tory government took power in 2010. That’s when the problems arrived. Initially there was austerity, so school budgets were cut and continue to be. And not only have school budgets been cut, but also essential services, like SEN (special educational needs) funding in particular. The government has cut a lot of early access provision for pre-schoolers. Funding for schools has been slashed. They’ll claim it’s at the highest it’s ever been, but it’s all relative to how many children you’ve got in school. They’ll say funding’s never been higher but actually, per pupil, it’s pretty low. They’ll claim otherwise because there’s a lot of children in school, so they have to fund more per school. But there’s considerably less funding.”

How do you support your staff’s individual decisions to strike/not strike and balance that with your personal views towards the strikes?

“My own personal view towards the strikes is that I am in favour because the schools are in a funding crisis which is only getting worse. And, because teachers’ wages have been frozen repeatedly below the rate of inflation for ten years. That’s not sustainable. On a personal level, I am thousands of pounds worse of this year- we’re talking over ten thousand pounds a year- than I wouldn’t have been had wages kept pace with inflation. So I fully support the strikes. I wasn’t able to strike myself, because I am a member of the NEHT which didn’t reach the threshold for their ballot. As a headteacher, it’s not my role to influence my staff in any way apart from to say: whatever decision you make is yours, you’re legally entitled to make whatever decision you want, and I support you in that decision. I certainly don’t try to influence anyone in any way.”

How do you as a headteacher communicate with parents and students about the strikes?

“To be honest, in my school no one went on strike, so the communication was very easy. We’re a primary school, so I didn’t communicate to the children about it as it didn’t affect us at all, this particular strike. I suspect future ones will. The only union to go on strike was the NEU and only two members of staff at my school are members. They both opted not to strike. So, the communication with the parents was very easy as I just informed them. 

“When you speak to parents about strikes you have to be very impersonal about it. You’re legally not allowed to say who is and is not striking. I just sent a message to say that school remained fully open and was unaffected. I know some other headteachers have found it difficult. In high school, senior leaders have to communicate to the children a bit more because obviously older children have a better understanding of the situation, and possibly you could argue there’s more impact on them. I think it should be really clear that the teaching profession doesn’t want to strike or close schools. 

“There’s been an awful lot of absolute bluster from various sections of the right-wing media, and lots of sanctimonious hang-ringing along the lines of “what about the children who are missing out on education?”. Well, we’re getting a bank holiday for the King’s coronation, and no one seems to be bothered about them missing a day of school for that. I think it’ll have a very limited impact on children’s education. But regardless, the point of a strike is to be inconvenient, that’s why they are effective.”

Do you think that the lack of pay rises and the excessive workload is putting people off jobs in education and even causing current teachers to leave the sector?

“Yes, 100 per cent. There’s more people leaving in the early years of their teaching career than any other time. There are more senior leaders leaving than at any other time because the system is broken in education. There’s not enough funding for it, as seems to be the case in every sector at the moment. There are huge levels of accountability, which comes in the form of OFSTED, which is a completely flawed organisation. I don’t disagree with the concept of an office for standards in education, I think it is a necessary thing, but the way it is done is completely inappropriate. The fact that people’s jobs can ride on the whims of an inspector, who might happen to take a disliking to them- I’ve seen it happen- is unacceptable. 

“So, yes, people are leaving the profession because the workload is so high. People say we get paid all the way through the school holidays, but teachers get paid a salary for the year. You don’t get paid for school holidays, you just get an annual year’s salary. The reality is most teachers work very long days with very long hours. I probably get to work at about 7:15am and leave after 5pm most days. I don’t really have breaks in that time because we’re always on duty working with children. I don’t have an hour for lunch ever. Lots of teachers work at home in the evenings and at the weekend. There’s an issue with workload, there’s an issue with accountability. Pay has been eradicated. My personal biggest gripe is the lack of funding. As leaders there’s only one way to really deal with this, and that’s by making cuts. The only way to make substantial cuts is reducing staff, because staffing makes up the majority of the budget. A lot of schools are having to make people redundant.”

What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions that people outside the education sector have about teaching as a career?

“That it’s easy. I think lots of people think because they’ve been to school they know what it’s like to teach in a school. It’s a massive misconception that we work from 9am to 3pm. When teachers go on residential visits, we give up our time voluntarily. People think the job is just looking after children, but it’s not. It’s a tough job. A great job, I don’t regret doing it, but it’s hard. There’s a lot of pressure to get results. People don’t realise how much work we do. 

“There’s also a massive misconception, amongst some, that teachers did nothing during the pandemic when schools were locked down. That is so far from the truth. There were teachers opening schools for vulnerable and key worker children, there were headteachers in areas of deprivation delivering food parcels to families. It’s a huge misconception that teachers got an easy deal during the pandemic, which wasn’t the case at all.”

Finally, what would you say to the minister for education if you had the chance to tell her what you think?

“I would say nothing because they don’t listen. I wouldn’t waste my time. They don’t listen, that’s the truth of it. There’s been six education secretaries in the last twelve months, and if that’s not devaluing a profession I don’t know what is. I wouldn’t bother speaking to her, because she isn’t interested in what I have to say. I am just a head of a small school in Cheshire, it’s of no relevance to her what I think.”

Image Young children in school” by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

By Naomi Wallace

Welfare Officer