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Desks and chairs

Schools Are Still Under Pressure

Nicola Biggerstaff – 18 November 2022

The Second Winter of Discontent is looming, and week by week it grows in motivation and momentum. Following on from healthcare workers, its latest signups are the teachers of the EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching trade union. A staggering 96% of balloted members rejected the Scottish Government’s latest pay offer of a 5% increase, striking in pursuit of 10%, and will walk out of most schools in Scotland on the 24th of November. As I mentioned last week, it is not selfish to pursue pay which keeps you afloat. No working person should find themselves losing money for equal labours, as life circumstances spiral beyond anything we could have previously imagined.

This week I caught up with Mr C., a high school teacher in the central belt, to get his thoughts on the latest developments. An EIS member, he was one of the vast majority who voted for strike action. I asked him why now is the time for teachers to take action, and what it could mean for the rest of the public sector going forward.

So, why strike action? And why now?

                Teachers have been asking for a fair wage for years, and for years we’ve accepted sub-par pay offers. We’re now in a state of affairs where there’s a bandwagon of action, and it feels like a good opportunity to get what we’ve been asking for, since we’ve been asking for almost a decade now. We were promised a better pay offer in future, now is the time to pay up. We need to show how essential our work is.

To hold off the previous sets of strikes earlier this year, teachers accepted the progressing pay offer which had been on the table since the previous year: 1.22% in the first year, increasing to 2.23% the following year. They did this with the view that this would pave the way for improved offers in later years, on which the Scottish Government have not delivered. This was accepted in very different times, ones in which promises of increasing pay did not have life or death consequences:

                The Cost of Living Crisis is a huge factor in why so many are striking. It feels like all my money is going to pay bills. If I want to buy things for myself, I have to hold off in anticipation of a larger than expected bill. I shouldn’t have to be doing that in a developed country on my salary. The price of everything is rising out of control, yet our wages aren’t rising to reflect that change. Once one union is brave enough to strike, it inspires the others.

As I mentioned last week: with working professionals turning to food banks, including teachers, it is clear that something in this country has gone catastrophically wrong, and no one is willing to own up to it.

What would you say to the critics of this strike action? What about those calling teachers greedy?

                They don’t want to affect the education of our pupils, which is understandable, but our wellbeing needs to be put into perspective as well. We are being asked to do more and more with less and less time and resources. If we made more money, I think we’d be okay with that, but we’re not okay with this anymore. I don’t want to strike, but it’s the only way to get the message across. A lot of us [in the public sector] are doing this because we feel like we have no other options. We’re all feeling the pinch, and the government has been far too slow to react.

Nowadays, trade unions are being left with less and less options. At the height of his prominence, RMT leader Mick Lynch refuted journalists’ claims that UK rail workers could follow Japan’s lead by turning up to work but not taking fares, easing disruption to the rest of the working public. He reminds us that this was made illegal under David Cameron’s majority government. We forget, with the passing of time and everything that has happened since, that trade unions were decimated in the biggest crackdown on trade unions’ rights since the Thatcher years under his government, in an effort to demonise striking workers in the eyes of service users, mostly their fellow workers. The sooner we recognise that any striking worker is fighting for the rights of all workers in the long term, the better.

What are your pupils saying about this? Do they understand the true extent of what’s happening?

                They understand the strike is for better pay, but they maybe don’t understand the background, in terms of how long this has been going on for, or the economics behind it. I’ve been open with anyone that asks, everything’s getting more expensive and things are becoming unmanageable for us. Some teachers won’t discuss it with them, but people need to understand that if our conditions don’t improve, it will affect our pupils. None of us want that.

Do you have a message for them?

                Probably the same message I would have for any worker. You have a right to a wage that reflects the work you do. If you think you’re not getting that, and the government refuses to give you a wage that reflects that, what other option do you have?  

What are your fellow teachers saying?

                People are desperate. I go to staff rep meetings, and the words ‘general strike’ are being thrown around in some circles. If people get desperate enough, there could be one at some point down the line. But it’s only murmurs at the moment.

What would you like the government to do?

