I have just returned home after a fabulous day doing the London to Brighton bike ride with a group of colleagues – and one brave sixth form student – in aid of the British Heart Foundation. We set off from Clapham Common at 6.30 this morning on the 54 mile ride from South London to the coast, and arrived there shortly before 1 pm, having stopped a couple of times to regroup. The London to Brighton is much more than just a ride – it is really a mass participation community event of a very British sort. All along the way local village halls, scout groups, churches and other voluntary organisations provide refreshments, loos, entertainment and the odd squirt from a mischievous water pistol! And Brighton itself, always vibrant and busy, was full to bursting with cyclists and their supporters celebrating the achievement of making it down to Brighton, and celebrating the English summer, despite the rather fresh wind and choppy seas! There will be some stiff legs tomorrow at school, but the important business of collecting in the sponsorship money starts this week.
The news at the moment is dominated by discontent amongst many public service workers, including teachers, about possible changes to pension schemes. The Hutton report on public service pensions is currently being considered by the government, who have not yet said how exactly they will respond to it, although a number of clues have emanated from Whitehall. It certainly looks as if public service pensions, for some time now the envy of the private sector, will be made less generous for their members. No-one working in the affected areas, of course, much likes this. Two teaching unions, the NUT and the ATL, have balloted on strike action and, despite modest turnouts, especially from the ATL, traditionally a moderate union, those who did vote have approved a strike in principle. Other unions, notably the NASUWT, have not balloted on action, largely because they want to wait for the government’s formal verdict on the Hutton report, and because they are still in discussion.
All three of these unions are represented amongst teaching staff at Bennett, although the largest single union is the NASUWT on our teaching staff. How the planned strike on 30th June will affect our school is very uncertain. Firstly, of course, it might not actually go ahead. There may be a last minute ‘breakthrough’ in negotiations, leading to the strike being called off. Moreover, although members of these unions are authorized by the ballot to go on strike, they do not have to. Some teachers may make that choice. Those striking do not, of course, get paid for the day, neither do they receive pension or national insurance contributions for that day (so their own pensions actually gets slightly worse as a result of a strike).
There are two unions representing senior staff and heads in schools in England. The NAHT is largely, though not exclusively, primary school based. ASCL is exclusively secondary. Both are concerned about the pensions situation, but the NAHT has gone further and said they will now ballot on striking. Personally, I find this surprising. ASCL, my own association, is not balloting. In my discussions with secondary heads and deputies, I have the overwhelming impression that the vast majority would not be prepared to strike, so completely focused are they on not harming the education of children in their care or the schools for which they are responsible. That is certainly my personal view. This is despite the fact that more senior staff have the most to lose, proportionally, from the likely pensions changes.
The argument of those unions who are inclined to strike is that if they do not stand up for this benefit of being a teacher then there will be a decline in the numbers of ambitious graduates being attracted to the teaching profession in the future. At the moment, I personally think this is unlikely as a simple consequence of a change to the pensions scheme. We all know that opportunities for graduates are limited, and teaching still provides a relatively well paid and secure profession, especially in the current climate. That may of course change once the economy becomes more buoyant, but I do not think that argument holds water now. I have sympathy with some aspects of the unions’ grievances (especially moving the goalposts for people already in the scheme, or, worse still, those already living on the pensions in old age), but it is a complex topic, and I do not think that simply opposing all change is a way forward.
How much sympathy is there amongst the general public for this particular grievance? Some sections of the media are very prone to denouncing ‘gold plated’ public service pensions. This is unfair. The schemes are certainly advantageous in comparison with others available in the private sector, but are generally based on lower salaries than those in the private sector. Nonetheless, I think there is likely to be considerable cynicism amongst most members of the public who are themselves facing very tough times if teachers start to strike regularly.
On an entirely personal note, I and my fellow headteachers and senior staff in schools are likely to find ourselves in the very difficult and invidious position of having to manage schools, parental expectations, student learning and employee relations if strikes go ahead. All of us I think devoutly hope that a way can be found to avoid this, and that all sides are prepared to compromise a little to prevent this happening.