The teacher strikes in Scotland this week mean more disruption for parents, but should be part of a wider discussion on how we value the public services that support our society.
Thinking things would get easier when the kids started school used to be a thing. No more childcare fees or sticking plaster solutions involving multiple relatives/friends. But then the reality sank in – the having to negotiate your way around school hours and, of course, the holidays. Flexible working has, for some, made things a bit easier.
But the last few years have brought more challenges. There has always been the odd snow day when schools have had to close, but nowadays the climate-related hazards have multiplied.
Then there is industrial action. Not just teacher strikes – Scotland has had two days of strikes this week and England and Wales could follow – but also train strikes which make things difficult for some schools, given ‘choice’ in the education system often means children commute long distances to go to school these days. Since the beginning of term, our school has also had to close for a day due to IT problems.
Add to this scenario the last few years of Covid-related problems and post-Covid problems, including anxiety issues among many children which make getting them into school challenging and possibly inadvisable as well as more sickness generally [the UK Health Security Agency advised children with a temperature to stay home from schools and nurseries last week], and parents of school-aged children are facing a very turbulent picture.
Meanwhile, schools are more and more stretched, like all public sector organisations. Budgets have been cut for years, yet the demands on teachers, from Covid education recovery to wider social issues, have only increased. While some teachers are fairly well paid – the gender pay gap figures show schools have among the widest gender pay gap, often because those at the top of the corporate-style academy trusts and earning a six-figure sum are mainly men – many are not, including teaching assistants and then there are all the support staff, from dinner ladies to cleaners. Before Covid, many schools were forced to cut their teaching assistants due to budget problems. Since Covid schools are struggling to keep those they have as they leave schools for higher paid jobs in supermarkets. And while schools have been spared the brunt of the energy support changes, they will still have to find more money to cover energy bills from already depleted resources, meaning more difficult decisions about what to cut back on next.
All of this pressure has a knock-on impact on the wider world of work. Parents may have to take time off to look after children whose schools are closed or if their children cannot attend school for other reasons. They may have to work around school-related problems or the dreaded homeschooling. And let’s not forget that teachers may also be parents.
The pressures on schools and parents due to all the various headwinds facing the world today are hard enough to negotiate without added ones caused by years of underfunding and a failure to recognise the value of our public services. The mantra that the private sector is the gold standard and that only those organisations – or job roles – that deliver money are the ones that matter is wearing a bit thin now. Teaching can be very rewarding and people don’t generally get into it for the money, but what we pay schools and how we structure them is a reflection of our values as a society. We didn’t call teachers essential workers for nothing.