                I’m not sure why we keeping getting asked this, is it not fairly obvious? I want them to give us a decent wage rise, whatever form that takes. It’s something we were promised a year ago. We were promised a larger deal in kind if we accepted a smaller deal back then [when the pandemic was a more prominent strain on government resources]. Well, we’re out of kindness.

                I know they haven’t offered 10% anywhere else, but their offer has to be significantly better [than the recently rejected 5%]. I would love to be able to hold out for 10%, but the longer we hold out, the more of an impact the cost of living has on us. The quicker we can get this resolved, the quicker we can begin the fight back on cost of living. The Scottish Government needs to grow a pair and offer us better and, in my opinion, the idea that they don’t have the funds for this is a bare-faced lie.

There needs to be a rethink of how our monetary and fiscal policies are handled, so pay disputes can be a thing of the past. It’s also clear that our education system is under an increasing strain as a result, affecting both pupils and teachers in a system which simply does not work. We cover all of these issues and offer our solutions in our latest publication, Sorted: A Handbook for a Better Scotland. To pre-order your copy, have a look at the options available on our Crowdfunder.

Common Weal stands in solidarity with all striking workers in Scotland and beyond. Campaigning for better conditions in these current times is not a selfish or radical act, but a necessary one for the preservation of the quality of both our lives and our professions. Rail and postal workers, medical professionals, barristers, teachers, and any others who wish to join the movement, we fully support your efforts to create a society which puts All Of Us First.

5 thoughts on “Schools Are Still Under Pressure”

  1. Fiona McOwan

    I retired from teaching in August 2019 at the appropriate age and will be marching with my former colleagues. Teachers were called on to do a huge amount for pupils through the pandemic both in classrooms and online. Only the most diligent pupils participated in much of it. Huge expectations are put on teachers to somehow fix the ills of society when it’s actually political choices that are needed.

  2. Fiona is spot on with what she says about the pressure on teachers to “somehow fix the ills of society.” Teachers are under pressure to close the ‘poverty related attainment gap’ – we should all be pushing back at the government and insisting that the real way to close the poverty related attainment gap is for the government to eliminate poverty.

  3. florian albert

    I am not greatly impressed by the comments of the secondary teacher who was interviewed. The single most important contribution to the present inflation/cost of living crisis is the massive increase in energy costs; he does not mention it. It is causing huge problems for governments and societies across Europe.
    In many respects we are having a re-run of the 1970s. Then Middle East oil producers forced up oil prices. Inflation became embedded in society and eventually, in 1979 – the Tories won a mandate to control it. The effects of achieving this on 1980s Scotland were disastrous.
    He describes the Scottish Government – for which I have very little time – as telling a ‘bare faced lie’ when it states that it has no money. In truth, the S.G. has a limited amount of money – from the block grant. The suggestion that it can satisfy every wage demand is naive in the extreme. It could increase council tax but keeping it low has been very popular with middle class voters across Scotland.
    He says that ‘any striking worker is fighting for the rights of all workers.’ Sadly, the evidence contradicts this assertion.
    When teachers strike they do not do so for dinner ladies or for cleaners.

    1. Gordon Andrew West

      I appreciate that increasing energy costs specifically, and rising inflation in general, has eroding the Scottish government’s spending power. This presents them with choices: it could decide to raise taxation levels so that it can continue to provide the same level of public services or decide to make cuts somewhere. If it chooses to go for the ‘cuts’ approach, the choice is whether it wishes to reduce the level of public service provision or attempt to maintain the level of public services by forcing the workers in the public services to accept real terms wage cuts. Sadly – I assume for electoral reasons – the government appears to want public sector workers to accept real terms wage cuts as an alternative to either cutting the level of public service provision or raising taxation levels.

  4. Julian Smith

    “It could increase council tax but keeping it low has been very popular with middle class voters across Scotland.” And there we have it from Florian Albert. I hear it all the time. “I don’t have children/my children are grown up; why should I pay for other people’s children to be educated?”, “I’m never ill; why should I pay for other people to have free prescriptions/hospital care/GP appointments?”
    It’s time we got back to the concept of a caring, sharing society where we are prepared to contribute to the common good according to our means.

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