Despairing of the government changing its tune, the National Education Union is asking its members to consider strike action. Mary Bousted has argued that "enough is enough" and that it is "time to make a stand". Kevin Courtney argues that the NEU has “taken every other step that it can think of”. Has it, though? Maybe, there is a better form of industrial action.
Think of where we are at present. Who is indisputably winning all the arguments over funding, pay and staffing at the moment? Public concern over these issues has been growing all the time. Parents have seen, at their own children’s schools, many of the consequences. Mounting public sympathy and support has surely been helped by the fact that teachers have not gone on strike.
Instead, teachers’ unions and headteachers have presented the situation strongly, fairly and dispassionately. A banner held by one set of headteachers on their recent march in London summed up the tone: “Oxfordshire heads – relentlessly reasonable.”
Admittedly, this has not yet led to any tangible change in government attitude, but if teachers go on strike I think that we would lose much of the high ground won. We would inconvenience and antagonise large numbers of parents and we would give this increasingly devious government the lifeline they so desperately seek.
At the moment, the government has nowhere to go. All they can do on school funding is lie desperately and become increasingly exposed when so doing – as with those ridiculous statements made by schools minister Nick Gibb and the chancellor Philip Hammond. But if teachers strike we give these people their chance to fight back. Out will come the usual default misrepresentations. As before, teachers will be depicted as “selfish”, “unprofessional” and there will come the especially weasel-like “it’s the children who suffer”. (With due apologies to weasels.)
So I think a new form of industrial action needs to take place if teachers want to make that stand and move things forward. Earlier this year, for instance, the bus-drivers of Okayama in Japan "struck" by carrying on working but not charging their passengers any fares. The action received worldwide attention and support.
We cannot do quite that, but we could similarly carry on working as normal on a nominated “strike” day, without pay. Or, if that presents too many legal problems, perhaps donating all our pay that day to our cash-strapped schools or some other worthy charities. It is all about shaming.
As with most teachers, I can’t really afford to work for nothing (though we often do, I know), but the day's pay would, of course, be docked anyway if we went on strike. Think of the far more powerful and meaningful message a day of working without pay would send to pupils, public, press and prime ministers alike. It's just my view, obviously, but maybe this kind of protest has far more chance of seriously grabbing hearts and minds than the disrupting or closing down of schools for a day?
It would be an immense way of demonstrating genuine anger, resolve and unity. Even the teachers who never strike might feel that they could support this form of industrial action. It would also take away all those deceitful arguments a government tries to hide behind whenever teachers strike. What could they possibly say in response to this kind of mass, heart-felt protest? All that they would be left with would be their lies and their shame.
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire