Opinion Piece – Why teachers were on strike

January 23, 2017

Contributed by Oliver Short

There is a perception that when teachers go on industrial action they do so because they just want more money. This is not solely the case as Wednesday’s half day strike (the 4th only in my 35 years teaching) was a protest against education cut backs, wages and increasing work demands. The action was a stand for our communities, for our parents and for those who have no speech – our pupils.

This is an opportunity to readdress many misperceptions we all have about our educational system. All of us have been to school; some have fond memories and some of us with less than fond recollections. However, what can be agreed on is the way we want our children to experience their school days, to gain as much from those days with a valued workforce. For our children to feel valued and our teachers valued also.

Before going into the minutiae of the half day strike, it is important to dispel some myths and misperceptions some of us may have about the teaching profession. All teachers, whether they are in Primary, Secondary or Grammar school have similar qualifications and are paid on entry the same gross basic wage of £22,243 and do not get overtime, travel or any other allowances. Teachers after 35 years may be on the same wage as a teacher of nine years. A small increase in wages is obtained by accepting a post of responsibility (e.g. Year Head, Head of Dept, Literacy coordinator) however some schools do not pay for posts of responsibility and teachers are expected to do these duties nonetheless. In contrast our Stormont politician’s starting basic MLA’s gross pay has recently increased by another £1,000 to £49,000 and that does not include travel, phone and other expenses they can claim, and from this year they will get an automatic £500 increase each year.

All Primary schools follow a similar curriculum and all Secondary school whether non Grammar or Grammar do exactly the same GCSE and A’ Level qualifications. Teachers in Grammar schools have similar qualifications as all other Primary or Secondary teachers.

There are tremendous advantages in being a teacher that made me want to continue it for 35 years until I entered redundancy. Yes, it needs to be said that the months of July and August were an obvious advantage, but even these sacred months are now being eroded by Summer School courses and early August returns to number crunch, data analyse and prepare for the ever changing demands of the curriculum. What however is never brought up or publically said is the unpaid duties and time that teachers spend on the school shows, preparation for sacraments, music lessons, after school and Saturday sports and music events, extra classes for pupils that need assistance. The list is endless and in the main appreciated by our communities. While being a teacher I too was a parent and I will always be grateful to those teachers who prepared my children for the sacraments, who listened to their and my anxieties, who patched wounded knees, who acted as peace makers and confidants, who taught with mixed success a variety of musical instruments and how to kick a ball. The list of unpaid duties that those teachers gave to my own children was endless. Times have changed since I went to school as a pupil.

Teachers belong to various teaching Unions and some belong to none. In our area the majority of teachers belong to the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) and the majority of these union members were on half day unpaid industrial action. There were picket lines at many schools and teachers returned to work for the afternoon session.

I was asked by a parent and friend did I think the teachers industrial action would gain anything. It’s a question that was easy to answer, as to do nothing would be to agree that education cuts were appropriate, that class sizes would increase to 34,  that small community schools would close and that  it was acceptable to demoralise present and future teachers. I left main stream teaching after 35 years and it would be easy to walk away from my community and profession and do nothing, but I was privileged to teach in my community. As the recent Chair of the INTO Newry Branch I felt that I should speak for the present and future teachers rather than remain silent. To do nothing is to accept what is happening to the education of our communities.

Surely none of us who are parents want our children to be taught in overcrowded cold classrooms by poorly paid professionals who are now being forced to teach to 68 years of age before they can have access to the pension entitlements they paid into from the age of 22. Let’s be truthful about the situation, 34 in a classroom is more about crowd control and less about quality teaching. What type of society wants to devalue, demonise, undermine and de-professionalise our teachers? We want our teachers, who contribute to our communities in so many ways, to feel valued once again.

The argument from Stormont is that there is no money to waste. Perhaps our MLAs on their basic £49,000 are correct as the “Cash for Ash” scandal costs £85,000 each day for the next 16 years! If the boilers were turned off for one day then almost 4 extra teachers could be employed in your school for one year.

A full list of community hall grant scheme recipients was recently published and the £2 million payments for refurbishment of mainly halls and musical equipment would have employed classroom assistants, school nurses, and special needs expertise for a very long time. The forthcoming election costs of £5 million would practically settle the teachers’ pay dispute. Yet we are all told, there is no money. I have not even scrutinised the futility of cutting corporation tax to multi nationals that has been proposed.

Since 2012 teachers have had no pay increase, in fact this combined with an increase in pension contributions (accessed in full when or if a teacher arrives at pension age of 68)  teachers are 15% worse off and almost £1,000 less than they earned 5 years ago. Last year the 1% (yes 1%) was withdrawn from teachers because teachers refused to accept conditions that would mean our entry level teachers would not get incremental rises as they gained experience. By standing up for the future generation the 1% was withdrawn and sent back to Westminster. This year teachers were offered a 0% increase (yes 0%) for last year and a 1% increase for this year (that equates to 45p a day).

So now our valued communities know why some of our school teachers went on unpaid half day industrial action. Politicians may feel that there are no votes in Education as most pupils are of a non-voting age, but we as parents can speak for them and we do have a voice and a vote. When someone comes knocking on your door over the next six weeks please ask them a couple of simple questions “Do you value Education? Do you want my child to be taught by Teachers who feel valued?”

I want to acknowledge the local Primary schools and the INTO colleagues in all the schools who took part in the half day industrial action and who stood shoulder to shoulder with the communities they teach and contribute to. To do nothing is to accept defeat and be silenced.