By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
We used to use the word ‘unprecedented’ a lot during the Covid crisis – until the unfamiliar became dispiritingly familiar.
And here we are again with a situation that will be unprecedented for many school leaders – a national teacher strike on Wednesday, with further dates regionally and nationally in late February and March.
As so often, the situation isn’t straightforward. The strike action involves members of the National Education Union, not other unions (at this stage), and school leaders find themselves having to take a crash course in the esoteric complexities of industrial relations law.
They have to understand who can be asked to do what, work out what provision they can put on based on their risk-assessments, communicate their plans with parents clamouring to know if they need to arrange childcare, maintain good relations with striking and non-striking colleagues, keep their governors informed and reassured, and manage the myriad practical implications that next week holds in store. These include everything from where might a picket line be located, to how to ensure the necessary provision of free school meals.
And as if that wasn’t enough, we have a bumbling government which is doggedly clinging on to the formula that public sector pay demands will fuel inflation. This assertion really doesn’t make sense given that inflation has been driven by soaring energy costs.
Plus, as ever, there’s the easy anti-union stuff that is dutifully aided and abetted by right-wing newspapers and commentators who are slavering to get stuck into a bit of teacher – and leader – bashing.
Beneath all of this, leaders are only too aware of the dire situation which has triggered the strike – years of pay erosion; deteriorating conditions caused by a toxic combination of accountability, lack of funding, and workload; plummeting morale – and the ongoing recruitment and retention crisis which this has caused and which is inflicting educational damage every day of every week.
Leaders will feel huge sympathy with their staff who are struggling with the cost of living, as well as frustration in trying to recruit and retain enough qualified people to actually teach their pupils.
So, what do you do when you are well and truly stuck in the middle of a dispute which is at the top of the national news agenda?
In this context, keeping calm and carrying on won’t be enough. Instead, having spoken to dozens of school leaders over the past few days and weeks, here are a few thoughts, on what I’m seeing. It’s a quiet testament to their leadership.
1. Focus on what’s possible
Like any other challenge in education, there are processes to follow, practicalities to manage, logistical decisions to be made, and messages to be communicated. School and college leaders are generally very good at this, and making sensible, logical and deliverable plans for Wednesday. You should have confidence in what you are doing and not allow yourself to be spooked by shouty newspaper headlines, politicians and commentators who don’t know what they are talking about.
2. Look to the future
Most leaders are, quite rightly, playing the long game, conscious that Wednesday is but one day, and maintaining good relations with and between staff and unions is for always. The last thing anyone wants or needs is to create a toxic legacy from this dispute. Keeping things cordial is going to pay longer term dividends.
3. Talk about the ‘why’
This is not a dispute of any of our making. Leaders should continue to make a strong and principled case for action of some sort to address the underlying cause of the dispute – the recruitment and retention crisis which is in danger of undermining educational provision and standards. As James Kirkup recently wrote in the Times:
“Twenty years ago, Britain devoted the same share of national wealth to education as to healthcare. Today total health spending is roughly double the education budget. Voters don’t seem to mind, or notice. The Ipsos Issues Index, a polling barometer of public concerns, recently found that just 8 per cent of the public considered education a high priority. That’s the lowest since 1984.”
Talking about the ‘why’ of this dispute is about redressing that imbalance. It’s about making education matter again.
4. Speak beyond the echo chamber
As leaders, we mustn’t be afraid to tell MPs, parents and the wider public about the huge and unsustainable pressure on the education system. Government action to deal with this crisis would not only resolve the industrial dispute, but greatly improve the capacity of schools to deliver good outcomes for children.
Yes, we’ll hear plenty from government ministers, backbenchers and sympathetic media commentators about the disruption caused by strikes. We need parents to see that – however we do it – if we aren’t fighting for a qualified teacher for every child in every classroom, who is? We need to take parents with us in the way we articulate this.
5. Cling on to optimism
And on that last point, and by way of conclusion, the next strike date after Wednesday’s action is not until regional action on 28 February, and the next national strike not until mid-March, so there is a window of opportunity for the government to resolve this dispute. All the trade unions – those who are engaged in action and those who aren’t – see the end-game as improving education for the nation’s young people, not a continuation of the dispute
Talks between ministers, officials and union representatives, have been – in the language of these things – constructive. But there are, as yet, no firm proposals on the table. It would be unforgiveable if the government, with all the resources at its disposal, cannot settle this before the end of February, and avert more industrial action.
So, next week will serve up something which for many of the leaders of our schools and colleges will be unprecedented. It will test both you and your colleagues across your leadership team.
But as the ancient poem teaches us: “These things shall pass.”
And our hope must be that when we look back on the next few days or weeks or months, we’ll see them as something of a turning-point: the time when, with our help, education began to matter once more.