Protesters have debased teachers' status and solidarity

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
Dr Richard Willis fears the strike has damaged the reputation of the profession
Dr Richard Willis fears the strike has damaged the reputation of the profession.

Research indicates that teachers experience deep identity confusion and crisis. The strike last week adds to such weaknesses, and serves only to debase the status and solidarity of the teaching profession.

The pay deal offered by the Government is, it seems, unattractive - an average of about 2.35 per cent. But of the members of the National Union of Teachers who were balloted, most either voted against the strike or did not return their ballot forms. Democratically, the strike therefore is not justified and nullifies the efforts made to promote teacher professionalism, such as the introduction of the General Teaching Council (GTC).

Strikes by teachers have been with us for well over 100 years. In his book, Teacher Militancy, Roger Seifert provides a lot of data on the history of strikes. He shows that the first recorded strike by teachers in England took place in Portsmouth in 1896.

This action concerned pay, but the main issue was about the unfair dismissal of four certificated assistant teachers who were sacked for failing to arrive at school at the agreed starting time of 7.55am. The NUT backed the teachers and was successful in its campaign to negotiate a settlement. The NUT went on to support a number of strikes in the 20th century.

More than 90 years later, the union was induced to strike again because of its dissatisfaction with Kenneth Baker's Teachers' Pay and Conditions Act, which abolished free collective bargaining for staff in England and Wales. The strikes started on March 11, 1987 - 82,000 teachers in 15 local authorities held a half-day strike.

But times have changed. In 1987, the Government had abolished hard-fought rights and institutions in one fell swoop. The case for the current impasse is not nearly as strong: whether it is worth quibbling over a few extra pounds a week is open to debate.

If the average teacher now earns pound;33,000, why not turn attention back to the abolition of the 10p tax band, which still leaves many low earners in virtual poverty?

To make matters worse, workers in local government, the health service, the civil service and others, as well as teachers, appear to be set for a wave of industrial unrest this summer.

The GTC together with the Government must regret the sorry state of education and the unrest which is rife in our schools.

The writer is an historian at Roehampton's centre for research in education policy and professionalism.

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