9 February 2023

Why are teachers really striking?


Last week’s teacher strike saw over half of schools closed to some or all of their pupils. It also allowed those on picket lines and marches to provide journalists with a steady supply of anecdotes about how bad things are in schools. Most were at pains to explain that they weren’t simply striking about higher pay for themselves – heaven forbid – but a whole range of things: funding, excessive workload, pupil misbehaviour, teacher shortages, lack of classroom resources, mental health support waiting lists, and so on.

They probably felt this strengthened their case, but I couldn’t help noticing that many of these issues are not problems of funding, but leadership.

After all, headteachers in England have more autonomy over how they run their schools than virtually anywhere else. We rightly reward them handsomely for this. If pupil behaviour is poor, or staff feel unsupported, or they are doing pointless work, or they are tied up in lots of meetings – this is down to decisions made at the school or trust level, not something imposed by the Government.

Also, heavy workloads are not a new phenomenon that only started in 2010.

There is no doubt that in the past government policies, or practices encouraged by Ofsted, did place unnecessary burdens on teachers. But serious and effective moves to address this have been taken in recent years: the 2019 teacher workload survey found that the number of hours worked overall had fallen, and for primary teachers it had come down by over five hours a week compared to 2016.

Obviously Covid made everything a lot harder – and we shouldn’t pretend that workload wasn’t or isn’t still a challenge – but previous improvements show what is possible when Heads and trust leaders take it seriously.

So if the Government isn’t entirely to blame for workload issues, what about teacher recruitment and retention?

Well, there has certainly been plenty of commentary blaming the Tories, like this from Mary Bousted of the NEU:

‘The Government has short-changed them for over a decade, with significant real-terms cuts to pay and persistently unfunded rises which schools cannot afford… The legacy is all too clear, with schools having to cut services to the bone and a recruitment and retention crisis that is a detriment to children’s education every single day.’

There are a couple of big problems with this.

First of all, teacher vacancies are a global challenge with varied and complex causes. It’s hard to find a country that isn’t struggling to recruit all the teachers it needs. Last time I checked the Tories weren’t in charge of schools in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Nor, unless I’ve missed something, are Conservatives running the show in Australia, Canada, France, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Netherlands, New Zealand, or Peru.

Secondly, overall teacher numbers in England are holding up and have managed to grow in line with the pupil population over the last decade. Indeed, at primary the number of pupils per teacher (the ‘pupil-to-teacher ratio’, or PTR) has gone down recently, as teacher numbers have risen faster than pupil numbers.

And the mass exodus of teachers that unions have been warning about forever? It hasn’t happened. Retention rates are comparable with other public services, and while there was a slight fall in the proportion of older teachers a decade ago, some think this was linked to the generous pensions and rising property prices the boomer generation enjoyed, not teaching itself. (Regardless, it’s since reversed somewhat.)

This is not to say that all is sunshine and roses in our schools – it definitely isn’t – but it’s just as false to claim education is a total disaster and it’s all the fault of this government.

When I entered teaching 20 years ago it was tough to find maths, physics and languages teachers. It’s even tougher now, but we still do pretty well in recruiting English, history and primary specialists. And we mustn’t forget that the competition for talent is not unique to teaching: the whole labour market is very tight.

The good news is that we know the kind of things that encourage people to enter teaching and stay there.

Away from the headlines the Government has been implementing a comprehensive (union-endorsed) ‘recruitment and retention’ plan backed by a serious cash investment. It’s why, among other things, the starting salary for the profession is being bumped up to £30,000, teacher training and development is being completely reformed, and accountability pressures addressed.

But there is much more to be done. It’s not enough just to have the right number of adults in front of kids – they need to be properly qualified, effectively trained, and feel fully supported by Heads. They need to be deployed more effectively too, which means fewer standalone schools and more in multi-academy trusts sharing teachers and resources.

But by constantly telling the world how bad things in schools are, the unions aren’t just misleading people: they’re undermining the good work that many of their members are doing on the frontline, and making their lives harder by discouraging new people from joining what is, ultimately, an incredibly rewarding profession.

So if there are more strikes I hope that picketers and marchers think carefully about the stories they tell journalists about their working conditions – children are depending on them to be honest.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.