Thursday, 20 March 2014

Why I'll be striking next week

First, something to think about: under this government, teachers have gone out on strike four times.  Are we getting a taste for disrupting the education of innocent children?  Do we relish the inconvenience caused to families?  Rub our hands with glee at the thought of losing a day's pay for our strike action?

No, and no, and no.

We are striking because, contrary to what you may think based on the words of Gove, Wilshaw and Hunt, we care deeply about the education of children and we care deeply about our ability to do a good job.

No one would be a teacher if they didn't want to do the very best for the children and teenagers in their care.  The long hours, heavy workload and astronomical levels of stress are not conditions that anyone puts up with for long if they don't - at heart - love their job and want to do it as well as they can.  And currently we are struggling to do the best job we can as we struggle to cope with wave after wave of educational reform and to minimise the negative impact of those reforms on our pupils.

The people currently in charge of state education don't care about the education of the majority. They are obsessed with a narrow and archaic view of education, one which benefits a small minority: those who are successful in the traditional academic disciplines, those who do well in exams, those who have support at home from parents.  The rest of them - children and teenagers with special educational needs, pupils who excel in practical subjects but not in the classroom environment, kids who want to learn a trade - are being dispossessed and abandoned by an education system designed by (and for) privileged, privately educated white men.

The sharp, funny, brilliant kids I work with every day deserve better than to be pushed through an ever-narrowing curriculum, one which - with its focus on rote learning and exams over coursework - bears little resemblance to the demands of either work or university. A curriculum which has effectively abandoned the arts, drama and music; any subject that might have allowed a hint of independence of thought to shine through. A curriculum that is almost xenophobic in its promotion of archaic attitudes.  For example, the inclusion on the history curriculum of the (uncritical) study of The British Empire or the abolishment of any literature not from the UK in the new GCSE English course (so goodbye American literature - To Kill A Mockingbird, the plays of Arthur Miller, The Catcher In The Rye - which has long been a standard of the Key Stage 4 curriculum, or the study of poetry from other cultures and traditions, which allowed pupils from a background other than White British to read something that perhaps began to reflect their own experiences).

Of equal concern is the fact that parents are now being encouraged to see schools as existing for their benefit, rather than the benefit of their children. There is much talk of extending the school day or term to better fit their needs (which really just means the needs of their employers). While mouthing platitudes about, "what's best for pupils", the government is trying to remake the education system as free childcare, there to make things easier for employees to work ever-longer hours.  An education system arranged for the convenience of parents and employers does children no favours. Rather, it needs to take into account what the best possible learning environment is for children to flourish.  There is plenty of evidence that children need time out of the classroom to develop family relationships, play, pursue outside interests... even be bored.  Any parent who has dealt with their child's increasing exhaustion as the end of term approaches knows that very well.

Not to mention the fact that a teacher's work doesn't end when classes finish, as so many people seem to think, nor does it cease when the holidays start.  The image of the 'lazy teacher', working 9am-3pm with 13 weeks holiday a year, is a fallacy.  The planning, paperwork, marking and meetings that every teacher undertakes would be a full time job on its own, without ever having to stand in front of a class.  But we do all of that, working early mornings (I start just after 7am) and well into the evenings, taking work home at weekends and during the holidays, because the standing in front of classes makes it worthwhile.  It's seeing the lightbulb moment, getting the best out of pupils who doubt themselves, contributing to the growth of delightful children and teenagers, that keeps us doing this job.  But for how much longer can we go on under current conditions?

I am striking because the UK's young people are some of the most stressed in Europe, being made to jump through hoops as they take exam after exam, learning only how to pass tests, not how to be independent thinkers or fully rounded, empathic individuals.

I am striking because it breaks my heart to see the impact of this government's reforms on the pupils I teach. 

I am striking because teaching is a bloody hard job and I'm sick of being derided by people who have barely stepped foot inside a classroom since they left school. 

And no, strikes are not convenient (that's sort of the point) and they make service-users' lives more difficult (again, sort of the point), and believe me when I say that no-one in my profession goes on strike without a good deal of soul-searching, but our right to strike is enshrined in law and, until the government takes on board our concerns, I and thousands of other teachers will continue to strike.


  1. This was such an interesting read, I really like how passionate you are about your job. I think it's crazy they want to make the schoolday longer so that parents can work longer themselves. When I was still in high school, both my parents were working full days. I would come home and be by myself fora good two hours. I would have my own key and have the responsibility to take good care of it. I learned to be responsible, how to be by myself, not to rely on parents. Yes they were home to cook dinner, me and my sister weren't all by ourselves. I think it's important, like you say, that pupils learn stuff outside the classroom too. I think it's ridiculous that parents need to be home by the time their kids come home from school. Primary school, yes. High school, no way.

  2. Brilliant post! I always feel that society takes the teaching profession and schools for granted without any thought as to what actually goes on. Its easy to forget that you're literally preparing the next generation, so if their education isn't what they need it to be, what is adult life going to be like for them? I had no idea that literature was now to be focused on UK writers only, and its a real shame that all the focus is on exams. I've always hated the idea of exams anyway. There are so many ways of testing someones knowledge, and not everyone suits the exam method. It also seems that all pupils are being treated the same, no allowances for different personalities and strengths. Obviously the education system must have some sort of structure but surely there are more postmodern ways of running it than this. It's almost like its going backwards! Good on you for striking, I really hope that it makes some sort of difference.

    1. Thank you. The changes to the curriculum and exam system are terrifying, Gove seems to think that if he makes every school like his selective grammar school from the 1970s, everything will somehow be amazing and perfect and all children will perform well. There's no acceptance of the fact that society, educational research, everything has moved on!

  3. I'm a NQT in Scotland, so I don't know much about English Curriculum (still figuring out Cirriculum for Excellence!!) but my eyes nearly popped out my head when I read that you now don't include American literature in your English GCSE. That's madness!! No 'Of Mice and Men'?! That's one of my favourite books - and guess where I discovered it?!
    I hope all goes well with the strike; as you have so eloquently put, it is not an easy decision to make. Hopefully the government will take notice and action as a consequence! Xo

    1. Yep, because god forbid this generation of children ever study anything but English literature. It would be funny if it wasn't so crazily xenophobic and narrow-minded.

  4. I have to admit I don't know much about this as a non-teacher and non-parent, however I really enjoyed reading this post. I was chatting to a teacher friend of mine about the children I experience within my job who are just completely let down by the education system because they cannot possibly attain the standards set by the curriculum. Instead of having the chance to do something that they might actually be good at or go down a different path than an academic one, they are just given up on (not by teachers I might add, by the government bureaucracy that takes time away from teachers to tend to the children who need extra support). I don't know if you saw Educating Yorkshire where a boy with a severe speech impediment was forced to take an English oral exam as part of his GCSEs? In what world is that fair?! How is it ok to put that much stress on a child who knows that he physically cannot achieve the standard desired and that, despite his disability, the grade he achieves for his oral exam will directly impact on his overall grade. It makes no sense! I don't know if that's just me oversimplifying the situation, but that to me is indicative of how we repeatedly let non-conventional children down. I hope that your strike action helps!

    1. Precisely - it breaks my heart to see kids just giving up because they cannot - not will not, but cannot - attain the impossibly high standards of a curriculum that is not relevant to them. Politicians would have it that by saying so-and-so can't manage an academic route, you are narrowing his options (teachers were memorably called "enemies of promise", as if every single child regardless of disability, learning need or background is capable of 10 A* GCSEs and we're just refusing to help them achieve it). They don't see that providing decent alternatives to an academic system might actually widen options (and provide much needed technically skilled adults).

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