Looking ahead to the annual meeting of the STUC, it is clear the union movement continues to face significant challenges – challenges driven by austerity and by anti-public sector and anti-union rhetoric from the Westminster Government, right-wing politicians and sections of the media. For the EIS, pay and workload continue to be the big issues for Scotland’s teachers.
Workload is the iceberg of the education system. Observers such as politicians think they understand about workload because they can see the tip of that iceberg, but they have little concept of the scale of what lurks below the surface. This is largely because the problem is not just the workload in and of itself, but also its impact and implications.
Research confirms that the health and wellbeing of our members is really suffering. Teachers are stressed and exhausted. They work far longer than their contractual hours but still never get to the end of the work. The effect on teachers’ mental and physical health is devastating. In addition, for the last ten years we have experienced almost constant change. That, in itself, is a huge workload issue for teachers and is also enormously unsettling.
Teachers’ pay has declined by 20% in real terms over the past decade, or by up to 24% when you factor in changes to pension contributions and national insurance. In common with most other workers in Britain, teachers have been made to pay the price for a financial crisis which we did not create.
Let’s look at what we do in this country. We underpay teachers; we overwork them; we tell them they’re part of a failing system; we inflict constant change upon them; we tell them that what they are doing in their classrooms is insufficiently ‘excellent’; and then we’re surprised when research reveals that 40% of teachers want to leave within the next two years.
When other careers and other countries pay far better, is it any wonder teachers are voting with their feet? The EIS has submitted a 10% pay claim for teachers this year, as it is clear that salaries need to be improved if we are to attract people into the profession and, crucially, retain them. We must secure improved pay for teachers.
And, as if all that were not enough, we also have the looming spectre of the Education Bill – in many ways, the wrong fix for the wrong problem. The Scottish Government’s own international advisors have questioned whether structural change is necessary. Is obsessing over who gets to be in charge of what going to reduce teacher workload? Unlikely. Is moving money from local authorities to headteachers going to remediate years of cuts to education budgets? Hardly.
I spoke to colleagues recently who were on their way to buy their own glue sticks and pencils for the class to use. I don’t think they would feel that tinkering with governance is of much assistance. Since the advent of austerity, we have seen cuts to Additional Support for Learning (ASL) provision and English as an Additional Language (EAL) support; the disappearance of Support for Learning teachers; the removal of nursery teachers; cuts to management time and so on. Teachers who have experienced all of this first hand are unlikely to see the transfer of some powers as the solution to our problems.
There are also significant concerns around the Headteacher Charter. There is the strong possibility that this will increase Headteacher workload. We already have difficulty recruiting Headteachers. Will that improve if workload associated with the post rises? And if Headteacher duties increase, to whom will existing workload migrate? To Deputes and Principal Teachers, of whom there are fewer, and from there to class teachers.
The EIS could be looking at strike action over pay this year. The Tory Trade Union Act is an overt attempt to prevent unions striking to defend their members. However, with good campaigning and the support of members, we can overcome the barriers which the Act tries to put in our way.
When I was a probationer twenty years ago, I was complaining bitterly about something (probably pay!), and I kept saying to the Rep, ‘What is the union doing about this?’. Eventually, she said to me – very kindly, I have to say – ‘Nicola, we’re the union. What are we going to do about it?’ That really stuck with me. The union isn’t some faceless third party. It’s us; it’s you and me. Unions need to say to members ‘We are going to fight for you but we need you to be part of that fight too’. And, if we are successful in those fights, we will emerge with members who are equipped and empowered to continue to fight for their rights. What’s not to like?
Nicola Fisher is President of the EIS and a primary teacher.