The moral purpose of teaching and today’s NUT strike

Today I went on strike.

Having spent a lot of time being quite a left-wing kinda person, striking has been something I’ve supported from afar. I’ve watched strikes of doctors, teachers and others but never really thought about what happens when it applies to me. I’d always assumed I’d just ‘do it’. Injustice in the workplace is there, so strike is the answer.

But actually going on strike is a different story.

“No one likes going on strike and losing a day of pay.” This is one of the quotes used by union members/leaders all the time. I agreed with it, but it had never occurred to me until it applied to me just how much. I hated going on strike. Anti-strike people routinely give the idea that people just strike to have a day off work. I can’t talk for everyone else, but I can tell you my personal view. I took no pleasure in going on strike. I thought about it carefully. It was easier to vote for it, but when it came down to taking a day off school it was a hard decision to fulfil. It’s not hard to see that the government reforms are chaotic, unneeded and damaging, but it is hard to just desert school for a day.

What is easy to forget is that working at school is not just a job with a pay cheque. Teachers sign up to it because they care and have a sense of moral purpose. This is a phrase that gets trotted out by politicians such as Gove, who in his tenure devoted an entire speech to the notion, arguing: “My moral purpose in Government is to break the lock which prevents children from our poorest families making it into our best universities and walking into the best jobs.” He argued that this moral purpose unites teachers, leaders and politicians. I agree. And so when it came to making the decision, losing a day of pay didn’t really factor in anywhere near as much as the impact on the kids.

I do this job because I love working with children. I genuinely care about them*, I want them to learn and I want some at least to nurture a love for my subject. Does a parent love sending their kids away for a day? No. It’s hard. And so especially when you have a class you love teaching because they inspire you just as much as you may or may not inspire them, and when you know that they will instead by dumped in the library with little or no educational value, it’s hard. I feel guilty.

But ‘moral purpose’ as Gove might see it isn’t just about being in school every day for every lesson. 1 day does not crush the mission. What crushes it are long-term changes that undermine the whole system. And that is why I had to strike.

We know that the cuts are going to impact school budgets (much as the government pretends otherwise). For one thing, even if funding has been protected per pupil, it has not been protected in real terms, and schools are having to pay more in NI contributions/pensions. This means there is less money for doing the job. We also know that the National Funding Formula will come, but we don’t know when or what the precise effect on individual schools will be. I can say that if schools get cuts, which is currently the aim, it’s going to be a real struggle. We know that forced academisation is still policy (but may well never see the light of day) and has little or no real value to the system with very real costs/downsides.

I could go on and talk about other issues such as the chaos that is qualification reform (e.g. a GCSE that was approved just days ago that we started teaching in September last year) or teacher pay (which is stubbornly static or as is currently the case, an unknown quantity for next year).

But I want to focus instead on the idea of moral purpose. Because when teachers go on strike it’s not to have a day off work. It’s because they care enough about the long-term to make a small short-term sacrifice. It wasn’t easy to go on strike, it really wasn’t. I would’ve loved to teach lessons today.

What I hope is that we can get some changes to the political status quo and prevent future strikes.

The bottom line is: I went on strike. Not because I wanted to. I hated it. I did it because I had to think long-term about the best interests of the system.

 

*If you want proof, take the notion that I spent a whole weekend taking Year 7s on an adventure holiday trip for no additional pay. I have not known tiredness like it for a while …!!!