Like most others, I have mixed views about the teachers’ pension strike scheduled for Thursday this week (30 June). Many years ago I too, incensed as a teacher by the past Conservative Government’s position, went on strike a few times; and it’s not entirely a good feeling. I therefore understand the both the teachers’ frustrations and also the contrary position that a strike now is neither the right time nor the most appropriate way to act.
I am however perplexed by the lecturing from leading politicians in the Labour Party. Somehow, in seeking not unreasonably to play to the wider public gallery, the Labour leadership lacks authenticity and conviction with those whom they address directly. There’s no sense of emotional literacy, no evident insight from Labour about how demanding classroom teaching is, not least as one gets older (and thereby closer to one’s pension). But strikes are fundamentally about how people feel, not about rational thought; and in that Labour leaders should we’d hope have an advantage over those of the Right.
Once again there’s a suspicion that that Labour speaks not from real on-the-ground knowledge, but from a position of politically sterile theoretical constructs which are far from embedded in the day to day experience of most teachers. Yes, there’s an element of empowerment in going on strike – cocking a snoot at idiot employers – but there’s also a real sense of being somehow professionally compromised, even when the cause is just and the immediate pain is intended to preempt greater ills all round further down the line. It’s difficult to decide whether to strike, and upsetting.
Consider this: many teachers are women – not archetypal strikers -and they often have additional duties as parents to their families and perhaps also carers for their own parents. For similar reasons some teachers may not have managed to build up a decent personal pension fund – and these, women especially, may also if now in their 50s have expected to retire much sooner than they will now be able to, anyway. These (and related) factors will be all relevant to the anxieties of a significant number of teachers about their final pension arrangements, even before any new rules about extending contributions come into play.
Even more importantly, working in a classroom with children, especially younger children, is a highly responsible and physically very demanding job. Teaching is one profession where the practitioner frequently works single handedly alone; and where a slip of concentration even a few seconds in a busy day can have calamitous consequences for both the children and their teacher.
With the years one’s teaching skills and abilities may well continue to develop, but it’s unlikely that the same will apply to one’s physical nimbleness. (I know one reception teacher who bowed out when, in her words, she ‘could no longer run as fast as the children.’) It’s no co-incidence that many classroom teachers say the first fortnight of their summer break every year is spent recovering from some lurgy which starts as school finishes. They are simply tired out by then. And that’s true even for a lot of younger teachers.
So what’s my point?
It’s this: to continue teaching into one’s late sixties, full time in a classroom of active children, is asking a lot of most people, even with good health. The mental agility is probably still there, but the aching joints (or whatever) can be a problem. Most people can probably, with average good health, comfortably continue to work for a few years past 65, but the contexts of their employment may need to adapt to the realities of bodily wear and tear, just as this is also true for people of any other age.
This surely is the real elephant in the room? Before we start telling teachers they’re wrong at this point to protest, let’s see what we can do to ensure the well-being both of older teachers and, most importantly, of the children they are teaching.
I’d like to see a bit of emotional intelligence from politicians of the Left about the threats which teachers may currently be perceiving. Is it really beyond the wit of these privileged youngish men, specifically Eds Miliband and Balls (the latter of whom at least recognised the strike as a set-up ‘trap’ for the teachers), to find a position which demonstrates genuine empathy for the protesting teachers, whilst also showing the wider world – presumably the intended audience for their proclamations against the strike? – that they’re tough and they know direct industrial action is a weapon best used only rarely?
As Thursday’s strike approaches, the Left’s leadership attack must be focused fiercely on the ConDems for yet another botched and casually crass job; the Government is once more being culpably careless of both teachers and children. It’s all part of their don’t-care-about-policy degovernance strategy.
But alongside that attack on the Tories, Ed Miliband needs urgently to find a narrative which shows understanding of the reality of what actually happens day by day in our classrooms – a reality which, at a time when with reduced budgets classroom assistants may be harder to find, includes a lot of very hard work and responsibility of a sort which sometimes requires on-the-spot, practical support.
If they understood in their hearts more about every day pressures inside the classroom, Ed Miliband and colleagues might find it easier to articulate in their heads what needs to be done to resolve matters in these changing circumstances.
Whatever, one thing is certain: the ConDems are not going to address these challenges properly. I’m not holding my breath that they will try to understand the whole range of reasons why the teachers, striking or not, are upset.