Today I went on strike with school colleagues from across north west England in protest at the government's policies on education. Most of the British media has portrayed this as primarily a strike about teachers retaining their perks but it is wider and much more heartfelt than that. Having spent a decade working in education, I have never seen teachers so demoralised and concerned.
The Guardian Teacher Network is proving to be a focal point in terms of teachers expressing their views about where they feel policy is going wrong. Here is one example:
Why I am going on strike with my fellow teachers
Today, the main teaching unions in the north-west of England have called members to go on strike. It was up to each member to decide whether to answer that call or not. I have, because of the direction in which this Tory government and their Lib Dem partners are taking our school communities.
Although some people may feel the strike is about "selfish concerns", namely pay, performance management and working conditions, for me these issues have become secondary. To be clear; I am in favour of reforming the long school holidays, which are based on an outdated agricultural calendar. I understand teachers' pay agreements may have to be renegotiated to assist with the current economic situation. I also understand teachers' pensions may have to be reformed, given increased life expectancy and the long-term economic pressures of an ageing population.
However, I feel I need to register my protest for the following reasons:
• The militarisation of schools, particularly those in poorer areas. The government is proposing that former soldiers without a degree and subsequent teacher training are employed as teachers in schools; with a big focus on discipline. This is a reflection of the Tory worldview. So while wealthier polite society children should be encouraged to lead, lower class unruly children should be programmed to work and obey.
• Running alongside this, the influx of non-qualified teachers will reduce the pay across the entire profession. This may seem like a good way of saving money until you consider that a minimum wage workforce could lead to the same kind of issues we see in places such as care homes.
• The privatisation and commercialisation of schools, particularly those in poorer areas. Schools are being turned into academies or undermined by new free schools, which are then run by trusts consisting of companies, religious groups (going under fairly bland names) and entrepreneurial types.
• A further concern is as these schools are handed over, the land on which they sit, which is publicly-owned land, is also handed over. It is the greatest giveaway since British Rail and the energy companies were hastily privatised.
• The target-centred culture where all children and their teachers are given a series of numerical targets to achieve within each academic cycle. If they're deemed to be achieved midway through a year, they're simply increased. If they're not achieved, the child and teacher are "red flagged" and forced to undertake various measures with very little account taken of context, mitigating circumstances and so on. This target-centred culture, rather than person-centred culture, follows a similar model in the NHS, which is now facing serious criticism.
• The regulatory system within education run by Ofsted. This body is creating a "toxic culture" in schools due to its hard and fast, pass or fail method of inspection. One of the biggest open secrets in schools is that the inspectors working for this body also work as private consultants to the schools on how to pass their system. In other industries this would be regarded as corruption.
• The changes to the national curriculum, which experts from various subject backgrounds have condemned as not thought through and shaped by a specific perspective – one of "our great country". Again, this reflects the Tory worldview, which it seeks to educate the great unwashed with.
• The abolition of national and regional pay scales for teachers, resulting in schools being free to decide their own pay scales. Salary increases and decreases will be based on the subjective judgment and discretion of headteachers and middle managers. This will lead to cronyism; teachers playing whatever game their superiors require to pay their mortgages.
• The increase of the retirement age to 68 in an organisational culture that at present does not respect age nor experience, favouring younger, arguably more "easily moulded" staff. I have seen firsthand the way staff deemed as "past it" (and too expensive) are moved on; forced to leave loyally served, hard fought careers by the back door for "health reasons" and forced to take a reduced pension.
• The fires of bitter conflict that education secretary Michael Gove and Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw are deliberately stoking up within education. It seems that various academics and professional bodies have all raised concern after concern; Michael Gove has even received a vote of no confidence from the unions, which is in fact rare. But he and his government aren't listening.
So today, in my own small way, I am registering my protest on behalf of my profession, my students and any future children I am lucky enough to have of my own.
Until today I had never marched before.
I readily admit that I was one of those citizens who in previous days has instinctively taken a fairly dim view of protesters, believing them to be predominantly a mix of opportunist socialist ideologues and agitators. I recognise this is due to the way the British media portrays those who protest, particularly so those on the left of politics.
I also feel this Tory government, and their Lib Dem backers, are radicalising me with their policies. They have re-awakened a spirit within me. Today the turnout to the rally in Manchester was twice that expected. I think many teachers are feeling the same.
Growing up in Sheffield during the 1980s and early 1990s, I saw the Tories as 'the enemy' and passionately believed in a socialist-democratic future. As such I celebrated their total and utter defeat in 1997 to Tony Blair, staying up all night with my family rejoicing as the election results came in. In recent years though - as the Labour government became increasingly discredited, increasingly incredulous - I saw the Tories as less of a threat. Not someone I would vote for but no longer someone I would actively vote against. With my Labour heart finally broken by the Walter Wolfgang incident in 2005 and my membership resigned, I turned to the Liberal Democrats and became a member.
Now I have come full circle, returning to the social democrat left. Feeling a strong calling, alongside my wife who shares similar concerns and hopes, to become active. I intend to resign my Liberal Democrat membership. There will be no return to Labour but I intend to keep on marching for a fairer, freer Britain.