Voices: Striking teachers have the public’s support – but for how long?

The winter of discontent is likely to get a lot grimmer. Next week the National Education Union (NEU) will announce the results of its membership ballot on teacher strike action. Most of the indications suggest they will vote to walk out at some stage from the end of this month.

Like I say, for those of us working parents, already hamstrung by the railway strikes, this winter is about to get a whole lot more unpleasant.

Not quite lockdown, but the parallels will be there: enforced working from home, while your kids cause havoc around you.

This is not to say that the NEU’s cause is not a righteous one. The state of teachers’ pay and conditions is really quite bleak. The money in their pay packet is literally being eroded by inflation, and their workload and working life is being dramatically undermined by real-terms cuts to education funding. And as I wrote before Christmas, they’re having to pick up the pieces as the welfare state goes into retreat beyond the school gates too.

While the state of their wages is only part of the story, it is still a big part. A new analysis produced by Public First, where I work, last month demonstrated just how far teachers’ salaries have slipped behind their peers.

The research found that the median salary in the education sector has grown by just 4.3 per cent, once adjusted for inflation. For comparison, the median or typical worker saw pay grow by 15 per cent over the same period.

Even the health sector has fared better, with an increase in real median pay of shows a 6.7 per cent, while workers in the information and communications sector have enjoyed an eyewatering 21.7 per cent jump.

Both the cold hard data and the lived experience of those at the chalkface suggest that the teachers who are placing their cross in the box next to strike have very valid reasons to do so.

But, of course, that doesn’t mean they will win. While morally their case holds water, it doesn’t mean that public support (which ultimately decides if, how, and when the politicians will capitulate) will follow.

My bet is that at the start of any dispute, parents will broadly back their kids’ teachers. Public support for strikers has been reasonably resilient and parents will understand the case is being made on the picket line. People seem to understand why workers are striking over pay this winter – they too are seeing their marginal pound squeezed out of existence – and vaguely wish that they could do the same.

But for how long? That is the killer question. The quality of life in this country right now is falling, and falling fast. Patience will run thin.

As mentioned earlier, the shadow cast by the Covid-19 lockdowns is a long one. If the public feels that it is being returned to similar conditions by intransigent unions then they won’t stand for it for long. If the polling and the focus groups begin to turn against the likes of the NEU, then ministerial resolve will stiffen.

This, then, is the perilous line that teachers’ leaders will have to walk in the weeks and months ahead. Their cause is an honest one, and their members are understandably cross. But they must not prosecute their case with too much enthusiasm, and they must use their strikes sparingly.

If they go at this too hard – if they seem to be too intransigent – then the public support they almost certainly enjoy right now will begin to reverse. At that point Rishi Sunak and his education secretary will sniff a famous victory; the kind of victory that they desperately need if they are to reverse their appalling electoral prospects.

The teacher unions can win this dispute; but only if they are very, very careful.