NUT strike: is it decisive or divisive?

11th April 2008 at 01:00

Nigel Utton, Headteacher of a CofE Primary School in the South of England.

When I became a headteacher, colleagues asked me if I would be leaving the NUT. My answer was a resounding 'No'. I fundamentally support the idea of one union for all teachers. Having six unions arguing from different viewpoints has contributed to the reduction in social status and financial reward enjoyed by teachers over the past decades.

Successive governments have launched negative and unconstructive campaigns against the educational system in general and teachers in particular. At a recent conference in Germany, I found that colleagues from the rest of Europe were horrified at the punitive and critical approach to school improvement which we have had to suffer in England.

Teachers continue to be demonised as the cause of social ills over which we have no control. Little credit is given to the wonderful work done by teachers up and down the country in educating an exciting and talented generation of young people.

The NUT's recent ballot of members is the result of several decades of disillusion and shoddy treatment from governments of both major parties. Many of us retain the enthusiasm and passion for this exciting and challenging job - but it is hard when our standard of living falls year on year.

During three years as head of a small primary school I have lost two talented early entrant teachers due to their disillusion with the direction of the education system. Oscar Wilde would no doubt have called that "careless". In fact, I care very much about the drain of talent.

New teachers I talk to cite the punitive Ofsted regime, and the lack of status and professional respect, as reasons for wanting to leave. A colleague told me one of his good teachers only caught up with his pre-teaching salary three years into the profession - as a father with young children he decided to leave altogether. International comparisons tell us that English children are unhappy children. Politicians have interfered with our education system to the detriment of the learning and enjoyment of young people. For that situation to improve we have to attract the highest quality graduates into the profession - and, most importantly, we need to keep them there.

I support the NUT strike because it will go some way to telling the Government, and raising awareness among the public, that teachers have had enough. It is a shame that many children will be losing a day's education, but I think that is a small price to pay for the future of education.

Teachers should be valued members of society, with high status and concomitant salary. If Ed Balls is truly as positive about educational improvement as he purports to be, then he needs to start treating his teachers with more respect, and reward us competitively for the work we do. The Government and society at large need to value our commitment to the education of future generations. After all, it is the children who we are teaching today who will be paying your pensions in the future.

- Nigel Utton is chair of Heading for Inclusion, a group of headteachers and senior school leaders dedicated to the ideals of a fully inclusive mainstream education system.


Hilary Wilce, Parent, education journalist and author.

When I hear that teachers are planning to strike again I want to jump up and say, like Amy Winehouse, "No, no, no!" Not because I don't want them to be paid more. I do. Not because I don't want them to flex their professional muscles. I wish to goodness they would do far more of that.

I don't want them to strike because I am old enough to remember the last time around, and the long tail of damage and disruption that the strikes of the 1980s left in their wake. At that time, my children were in primary school in London, and day after day, or so it seemed, schools would close and working parents would have to take days off, or make complicated arrangements to cater for them. An awful lot of parents had no sympathy at all for the teachers' case. They couldn't see beyond their own disrupted lives.

Others quickly lost what sympathy they had as they saw how much school time their children were missing. I clearly remember the resentful mutterings about how "it isn't the poor kiddies' fault, is it?"

In school itself, a new atmosphere imposed itself. Teachers, in defensive mode, felt aggrieved and beleaguered. Parents were angry and did not always bother to hide it. Lots of goodwill was lost, and the children themselves began to sense the bad atmosphere and become more difficult.

School, in short, had turned into an unpleasant battleground, and I was mighty relieved to have the chance of escaping from it to suburban America where - what novelty - teachers and parents seemed to be on the same side, working for the children. I believe that this is exactly where we are now in this country.

Over the past decade or so, teachers have rebuilt a strong public image, and sympathy seems to be increasingly on their side as they protest against the stranglehold of tests and targets. By-and-large (nothing is ever perfect) when today's parents go in and out of schools they find well-trained, confident staff working in bright, lively classrooms. Parents are appreciative of the many activities that schools run, and welcome the willingness with which teachers talk to them about their children's progress. And, unlike the Government, parents have a clear understanding that test results alone are no measure of a good education, and that the increasingly bad behaviour of some pupils is not the fault of teachers, but something that makes their working lives hell.

In short, teachers' stock has risen and is still rising. They have gained hard-won respect. All this could be thrown out with a strike - or, when one strike does not work, presumably many more - and the lesson of history is that, once these things are lost, it takes many years to build them up again.

Hilary Wilce's book 'Help Your Child Succeed at School' is a manual for parents.

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