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Graham Stuart MP: All that a teachers' strike will achieve is cancelled lessons and closed schools

Graham Stuart is the MP for Beverley and Holderness, and the Chairman of the Education Select Committee.  Follow Graham on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-06-27 at 12.22.26Today, north-west England is being hit by a teaching strike called by Britain’s two largest teaching unions, the National Union of Teachers and the NASUWT.  Over 2500 schools will be affected in 22 local council areas across Cheshire, Lancashire and Merseyside.  This is the first in a series of regional strikes that the unions plan to hold between now and the autumn half-term, culminating in a planned national strike before Christmas.  These walkouts will cause enormous disruption for both pupils and parents, as lessons are cancelled and schools are closed.

The unions are protesting about reforms to their pay, pensions and working conditions.   The NASUWT’s general secretary, Chris Keates, warns of a “relentless attack” on her profession.  But do these claims really hold water?

It is time to look at the facts.  Take pay.  Understandably, the unions protest about pay restraint.  Yet, the OECD has revealed English secondary school teachers are paid 9 per cent more than similarly educated workers in other professions.  Meanwhile, official statistics show that in the first three months of this year, public sector pay rose by 1.4 per cent - whereas private sector pay did not rise at all.  This comes against a backdrop of the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculating that public sector pay is on average 8.3 per cent higher than pay in the private sector.  During what is a difficult time for people in all walks of life, teachers don’t have it so bad.

Next, take pensions.  The cost of public sector pensions has risen by a third over the last decade, to around £32 billion.  This is being driven by rapid increases in life expectancy –  every four years, this rises by a year.  People can now expect to spend 40-45 per cent of their adult lives in retirement, compared to 33 per cent in the 1980s.   It’s great that people are living longer.  However, for the system to cope, it is only sensible people should both save more and retire a little later.

The Government has taken care to ensure its reforms are fair: those on low pay and those close to retirement are not facing any changes.  Meanwhile, teachers will continue to get a great deal.  Even after the changes, the Pensions Policy Institute recently calculated that contributions to the teachers' pension scheme will be worth twice as much as a percentage of their salary as those the average private sector worker receives from their employer under a defined contribution scheme.

Finally, working conditions.  Ministers are committed to raising the status of the profession.  Teachers now have greater powers to crack down on bad behaviour in the classroom – and are protected against malicious allegations by new rules guaranteeing anonymity unless and until charges are brought.  The Government is providing funding to triple the size of the Teach First scheme, to get more high quality graduates into challenging schools.

Crucially, it is permitting performance-related pay, to allow schools to reward and retain their best staff.  Making this work will not necessarily be easy – but for the unions to oppose the principle that exceptional work should ever be rewarded would appear peculiar to people working in most other professions.  The unions, however, may be right to suggest that there is some inconsistency in allowing academies to hire teachers with no qualifications, while at the same time restricting funding for the PGCE to those with 2:2 degrees or better.  Still, there is more for teachers to welcome than to fear about these changes.

Most people find militancy by the teaching unions hard to understand.  Polling by YouGov in February found only 32 per cent of people would support teachers striking over the introduction of performance-related pay (with 53 per cent opposed).  This mirrored the numbers that YouGov found would support strike action by teachers over the wider question of their pay and conditions when the company polled on this last summer.

This lack of public support is reflected in the weak mandate that the unions have from their members. Although 83 per cent of those voting in the NUT ballot backed strike action, low turnout meant only 22 per cent of their members actually voted to strike, or just over 50,000 from a total membership of 228,831.  Likewise, just 33 per cent of NASUWT members voted for the strikes.  This may reflect weariness among union members, tiring of their leadership’s grandstanding after a series of strikes in recent years.

The teaching unions themselves are disunited.   Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the third-largest teachers’ union, the ATL, has warned: “we don’t live in a fantasy union world where you can reject a deal with impunity”.  Regarding the coming set of strikes, she says, “we don’t have any evidence this is what [our members] require.”

Yet, sadly, the leadership of the NUT and the NASUWT seem determined to have a fight.  They appear not to share their members’ concerns about the consequences of losing pay in order to strike.  Cynics would point out that the NUT's Christine Blower receives one of the most generous pay and pension packages of any trade union leader, worth £142,000, while Chris Keates is not far behind on almost £130,000.   I fear Mrs Blower - who says her politics “are to the left of Old Labour” – has stumbled into a political stand-off against a reforming Government she implacably opposes.

They say generals always prepare for the last war.  Some teachers’ leaders seem to want to refight the battles of the 1980s.  Teachers considering strike action in the months ahead should question whose values they are being asked to fight for.  Are they fighting for a profession that is financially sustainable, rewards success and enjoys higher public standing?  Or are they fighting for a narrow, sectional interest, and an agenda that is both hostile to reform and deeply unaffordable?  In short, are they fighting for their ideals – or someone else’s ideology?


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