'I love my college job – that's why I'm on strike'

Lack of funding, increased workload and stress - sixth-form colleges urgently need investment, says this teacher

Sixth-form college strikes: teacher Niamh Sweeney explains why she is going on strike

I’ve taught 16-to 19-year-olds for nearly 20 years.

I love it. It’s hard work, teenagers can be hard work, and keeping up to date with the changing demands of the curriculum can be hard work. But I love it.

Working in a sixth-form college is an absolute privilege. Every year my students achieve fantastic successes in A levels and applied general courses. I witness them growing and developing into caring, thoughtful, inspiring young people. They leave us full of confidence for the future that they will study to become society’s future mental health nurses, social workers, teachers, police officers and midwives.


Background: Sixth-form college staff strike over pay and conditions

More: Sixth-form deficits 'unsustainable' after 26% funding cut

Opinion: How flaws in post-16 policy damage our young people


That’s why I’m striking.

Sixth-form college funding crisis

I’m striking because in my 20 years of teaching, as I have become more experienced, more skilled and effective as a teacher, my job has become harder.

Changes to the school and GCSE curriculum means my students often arrive at college with a negative view of education. Even if they have achieved great results at GCSE, they are often burnt-out and physically exhausted from the exam factory rote-learning system.

Because of funding cuts, my classes are bigger. I have less time with my students, as teaching hours for each course have been reduced. More teaching crammed into fewer hours, in rooms not necessarily suitable for 25 growing teenagers.

When I started teaching we had excellent additional support for students with anxiety, dyslexia or other additional needs. We do our best to support these young people, but as external support services are cut and thresholds for accessing targeted support increase, those who need the most help and support are suffering the most.

We have fewer support staff, fewer administrators. When staff leave they aren’t replaced, or they are replaced on shorter hours. The college is doing everything it can to ensure that students don’t feel the impact. The jobs still need doing. Workload is increasing.

That’s why I’m striking.

Teacher workload and mental health

Teaching is not a 9am to 3.30pm job and I am not afraid of hard work. But working 50 to 60 hours a week is becoming the norm, and even then the work is never done. There is always more that could be done.

Increased workload is causing increased stress and anxiety for college staff. It impacts on my mental health, my family and my relationships. Twelve weeks into the term and I am exhausted. My colleagues are exhausted.

That’s why I’m striking.

I’ll be at college tomorrow at 7.30am, the time I usually arrive. But instead of getting some marking or planning done, I’ll be on the picket line with my colleagues.

Many of my colleagues have never taken strike action before. “This is different,” they say. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to save the sixth-form college sector and give future generations of 16-year-olds the start in life and success they deserve.

I’m striking to make sure that the next government commits to giving our colleges and our young people the £700 million that we need to fund our sixth-form college sector.

Politicians call sixth-form colleges the jewel in the crown of the education sector. Well, it’s time they put their money where their mouth is. You don’t get jewels on the cheap. 

That’s why I’m striking.

Niamh Sweeney is a teacher of health and social care and criminology at Long Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge

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