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Schools Just Want to Have Funds

Taj Ali

The teachers’ strike is about more than just fair pay — it’s a fight for the future of education.

Teachers and supporters wave flags and hold placards as they attend a rally during a day of national strikes. (Hugh Hastings/Getty)

February saw the first national teachers’ strike across England and Wales in seven years. On 1 February, thousands turned out across both nations to support teachers — as well as university workers and civil servants — in the largest mass demonstrations of the strike wave so far. These National Education Union (NEU) strikes mark a new wave of industrial action in the education sector.

Kiera grew up in a former mining community in South ‘Tyneside. ‘My mam instilled in me the importance of education from a young age,’ she says. ‘Especially in deprived communities like my own, education has the ability to empower young people like nothing else.’ Today she teaches science at a secondary school in the same community. ‘I know the importance of a teacher who believes in you, who understands the struggles you face but empowers you to battle through them. I wanted to be that teacher and make a difference for someone else like my teachers made for me.’

But working in the profession has fallen far short of her hopes. School often seems more of a battleground than a place for young people to develop. Years of austerity cuts have battered and bruised the education system — and the children who most need its help. ‘More students are coming in cold, hungry, and tired, and more students need to access educational psychologists and counsellors than the system can handle.’ For vital services provided by children’s mental health specialists and educational psychologists, there is an eighteen-month waiting period.

Aleesha has a similar story. Graduating during the height of the pandemic, she wanted to improve prospects for young people but feels exhausted just three years into her career. ‘We are constantly being asked to do more for less,’ she explains. The pandemic has radically changed the education profession and, in particular, the role of teachers like Aleesha who find themselves acting as impromptu social workers, family support workers, counsellors, and financial supporters. ‘We are supporting students who were subject to unseen levels of harm and neglect during lockdown. The impact on mental health is a new challenge.’

Teaching Amid Hardship

Today, nearly 4 million children in the UK are growing up in poverty — that’s 27 percent of children, or eight in a classroom of thirty. With an increasing number of services moving online or being discontinued completely after the pandemic, teachers who see children on a daily basis are the ones who spot things missed by other services. And it has a dire impact: a recent study found that 58 percent of teachers had used their own money to feed hungry children in school.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, per pupil spending in 2024–5 is expected to be three percent lower than in 2010. Schools in the most deprived areas, of course, have been the worst affected. According to Aleesha,

We once provided textbooks for our students, but we may no longer. We are being told to cut back on printing. Our teaching load has increased. The heating is centrally controlled.

At Aleesha’s school, teachers no longer take on the role of personal tutors, with pastoral responsibility increasingly taken over by those outside the teaching profession. This change, in order to save money, means teachers are expected to increase their teaching hours. Meanwhile, personal tutors have limited training, are paid far less and have a high turnover.

The sector faces a chronic shortage of support staff as many choose to leave education for better paying and less stressful jobs in places like supermarkets. Support staff are an invaluable addition to the classroom, whether it be assisting with large classes or working closely with students with special educational needs. Their contributions to the classroom environment help ensure that all children are sufficiently challenged and supported in each lesson they are available. But, increasingly, they are thin on the ground.

At the same time, pressures for teachers to achieve what many feel are abstract standards and goals have grown year on year. For Richard, head of economics at a state secondary in the West Midlands, growing pressure from Ofsted and league tables has warped the profession.

In my thirteen years I have seen so many fads introduced in the hope it will make the school look good but all it does is add to teacher stress. We have a corporate culture which has taken the focus off children and driven teachers out of the profession just to look good in front of inspectors. We’re fed up of it.

Financial Struggles

The cost-of-living crisis and the abysmal below-inflation pay offer was the final straw for many. The pay offer isn’t funded either, meaning schools would have to find money for any pay increase within already-stretched budgets. Current estimates suggest the average primary school will be £45,000 over budget this academic year, with the average secondary school nearing £250,000 over their budgetary mark.

The government has failed to meet us in good confidence, expecting teachers to be martyrs, working long hours that are physically and emotionally draining,’ says Kiera.

Teachers teach because they love it; you have to love it. If you didn’t, I don’t think any money in the world would be enough to make you do the job. I now think that, for a lot of teachers, and those in the education profession, there’s not enough love to make the pay and conditions worth it.

This combination — stagnant pay and an increasing workload — has created a recruitment and retention crisis, with educators leaving the profession in droves. In real terms, teachers’ pay has declined by more than 20 percent in the past decade. A survey by the NEU last year found that nearly half of teachers plan on quitting within five years. It’s a vicious cycle, with shortages increasing the workloads of those who remain.

‘I knew I was never going to live a life of luxury but I didn’t think that I’d be unable to visit my brother who lives less than 15 miles away because I can only afford two tanks of fuel in my car a month,’ says Kiera. She has cut down on her heating, regularly arriving home from work and getting under a throw blanket. ‘I have colleagues who are single mams and are regularly in their overdraft or using their credit card by the end of the month. I worry about money more than I ever have before, and am constantly budgeting and rebudgeting and editing my spreadsheet with my finances in, trying to find extra ways to save here.’

Aleesha has had her heating on less than fifteen times since November. She says colleagues have changed supermarkets, and she knows of support staff using food banks. ‘I didn’t go into teaching to earn loads of money,’ is a familiar refrain among those interviewed. ‘But I do have two degrees and work long hours; I’m underpaid for what I do. We aren’t asking for the world but that people are paid fairly.’ Tom has been a teacher in Norwich for over twenty years. He often finds himself over his overdraft limit by the end of the month and having to borrow money to make it to payday.

I have colleagues who teach full time but take evening or weekend jobs to pay the rent. But it is worst for support staff. Teaching assistants are disgracefully underpaid and some struggle to afford the fuel to get to work.

Enough Is Enough

Tom describes the government’s latest pay offer and the handling of the dispute as a slap in the face.

Throughout the pandemic, we were caring for vulnerable children, supporting the children of key workers, preparing and delivering online learning, providing food vouchers and packed lunches. We were part of the network that kept communities together. Now we are treated like dirt by a government that has stripped us of our professionalism.

He says he was proud to go on strike and stand up not only for teachers but for students too. It is always a difficult decision. ‘We want to be in the classroom teaching the kids — but someone has to take a stand and I am pleased that I did.’

Kiera had never been on strike before this dispute, but as a teacher she believed being part of a union was vital. ‘Being from the North East and an ex-mining village, I know the value of solidarity.’ She joined 300,000 others on strike on 1 February. ‘We had a picket in the morning with lots of support and a fantastic march and rally in Newcastle city centre at lunchtime. The anger, support, and solidarity were palpable — people want change.’ The retention crisis has to be ended, she argues, and ‘this can only come from fully funding the education sector. There should be more money for teachers, support staff, and special educational needs,’ she says. ‘Reduce class sizes and improve the resources available for students with mental health issues so that teachers spend less time as social workers and more time educating.’ The NEU is demanding a real pay rise for members, but workers know this isn’t just about pay: it’s about the future of education. It’s a similar story for nurses, paramedics, firefighters, junior doctors, and other workers in the public sector. For Kiera, coordinated strikes and unity amongst workers engaged in similar struggles is the key to success.

This government, more so than any that have gone before it in my lifetime, is waging war on the working class. Their plan is to divide us amongst any and all lines they can. We must not let them. Together, as a movement of the people, we need to show this government they cannot win. We will stand up for ourselves and for each other.