According to the NEU, 300,000 school workers took strike action on 1 February. Similar numbers are expected today. I won’t be joining them. Not because I agree with the real-terms pay cuts of the past decade, reductions in school funding or a government that places no value in the sector’s workforce. I won’t be joining them because last year, after 12 years in teaching, I joined the tens of thousands who have left the profession altogether.
I loved teaching. I loved the highs and the lows of working with sometimes challenging students and innovative and driven colleagues. I loved it until I found myself as acting head of school in the midst of the pandemic. I was working 13-hour days, skipping lunch and going home at night just to open the laptop again.
My girlfriend, a self-acknowledged workaholic earning three times my salary, couldn’t believe my lack of work/life balance. I thought I just needed a change of environment, so I began looking for that next job. I found it, downloaded the application… and began to cry. I was broken. The profession I loved had chewed me up and spat me out.
Yet I loved it so much I could be tempted back. But it would take drastic changes. Among a long list of those changes, these are my top three.
A new narrative
For too long, successive governments have allowed the public to believe our day finishes when students leave and to believe teachers get 12 weeks’ holiday. Meanwhile, evenings, weekends and unpaid annual leave (“holidays”) are in part given over to marking, planning, revision sessions and much more. This narrative is particularly pernicious because it obstructs a genuine conversation about a very real and devastating workload problem.
A wake-up call
Quite simply, if a worker believes that their pay does not reflect their value or the size of their role, they will leave. We can no longer rely on educators following and staying in their ‘vocation’. It might be a calling for some, but teaching has to pay the bills and allow time for family too.
A safety net
There is also a direct correlation between the increase in workload and cuts in core funding for social care, CAMHS and SEN provision. Schools are inextricably linked to these ecosystems of care and support for young people, and teaching and support staff have been left carrying the burden of delivering interventions for increasing numbers of students on waiting lists or who no longer meet the threshold, adding to their untenable workload.
These are obvious, but they’re crucial. There needs to be a fully-funded increase in school staff salaries, combined with a significant decrease in workload, and for all Gillian Keegan’s talk of focusing on the latter, the fact is that it will equate to more school funding.
If the treasury’s pockets are shallow, then it needs to look deeper at how its resources are allocated. An estimated £500 million goes on agency fees each year, when a national staff engagement system could be put in place for a fraction of this cost. The NHS has one, why can’t schools?
It’s time for the government to show that it values the teaching profession rather than undermine it, and that it understands its workload rather than paying lip service to it. Teachers will be out on the streets today because they are at breaking point, and we are well past tinkering with this or that individual cause.
The whole system needs reviewing, from curriculum to accountability, and from assessment to data collection. In every case, the DfE needs to work out how it can get out of the way to let schools do their job. I still have sweats about Friday night emails requiring me to re-read whole policies rather than telling me where a change had been made – symptoms of a deeply broken organisation.
So I won’t be joining the strikes today, but I won’t be joining teachers returning to the classroom tomorrow either. I don’t suppose too many like me will – until there’s fundamental change.