Yesterday, I was invited to speak to a group of actors and directors from the Royal Shakespeare Company about the crisis in our school system. We discussed in detail the narrowing of the curriculum through the government’s testing agenda, the asset-stripping of the public realm through the academies programme and the “culture of fear” that has taken hold in so many of our schools as a consequence of flawed accountability measures, leaving teachers and young people alike anxious and uninspired.
Many of the questions I was asked were, quite rightly, about what we can do about all of this. One member of the group expressed his frustration that a mood of “exhausted resignation” has settled over those who want to protect our public services. During the last parliament we held strikes, we went on marches and we signed petitions; at every step we fought the government and at every step we lost. I think this is particularly true of teachers. Defeat after defeat on workload, pensions and so-called performance-related pay have left many of our number asking: “what’s the point?” And it’s driven many of us, myself included, to take a break from the profession altogether.
The reason we failed in the past is that we were never able to make our message resonate with the public. Anti-union legislation brought in during the early 80s prevents us from striking over “ideology” so all trade union-backed campaigns are forced to focus on our own pay and conditions rather than the impact of the government’s policies on young people. To the average voter in middle England, if they were aware of NUT, ATL and NASUWT campaigns at all, the message would have elicited no more than a shrug of the shoulders and a mutter of: “bloody teachers are moaning again.”
But that may just be changing. There’s a palpable sense now, since George Osborne’s announcement in the budget that all schools will be forced into academy chains by 2022, that the public are waking up to the reality of what is being done to our young people’s futures. The needless turmoil being imposed on perfectly good schools up and down the country, the removal of parent governors and the murky secrecy in which the whole project is shrouded has caused millions of ordinary people to sit up and think again. Even several Tory councillors in middle England have gone public with their concerns.
So now is not the time for “exhausted resignation.” Now is the time to dust ourselves down and get ready to take up the fight again. For the first time since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, the public are listening to us. For the first time, this may actually be a fight we can win. This is the time for teachers to start shouting. Whether it’s through strikes, rallies, petitions, social media campaigns or simply writing to your MP, let’s make some noise.
Do not go gentle into that good night. The game has changed; let’s pick ourselves up and defend our schools.