Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Teachers -- don't strike

Published By: The Times Educational Supplement - 11 Apr 2008

When I hear that teachers are planning to strike again I want to jump up and say, like Amy Winehouse, “No, no, no!” Not because I don’t want them to be paid more. I do. Not because I don’t want them to flex their professional muscles. I wish to goodness they would do that far more of that.

I don’t want them to strike because I am old enough to remember the last time around, and the long tail of damage and disruption that the strikes of the 1980s left in their wake.
At that time, my children were in primary school in London, and day after day, or so it seemed, schools would close and working parents would have to take days off, or make complicated arrangements to cater for them. An awful lot of parents had no sympathy at all for the teachers’ case. They couldn’t see beyond their own disrupted lives. Others quickly lost what sympathy they had as they saw how much school time their children were missing. I clearly remember the growing agitation at the school gate, the resentful mutterings about how “it isn’t the poor kiddies’ fault, is it?”

Meanwhile, in school itself, a whole new atmosphere imposed itself. Teachers were in defensive mode. They felt aggrieved and beleagured. Parents were angry and did not always bother to hide it. Lots of goodwill was lost, and the children themselves began to sense the bad atmosphere and become more capricious and difficult.

School, in short, had turned into an unpleasant battleground, and I was mighty relieved to have the chance of escaping from it to suburban American where – what novelty – teachers and parents seemed to be on the same side, working for the good of the children.

I believe that this is exactly where we are now in this country.

Over the past decade or so, teachers have rebuilt a strong public image and sympathy seems to be increasingly on their side as they protest against the stranglehold of tests and targets. By-and-large (nothing is ever perfect) when today’s parents go in and out of schools, as they increasingly do, they find well-trained, confident staff working in bright, lively classrooms. Parents are appreciative of the many activities that schools run, and welcome the willingness with which teachers talk with them about their children’s progress.

And, unlike the Government, parents have a fairly clear understanding that test results alone are no measure of a good education, and that the increasingly bad behaviour of some pupils is not the fault of teachers, but something that makes their working lives hell.

In short, teachers’ stock has risen and is still rising. They have gained hard-won respect, and their professional views are developing real weight and authority.

Yet all this could be thrown out of the window with a strike – or, when one strike does not work, presumably many more -- and the lesson of history is that, once these things are lost, it takes many years to build them up again.

Hilary Wilce is an education journalist and author.