“I think I’ve got tinnitus,” shouted an NASUWT employee as thousands of teachers made their way past the Department for Education this afternoon. Given the ear-splitting din of whistles, boos and chants which erupted as the march arrived outside the nerve centre of education secretary Michael Gove’s controversial school reforms, he probably wasn’t alone.
As the latest phase in the NUT and NASUWT’s long-running campaign of industrial action over pay, pensions and working conditions, today was the day for union members in London, the South West, South East, North East and Cumbria to finally go on strike.
Official figures from the DfE revealed that just 27 per cent of schools in affected areas were fully closed, although it did not disclose how many were partially shut. The thousands of teachers who marched through London today, however, certainly made sure their voices were heard by the civil servants inside the Department, several of whom could be seen taking photos from the uppers floors of Sanctuary Buildings as the seething mass of protesters passed by.
Not surprisingly, Mr Gove was nowhere to be seen. Admittedly, the education secretary had a good excuse: he was due to be speaking at a conference in Massachusetts.
But the more eagle-eyed marchers were at least able to catch a glimpse of another bête noire of the Left – Toby Young, the controversial figurehead for the free school movement – who could be seen, safely inside the Department, observing proceedings through a window.
Despite a heavy police presence along the route of the march, there was never any real risk that a profession which spends its days managing the behaviour of the nation’s youth was going to let its moment in the media spotlight go the way of the student tuition fee protests of 2010.
Indeed, the march had a distinctly carnival-esque atmosphere. Drivers of buses and even a cement mixer honked their support for the teachers. Plenty of strikers had clearly decided to make the event into a family day out, marching with toddlers, pushchairs and even dogs.
A number of home-made placards were proudly carried through the capital’s streets, bearing slogans such as “Ofsted say I’m outstanding. Will I be at 67?” and “Finish at 3.30? Take no work home? Er… no!”
As well as the predictable chants of “Gove must go”, marchers were treated to some more tuneful flourishes. A small group of teachers – equipped with printed song sheets – performed the union anthem Solidarity Forever, but more unexpected entertainment was provided by a lone bagpiper and a rousing vocal rendition of Joy Division’s 1979 hit single, imaginatively adapted to Gove Will Tear Us Apart. Outside the DfE, a large group of teachers even began dancing and bouncing along to the chant “Hey (hey)! Ho (ho)! Michael Gove has got to go!”
But it was one of the quietest protests of the day which spoke volumes about the depth of anger towards the government felt by the striking teachers. One smartly-dressed, middle-aged teacher walked silently past the DfE HQ, stubbornly refusing to directly look at it, but succinctly expressing his scorn through a middle-fingered salute in the building’s direction.