Tens of thousands of classrooms across England and Wales were deserted today, as the National Union of Teachers (NUT) held its fifth strike since the government came to power.
It was, however, the first time the union has taken action alone, after NASUWT decided against taking part.
Not surprisingly, the Department for Education (DfE) was quick to point out that just 12 per cent of schools were fully closed by the action over pay, pensions and working conditions, “by far the lowest level of support for any national teachers’ strike” since 2010.
Thousands more schools, however, were partly closed for the day, with general secretary Christine Blower describing the turnout among its members as “fantastic”.
More than 11,000 of them took the streets of London for the union’s largest march, one of more than 30 gatherings across the country.
The “teachers together” insignia, ubiquitous during the joint union regional strikes last year because of the joint campaign with the NASUWT, was conspicuous by its absence. Instead, the most popular accessory among London marchers was Socialist Worker “Gove out: Strike to save education” placards.
But, with teachers never being averse to getting creative with a pair of scissors and coloured pens, there were plenty more imaginative banners on show.
One, featuring a furry blue character named Michael Grover, pleaded “Don’t let education be run by muppets”. Another, referencing the education secretary’s spat with former Blackadder actor Tony Robinson over the teaching of the First World War, pictured Michael Gove alongside Baldrick, observing: “Both of them have a cunning plan… but only one of them is destroying education”.
Teachers of all ages took part in the London march. Clearly NUT members were not immune to concerns about the childcare implications of the strike, with many taking their offspring out with them. One young girl got into the spirit of the event, brandishing a “Love teachers, hate Gove” sign.
The reaction from shoppers as the march processed down Regent Street ranged from nervous inquisitiveness to warm applause. Lorry drivers who honked their support were roundly cheered. A teacher on a school trip with a group of fluorescent tabard-wearing pupils shouted “Solidarity, comrades!” from the pavement.
But while the NUT was keen to stress that going on strike, not to mention losing a day’s pay, was a last resort for its members, those taking action were clearly keen to make the most of their big day out. Several teachers failed to make it to the rally at Westminster’s Methodist Central Hall, preferring instead to enjoy a pint of lager outside the nearby Westminster Arms.
The atmosphere, a curious mixture of anger, celebration and defiance, also pervaded inside the hall. One of the speakers, Jennie Harper, a primary teacher from Croydon, took to the stage wearing a bright green tutu with matching socks, hat and feather boa. “However unusual I look today,” she told the audience, “I am still not as ridiculous as some of Mr Gove’s ideas and reforms.”
She went on to articulate the feelings of many of her co-strikers when she said: “I am on strike today because I care. I care about the children I teach, and I do not want them to be abused by a government who sees education as a way to label, punish and restrict the life chances of children as young as four.”
Another primary school teacher, Jo Hauxwell, spoke about the workload pressures, which she said had increased significantly under the current government.
“There are several tasks I do as a teacher where I wonder, who am I doing it for? [How] are the children benefiting from this? I feel the word ‘teacher’ doesn’t actually mean [teacher] any more; it means admin, organiser, data inputter. Doesn’t Michael Gove see a problem with this?”
Pressures from exam results and Ofsted meant had created an “untrusting working environment where I feel I cannot reach my full potential”, she added.
To illustrate the point, Ms Blower told the audience about a group of teachers from Mount Carmel College in Islington who made an early exit from the march after receiving a text informing them that Ofsted would be arriving at their school tomorrow.
And the strike looks unlikely to mark the end of the NUT’s ongoing campaign of industrial action.
Alex Kenny, secretary of the union’s Tower Hamlets branch, gave a blunt warning to Mr Gove: “We say to you today: listen, talk and negotiate, or there will be more strike action by the NUT.”
Despite the NUT's efforts, however, it seems unlikely that today's action will have any impact on Mr Gove, who has repeatedly stressed that the "direction of travel" in his education reforms is "fixed".
A DfE spokeswoman said: "Parents will struggle to understand why the NUT is striking over the government's measures to let heads pay good teachers more. They called for talks to avoid industrial action, we agreed to their request, and talks have been taking place weekly. Despite this — and without the support of any of the other six unions engaged in the talks — the NUT has today taken industrial action.
"While the impact in many schools has been negligible, it has disrupted parents' lives, held back children's education and damaged the reputation of the profession.”
Despite negative coverage of the disruption caused by the action, the union has argued that it has received a more positive reaction from many parents. This follows a concerted push to engage with the public at large in recent weeks. Union members have set up stalls in town and city centres across the country to explain the reasons for their action.
Primary school teacher Emma Ann Hardy, vice-president of the NUT’s East Riding of Yorkshire division, manned a stall in Beverley on Saturday. “The overwhelming feeling was one of support for teachers,” she said. “One comment from a parent was that it had all ‘gone too far’. I'm very proud of the NUT for doing this, and it's good to know how parents are feeling. You are never isolated when you have the public behind you.”