The unions' cause is just, but I'm ambivalent about striking - and I shudder at the legacy of the '80s disputes

Francis Gilbert's picture
The following article was first published in the Times Educational Supplement:

Recently we have had localised strikes over pay, badly behaved pupils, redundancies and cuts to school services, but the biggest ones in a generation are on the way over pensions.

While the majority of us were not surprised that the most left-wing of the unions, the NUT, voted to strike over pensions last week, you know things are serious when the more moderate Association of Teachers and Lecturers joins them.

As a state-school teacher of two decades' service and the parent of a 10-year-old, I feel profoundly ambivalent about strikes - as, I suspect, do most teachers, even those who vote for strike action.

Some time ago, I left the NUT because it appeared to be holding too many ineffectual strikes. In retrospect, its strike demanding a 2.45 per cent pay rise in 2008, as the recession started to bite, seems ill-judged. However, I didn't give up on union membership, joining the NASUWT instead. The services a good union offers - including legal protection - seem vital in today's schools.

In March I supported an NUT strike in Tower Hamlets, east London, over cuts to education services; my son had a day off school and we visited his teachers, who were protesting in a local park along with many others. I spoke as a parent on the hustings, talking about the damage that cuts will do to some of the poorest pupils in the country.

However, after the strike I felt a bit let down. It appears to have had no effect (faced with a £72 million cut to its budget, the council is pressing ahead with its cuts), while some of the union's claims, such as 200 jobs being lost, have proved not completely accurate.

With more strikes looming, I am becoming really worried that my son's education at his fantastic local primary will be affected. If we return to the "bad old days" of the Eighties, when teacher strikes were rife, it could be an absolute nightmare for parents.

The truth is that the teaching profession lost the trust of a whole generation of parents during those infamous days. I have spoken to too many parents from that time who are still bitter. Many of them can't even remember what the dispute was about.

One of the reasons the strikes failed was that the dispute couldn't be neatly summarised. In the mid-1980s, the Thatcher government got rid of the forum which negotiated national pay and conditions - the Burnham committee, which comprised teacher, local education authority and government representatives - and gave these powers to the secretary of state. In a nutshell, teachers lost the power to determine their own pay and conditions.

The dispute was especially bitter and protracted. The NUT established a rolling programme of three-day strikes, while the NASUWT staged its own half-day strikes.

Not much was achieved other than modest pay rises and the enduring distrust of many parents. Ultimately, it weakened the unions considerably (the NUT lost a third of its membership) and enabled the Conservative government to push through the 1988 Education Reform Act, which established the national curriculum, Ofsted and school league tables.

If these disastrous strikes are your benchmark, it is hard to understand why teachers are considering striking at all. But if you delve further into history, you see they can be effective. The teaching unions came into being in the late 19th century because teachers clubbed together to protest against things like being forced to play the church organ on Sunday mornings and schools being allocated money based on their results (sound familiar?).

The NUT won its first major dispute in 1896, when strike action by members in Portsmouth, with support throughout the country, won the reinstatement of four teachers sacked for not starting work at 7.55am. In addition, the action won a pay increase and a more civilised start time of 8.30am. It was the government's fear of strikes that led to the establishment of national pay and conditions for teachers just after the First World War.

And you can't say the NUT isn't prepared for the long haul; it backed the longest strike in history - 25 years. Teachers in the village of Burston, Norfolk, began protesting in 1914 against colleagues being sacked for being members of a union, and fighting for better conditions for pupils, teachers and workers in the local area. A "strike school" financed by the unions was established, which educated the local children until 1939, when victory was finally achieved. The teachers were triumphant because lessons didn't stop for the whole duration of the strike.

Now that we seem to be returning to the Victorian values of payment by results, the abolition of national pay and conditions, and the refusal to recognise unions at all in certain academies and forthcoming free schools, this "ancient" union history couldn't be more pertinent. The lessons of the past teach us that when teachers pull together, governments - even the most intransigent ones - do listen.

The early union disputes show strikes really work when everyone is unified and the general public is persuaded, too. At the moment, people outside the profession, struggling with poor pension packages themselves, think our "gold-plated"pensions are just not sustainable. The unions must win the argument, too.

The lesson of the Burston strike school is that victory can be achieved if teachers are seen to have the pupils' best interests at heart. This may mean educating the nation's children, no matter what hardships we in the profession endure.

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Georgina Emmanuel's picture
Sun, 08/05/2011 - 22:11

Thank you for writing this. I feel deeply disturbed that a time when Gove is doing untold damage to our education system, headteachers have chosen to use media space primarily to discuss their pensions.

Nurses have not mentioned their pay and terrible working conditions, preferring instead to focus on patient care.

I am worried that so many people have taken the time to articulate their concerns about Gove on this network but this does not seem to be getting out in the public domain.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 09/05/2011 - 08:34

It is not just about pensions, so it is crucial that the Unions give equal weight to their other grievances, for example the government’s refusal to listen to the genuine concerns of teachers – from academies and free schools, pensions, EMA, BSF, schools sports partnerships, the reform of the national curriculum, synthetic phonics - in order for the public to understand that they have the pupils’ best interests at heart.

The coalition has swallowed and propagated the myth that public sector pensions are gold-plated, peddled by bodies like the Institute of Directors, Institute of Economic Affairs, the CBI and certain Conservative and LibDem politicians. Their reaction to the Hutton Report shows how out of touch they are with public opinion, which is evidently much more fair minded. It is deeply unfair for public sector workers like teachers to disproportionately bear the brunt of a global financial crisis that was caused by the irresponsible actions of the banks, who are getting a tax cut from the Conservative-led government this year. As Hutton’s interim report previously pointed out, the average public sector pension in 2009/10 was worth £6,500 and in local government just £4,000. To call this gold-plated is an insult to public sector workers.

