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When teachers strike, the country stops working

Teachers act as social workers, counsellors, nurses, childminders, cooks, cleaners – and even police.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Schools are a “fourth emergency service”. This is how a headteacher of a big secondary school in West Sussex once described his workplace to me, and I’ve never forgotten the phrase.

It wasn’t pomposity. For years, Britain’s teachers have been subject not so much to mission creep as mission galumph. As the safety net around schools has shrunk, their roles have ballooned.

All those bits of the state that children and parents interact with or rely on – mental health services, special educational needs resources, youth clubs, child protection, pupil referral units, the council – have been squeezed by cuts. While the education budget itself may have been “ring-fenced” in the austerity years (though spending per pupil still slowed), schools have mopped up the fallout of cuts elsewhere. This is why when I speak to teachers they describe their multiple duties: teaching assistants, social workers, counsellors, nurses, childminders, cooks, food-bank managers, cleaners and even police officers.

William Yates, until recently an English teacher, described this in a New Statesman piece last month: “With social services, children’s mental health services and Universal Credit all facing devastating cuts, teachers have been left fighting battles on their students’ behalf that extend way beyond their academic remit.”

[See also: “Schools are a fourth emergency service”: Meet the Rebel Headmaster fighting education cuts]

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One headteacher I visited at a school in Sheffield sometimes had to clean the toilets herself. Another, at a big rural comprehensive, was required to keep in regular contact with local police about a pupil vulnerable to county lines drug-running. “We could spend all our time being a branch of social services,” I was told by a teacher at another large secondary school in Kent.

[See also: Why nobody wants to be a teacher anymore]

This is crucial context for the latest teachers’ strikes. On 1 February, teachers in England and Wales are going on strike, joining the already rolling strikes of their counterparts in Scotland. Mission creep is an underlying concern.

“Teachers go above and beyond the call of duty every day. Parents recognise the role we play during the school day, in supporting pupils who may need all manner of support, be it practical, emotional, or nutritional,” I was told by Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) – whose members are striking. “Much of this is a direct consequence of more than a decade of government cuts to local services.”

[See also: Crumbling Britain: How English schools are paying the price for austerity]

Another aspect of “jobflation” for teachers is the need to shoulder further teaching roles. There is a recruitment crisis in the sector, which means in many schools a geography teacher must also take on religious studies and IT, for example. I’ve visited a school where one assistant head ran the computer science, business studies and modern languages departments, all while teaching for over half the timetable.

Because of the nightmare they cause working parents, and the perception of teachers blessed with long holidays and decent pensions, teachers’ strikes have received mixed sympathy from the public. The latest YouGov polling shows 51 per cent of Britons support them, while 41 per cent oppose. Yet the reality is teachers’ wages have degraded in real terms – by 11 per cent on average since 2010, according to a conservative analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. This, coupled with the mission creep I’ve described, means teachers choosing to strike feel their pay no longer reflects their work.

“While workload has soared, the possibility of real-terms pay cuts has communicated to teachers that they are worth a fraction of what they used to be,” wrote Yates. “While junior lawyers and bankers command huge starting salaries, some teachers are reduced to making use of food banks to get by.”

For many, the working conditions that stem from such a complex workload – which veers into social care – are no longer sustainable. “I didn’t leave my teaching job after two years because of the pay. It was everything else,” wrote Kristina Murkett, a former inner-city London schoolteacher, in the New Statesman.

“I was woefully unprepared to teach students with incredibly complex learning, behavioural and language needs… A pay rise would not have persuaded me to stay. I valued my mental health over more money.”

[See also: What a teachers’ strike doesn’t solve]

When teachers strike, the country stops working. And that’s not just parents having to take time off work, nor the long-term impact of children missing lessons, which the pandemic showed is devastating. It’s also everything else society relies on from its “fourth emergency service”, from child protection to hot meals. In Ealing, west London, the borough with the biggest turnout for teachers’ strikes in England and Wales, schools have been organising free school meals for strike days, for example. If they didn’t, children would go hungry.

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, social workers warned me children were in danger without teachers around them to pick up on problems. One described schools to me at the time as “a pair of eyes and ears that we’ve lost”.

On strike days we lose that all over again – along with so much else the government should be working harder to save.

This article was originally published on 1 February and has been repromoted following the latest teachers strike.

[See also: The lost children of lockdown]

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