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Heads sympathise over strike action

by Pete Henshaw

While many headteachers and sen- ior leaders fought hard in a bid to keep their schools open last week, many expressed sympathy with the strike action and were more upset at the attitudes of parents or local press than the actions of their teachers. Long Field School in Melton

Mowbray had about a fifth of their staff on strike but with year 11 gone and some “clever staff shuffling” – within regulations it should be added – they stayed open for three of the remaining four year groups. Vice-principal Jo Smith said:

“Year 10 have packages of work over the virtual learning environ- ment and year 7 to 9 runs as nor- mal with the senior leadership team doing a lot of cover – still the local press represents all the schools in the locality as villains.” Jacques Szemalikowski, head

Pensions fight: Protestors of all ages took part in the 20,000-strong rally in central London last week

at Hampstead School in north London, was forced to close his doors to pupils. He told SecEd, however: “While I sincerely regret the inconvenience this has caused, not to mention the loss of learning,

Leadership unions united

The two biggest leadership unions were standing by the striking teach- ers this week despite the impact it had on their members. As teachers walked out, the

National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) turned their ire on the gov- ernment. The NAHT is preparing to ballot

its own members on industrial action over pensions in the autumn and general secretary Russell Hobby said that “some groups” had attempted to inflame the situation surrounding the strike. He added: “We have seen some

extremely dodgy (not to say dan- gerous) ‘advice’ and thinly dis- guised intimidation, which has only

served to raise the temperature. Heads have been particularly poor- ly treated as they have struggled to do their duty and many feel the government has tried to use them as a human shield. There is real and lasting damage here.” Mr Hobby said that his union

“entirely sympathises” with the teaching unions which walked out. He added: “We urge the government to begin real negotiations on the basis of the affordability and sus- tainability of the teacher’s pension scheme and not deficit reduction. “The outcome of (the NAHT)

ballot will largely depend on what the government does now. Action in the autumn can still be avoided but it requires a very different approach to that taken this summer.”

Pensions: Editorial comment

Despite saying it did not want to “ratchet up the rhetoric” the government did exactly that in the days and hours before last Thursday’s walkout. Ministers from across the cabi-

net labelled the strikes as wrong and focused their comments on the fact that negotiations are on-going – a blatant attempt to turn public support against the profession. Yes, four unions have walked

out on strike during on-going negotiations. But at the same time, on June 17 the government announced key pension reforms – reforms that are still on the table in the very same negotiations! And in making his announce-

ments, chief secretary of the Treasury Danny Alexander did nothing to maintain any faith that the talks are being conducted in an open and honest manner. The other tactic being used by

the government is to imply that we are all doing our bit to pay back the debt but teachers are somehow not in it with us.

This is of course utter rubbish.

Teachers’ pensions were reformed only very recently when contribu- tions went up. They are also in the middle of a two-year pay freeze. The inflation link for their pensions has been changed, devaluing them by 15 per cent. On top of all of this, teachers are still delivering high standards of education on reduced school budgets. No, teachers are definitely doing

their bit but this government is intent on making them do more by paying 50 per cent more into their pensions and making them work until 68. I’d like to see Mr Gove when he’s 68 trying to control a class of 35 teenagers. And to rub salt into the wound,

teachers’ pensions are not of the gold-plated standards that the prop- aganda likes to imply. At around £12,000 on average, they are almost half that of the pensions MPs receive. Support staff receive even less – as little as £4,000 a year. And so the talks will continue this month and I sincerely hope


Henshaw Editor SecEd

an agreement is reached, but if the government refuses to move then it could well unite all the education and wider public sector unions and we could see roll- ing strike action throughout the autumn. That would be a tragedy, but

one which will not be of teachers’ making. We all have a right to strike and to oppose government policy – it’s called democracy. Those who criticise would do well to remember this. They should also remember

that this is not a fight that teachers want. But it is a crucial fight for the fair treatment of those who have dedicated their lives to edu- cation – one of the most noble and important professions there is.

Meanwhile, the ASCL said its

members “fully understand” the anger felt by those striking. General secretary Brian

Lightman said: “ASCL is consult- ing its members this week and based on the response and the out- come of negotiations, it will decide what action to take in the autumn, up to and including balloting for strike action.” Mr Lightman said that the

Treasury has made critical deci- sions relating to pensions without any consultation, referring to the change in inflation link and the increase in contributions by 50 per cent. He added: “Given this unfair treatment, it easy to understand why public sector workers are so angry with the government.”