But they will bend over backwards for the private sector – especially if they want to profit from the public sector, so we should be even more vigilant of the recommendations of the ASI report, allowing profit making companies to run academies and free schools. The pension row has its tentacles wrapped around this issue too. The CBI’s John Cridland recently argued that public sector pensions act as a barrier for “third sector and private sector organisations” who want to run public services. If these organisations want to scrimp on staff pensions it begs the question, are these the sort of organisations that we want running our welfare system, our schools and our hospitals? The government appear to think so. No wonder they want to push through unfair pension reform.

Gove made the usual placatory murmurings at the NAHT Conference but three things are clear. The first is that the disruption to our children’s education in the summer term is the result of the government’s dismantling of our schools and their disregard for teachers. The second is that the attack on pensions is about crude cuts to solve a problem public sector workers did not cause. The third is that government policy is laying down the stepping stones towards the wholesale privatisation of schools and other public services.

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Mon, 09/05/2011 - 11:29

"from academies and free schools, pensions, EMA, BSF, schools sports partnerships, the reform of the national curriculum, synthetic phonics"

The implication of its inclusion in that list is that you regard synthetic phonics as an unalloyed bad thing. How do you propose to teach reading without teaching children that letters imply sounds? Which alternative --- whole books, look and say, ITA --- are you proposing?

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 09/05/2011 - 11:47


No I'm not implying anything of the sort. This thread is about why teachers may be striking, not a discourse on the merits of synthetic phonics.

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Tue, 10/05/2011 - 08:36

So why would they be striking about synthetic phonics? Or is it so self-evident that it doesn't need explaining.

Francis is right: a strike about pensions for people with good defined benefits schemes is political suicide, and will garner absolutely no support amongst parents whatsoever. So you've provided a laundry list of other causes, amongst which is a union grievance over synthetic phonics. I don't think you can throw that in --- as the only curriculum issue you mention --- with no justification whatsoever. Why does learning that letters usually stand for particular sounds merit strike action?

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 06:28

It is self evident. Synthetic phonetics, along with the other issues I gave, was just one of a number of education policy concerns which teachers unions have tried to discuss with the DfE. Teachers are striking not just over pay and pensions but because they have concerns about education policy and curriculum which have fallen on deaf ears by the government, It is important that the teaching profession gets this message over to the public and does not allow the government or its supporters to continue to demonise the profession by accusing it of failing children by striking when much bigger issues are at stake. This is the point here. We don't need a dissertation on synthetic phonetics.

Andy Smithers's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 14:07

For teachers to strike over their generous pensions would be an own goal for themselves and their unions, as in no way would it be in the public interest or more importantly in the interests of pupils.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 14:22

It is not surprising that Mr. Smithers here attempts to scapegoat teachers. Pity also that he contributes nothing to the debate which has actually moved on from "should teachers just strike over pensions" and has discussed the other reasons why they are striking ie because they have the best interests of children at heart.

Public sector workers - our nurses, teachers and other front-line staff – are actually the pillars of any civilized society. A recent YouGov poll for Prospect shows that the British public value them enormously. By more than five to one, the British public says the average public sector pension should be increased to at least £10,000 . Only 11% of people say public servants should get less than £10,000. The increase was supported by 63% of those polled and contrasts with the average public sector pension now in payment of £6,500 (Independent Public Service Pensions Commission).

Pressure to increase contributions does not come from the public, who are far more fair-minded than the politicians and right-wing commentators. I think this sense of solidarity was made manifestly clear during the 26 March protests when many private sector employees stood behind and with Trade union banners.

So hardly gold plated Mr. Smithers. You should try and be a little more generous yourself. It might bring a smile to your face!

Andy Smithers's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 16:35


Once again you are unable to debate with out the need to insult and actually now appear to be unable to read what I said.
I will repeat in similar language so that you have a chance to understand.
Teachers would be unwise to strike over their generous pensions.

No scapegoating, no mention of gold plating. It would just simply be an unwise move.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 16:41

Francis already floated the unwise move idea in his post. We have moved on considerably and I and other contributors have said that teachers are striking because they care about the education of children and are concerned the government are not listening.

As you might phrase it, It is clear that the majority of people are in favour of public sector workers getting better pensions. Come on Andy - let's have a smile

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 21:25

What parents need is equivalent rights to the unions, with the unions retaining their rights.

For parents and children: the right to remove their labour, with immunity to the consequences which affect others, such as teachers' lives being disrupted.

This might be best rephrased as the right to withold pro rata taxes including community charge.

It's just that the same measures need to be available to all.

If the unions want to give up the right to strike so parents and AN Other will also not have this right it's OK.

Alan's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 23:02

“We don’t need a dissertation on synthetic phonetics.”

I beg to differ – since the 70s top down education has failed to keep up with advances in child development, including the use of synthetic phonetics to support the development of our orthographically inconsistent language. Connecting speech sounds to letters and identifying the way speech sounds make up words can help to counter reading difficulties, so why isn’t every teacher a teacher of literacy?

Andy Smithers's picture
Thu, 12/05/2011 - 21:34

Does anyone know when the various teachers unions are planning to strike over the pensions issue?
At their various Easter conferences the Unions said they were going to ballot their members on the issue of striking over pensions, has this happened yet ?

Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 13/05/2011 - 08:13

I believe the NUT is about to ballot members on this issue.

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