Minimum service levels for teachers: government plan to restrict strikes further undermines a profession in crisis

As an academic, I teach teachers. The promise of teacher education is that graduates will enter a challenging but meaningful job. Personal, professional and financial security should be the safe ground from which they can navigate this diffucult terrain.

But I see my students’ anxiety about the complex issues they are set to encounter in the classroom, as well as insufficient pay and funding.
Qualified teachers are leaving in large numbers as they find the workload overwhelming, and the pay lagging behind inflation.

Disputes over pay have led to teachers striking – but workload has also been a contributing factor.

Now, the UK government plans to introduce minimum service levels (MSLs) for striking teachers. A consultation on the plan has been launched, with the aim of MSLs being in place for the next academic year.

MSLs jeopardise public sector workers’ freedom to undertake full industrial action, by obliging them to still provide a minimum “service” to the public. This means schools could issue “work notices” to require specific staff members to work during a strike period.

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union, has called the move “shameful”. It adds fuel to the historical flames of teacher discontent. It also further complicates the historically ambivalent position of teachers toward striking.

On the one hand, an unconditional, unrequited labour of love is exacted and extracted from teachers. If they place their workers’ rights first they are seen as selfish and harming students. As with workers in other care-intensive – and often female-dominated – sectors, such as healthcare and social work, teachers’ demands for recognition and remuneration are downplayed by politicians and the public.

On the other hand, the productive work in all other sectors of the economy relies on teachers. By keeping children at school, they not only educate the future workforce, but also enable parents to engage fully in the present-day one.

History of teaching unions

In the nineteenth century, a formerly private and often clerical male profession became massively practised by women. Teaching became a vital part of the modern nation state’s effort to build society-wide institutions – but teachers had lower income and living standards than other educated professionals. This and their origin from and work among peasant and workers’ communities made unions a logical form of self-organising.

By the mid-20th century, UK teachers’ unions had gained important concessions when it came to pay, benefits and recognition across the profession. Yet especially since 1980, strikes have been crushed and unions weakened through draconian anti-labour laws.

A sequence of laws have further limited the definition of “lawful” industrial action and curtailed workers’ right to spontaneous collective organising. A high threshold to ballot for strikes was made mandatory, meaning that striking is lawful only upon a positive membership vote with a large turnout. The laws also prohibit solidarity action across sectors or among people working for different employers.

Now, minimum service levels will further restrict teachers’ ability to use strikes to campaign for better pay and working conditions – at a time when the profession is facing serious challenges.

Crisis in teaching

The cost of living crisis, intensification of workloads, and extended working hours have compromised the real pay and purchasing power behind teachers’ salaries, and their material working conditions.

The teaching profession also faces challenges that other “caring” professions encounter. New societal challenges and a growing mental health epidemic among children require new skills and approaches. But funding and time for professional development is scarce.

The profession is also ever more stratified between those employed on secure well-paid contracts, and supply teachers on short-term fixed duration contracts with little personal or workplace stability. Teachers’ unions now attempt to accommodate workers from across an increasingly stratified and fragmented professional field. Conflicting workers’ interests are easy targets for divide-and-rule tactics.

Mechanisms like MSLs can only go so far to hold back a flood of discontent. Decent pay and better funding for schools is imperative – rather than attempts to discredit teachers’ strikes as harming students. To give milk and honey, teachers need bread and butter.

The global pandemic lockdowns reminded us of the extent to which teachers’ work is crucial, not only for children to thrive, but also for our economic stability. Teachers form the backbone of productive work and of invisible emotional labour.

But despite their own financial and personal struggles, teachers are being pressured to become shock absorbers of a financial crisis and a mental health epidemic not adequately addressed by crumbling and acutely underfunded welfare services.

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