I fully understand the anger and dis- appointment among teachers that has led to this.” One headteacher from the

Midlands, who asked to remain anonymous, said he wanted to “be honest” to those who were striking. He had gotten key stage 3 in and was using lots of supervision, but added: “There is little good learning happening.” Dr Annabel Kay, headteacher at

The Warriner School in Oxfordshire was angry after working hard to staff the school so that year 10 students could attend, only to find that a third of parents decided not to send their children in. One head of department from

a south London school, who asked to remain nameless, also bemoaned the attitude of some parents after he and his colleagues had worked hard to keep the school open. He told us: “One irate parent

demanded that each striking teacher wrote to him personally explaining why they are taking action. This seemed symptomatic of the failure of some parents to understand what an important public issue this is for the future of their children. “Without attracting excellent

people into the profession we risk putting the future of the country at risk – it is as important as that. There can be no functioning private sector or booming economy unless we invest in education.” As well as expressing sympa-

thy with the striking teachers, other headteachers emphasised that no pressure had been put on teachers about the walkout. Headteacher at The King’s

School in Gloucester, Alistair Macnaughton, told us: “No member of staff is absent, though we would have fully respected the rights of anyone who wanted to strike. No pressure has been put on anyone; only information supplied so that staff know what the situation is, especially with regard to the recom- mendations in the Hutton Report. “It will be very interesting to

see what transpires in the autumn – I simply cannot see how a satis- factory compromise between the government and the unions will be found.” Elsewhere, headteachers con-

tacted by SecEd reported good morale and spirit among staff who were working. And rather than criticising their teachers who had

An NQT marches in Cambridge

“Being both relatively young and very new to teaching, I’ve little experience of strike action other than vague childhood memories of miners, wearing donkey jackets, warming their hands over oil drum fires. But I joined my first strike this week

and discovered that it didn’t bring down the economy, people didn’t riot, and the country didn’t grind to a complete halt – despite what the government’s spin has been telling us. At first I didn’t want to strike, thinking

it would be better to leave strike action as a trump card. I wasn’t overly worried about abandoning

my classes (I’d only have one year 9, non-GCSE, class that day). Our head was sympathetic, and said that he’d be out on strike too if and when his union joins in. He added that legally no-one had to tell him if they were striking, but as it’s a small school it would be nice to know – there was no pressure though. I could even survive losing the £45 for striking. However, despite this, I was still firmly

in the ‘undecided’ camp and needed more information before I made my decision. I decided to do a bit of digging into the

state of the teachers’ pension pot and quickly realised what everyone was getting annoyed about. No-one knows if it’s in deficit or surplus, but overall it’s assumed to be in robust health. Then I checked out how much extra I’d have to pay in and how long I’d have to work to receive a pittance. I was slowly moving to the strike camp. What eventually made me strike was the

government’s attempts to persuade teachers not to strike and their making us out to be the bad guys. Danny Alexander’sQuestion Time comments really annoyed me and Michael Gove’s pathetic attempt to get everyone to “Keep Calm and Carry On” by suggesting that parents could come into schools and teach tipped me over the edge. At midday I was waiting in central Cambridge surrounded by fellow teachers, carrying banners, shouting

Pensions fight: Protestors march in Cambridge

walked out, many school leaders were more focused on education minister Michael Gove’s antics. Indeed, one mischievous

headteacher when contacted via email by SecEd replied by simply sending us a copy of the now infa- mous photograph of Mr Gove on a National Union of Journalists’ picket line in Aberdeen more than 20 years ago (easily searchable online). The minister has since said that the experience taught him that striking is not the solution. Other headteachers focused their

comments on Mr Gove’s also now infamous letter to them before the strike, stressing their “moral duty” to remain open. One described it as “interesting”, while others clearly felt distinctly patronised. All in all, the headteachers

SecEd spoke to, while not wel- coming the disruption to learning, supported their teachers. And this is not surprising, for headteachers are as angry as any about the plans. Indeed, unless a compromise can be reached in the ongoing nego- tiations, many school leaders may find themselves on picket lines in the autumn, standing shoulder to shoulder with their staff.

slogans, singing songs, waving flags, smiling and cheering. Many of the teachers on strike were women with young families (who will be hit the hardest). But there were also lots of older teachers, saying that they couldn’t go on much longer, and certainly wouldn’t advise anyone to teach into their 60s. At the start of the rally there were speeches from the main teaching unions. There were reporters,

photographers and film crews covering the event for the local news. Half the schools in Cambridge were shut, as a result there were lots of kids out and about. During the march they waved at their teachers and were supportive. The march brought traffic to a halt, but none of the drivers seemed to mind either. On Friday it was like nothing really happened. I read most of the media reports, and on the whole wasn’t too

shocked. I’ve got used to people making ‘comments’ and as usual there were some claims that we do no work and how dare we strike and receive a pension. What I really care about is whether the strike results in any change within the government. I suspect at the moment it won’t, but judging by the turnout and support, if there are more strikes in the future, the government may have to listen.”

• Paul Haigh is an NQT who teaches science at a secondary school in Hertfordshire.

SecEd • July 7 2011


Photo: Lucie Carlier

Photo: Paul Haigh

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