Never forget: we're all in it together

16th December 2011 at 00:00
The pensions dispute threatens collegiality, says David Tickner

Something was damaged in the teaching profession earlier this year: collegiality. On 30 June, the first day of industrial action in the current pensions dispute between teaching unions and the Government, some teachers either didn't turn up at school or refused to cover for colleagues. Others clocked in and did what they could to maintain "normal service".

We seek to make our schools safe havens for young people, free from the challenges they can sometimes face beyond the school gates, but we should also protect them from the immediate fallout of adult political dispute. Schools should not be disrupted by what is fast becoming an old-school, politically motivated conflict - left-wing unions against the free-market Government to the right.

Education, or at least education policy, is inherently political. That is inescapable. It is one of the reasons I teach in the independent sector, where educational decisions can be made, to a greater degree, by education professionals.

The differences teachers make to individual lives and to society must be rewarded appropriately, both in service and in retirement, but the act of taking industrial action cannot be contained within an ideological vacuum. It creates immediate and practical difficulties for children, parents, colleagues and schools. Equally, pension provision, pay and conditions all have to be grounded in economic reality.

The industrial action in June was extremely uncomfortable. In 18 years as a teacher and latterly a deputy head, I had not experienced such strong divisions among staff and between staff and management. There have always been grumbles and disagreements, and over the years I had done more than my fair share of moaning, but I wasn't prepared for this level of hushed concerting in corners of the staffroom.

Despite media representations, on the whole schools and teachers face relatively few issues that are black or white. There are usually plenty of complex shades of grey in between. While there is much complexity in the current dispute, ultimately the taking of industrial action comes down to whether you do or you don't. A decision reveals a position with which others will either agree or disagree.

Striking and refusing to cover for striking colleagues divides staffrooms into those teachers who do and those who don't. There is no in-between. It polarises some staff from heads and leadership teams, as they seek to preserve the continuity of pupils' education and protect their school's reputation both educationally and, in the independent sector, commercially.

I remember the awkwardness in the staffroom when service was resumed on the morning after the industrial action. There was unspoken disagreement and tension. Professionalism, the demands of busy school life and the imminence of a long summer holiday meant the hatchet was buried quickly, but in recent weeks divisions have resurfaced more strongly.

Whatever the outcome of the current dispute between teaching unions and the Government, I hope it can be achieved not just satisfactorily, but also quickly, to prevent further damage to the collegiality that has always been so valuable in the teaching profession.

David Tickner is deputy head of Newcastle School for Boys. The views expressed here are personal.

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