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Our schools are at breaking point. Teachers are right not to rule out strike action

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TEACHERS have voted to consider strike action if the government refuses to offer a serious pay rise following years of real-terms cuts.

The fact that delegates at both teacher conferences that took place over the Easter weekend — the NASUWT’s in Birmingham and the National Education Union NUT section’s in Brighton — were prepared to risk taking this step demonstrates how widespread anger is among education professionals.

That’s hardly surprising. An OECD study last autumn found that teachers’ pay had shrunk 12 per cent in real terms between 2005 and 2015.

At the same time as wages have been forced down as part of the government’s “austerity” mantra, the working lives of teachers have become more difficult across the board.

Such is the pressure placed on them by bad employers and a mindless regime of endless pupil testing and inspections that we heard yesterday the profession faces a “mental health pandemic,” with rising rates of illness and even suicide.

At the same time, soaring child poverty — a direct result of Conservative cuts — has had tragic but entirely predictable consequences, with teachers observing more kids than ever coming to school so hungry they cannot concentrate or wearing dirty uniforms as parents cannot afford spare clothes to wear while outfits are washed.

Heartbreaking reports from the front line of children stealing food at lunchtime just to survive, or of a school being kept open despite heavy snowfall simply because the head feared its pupils would not get a hot meal that day otherwise, show enough is enough.

Teachers are not alone in having seen pay fall — the rising poverty among the children they teach is ample evidence of that, and TUC studies have shown Britain’s workers have seen their real earnings reduce by an average of 10 per cent up to 2015.

Last year, when we went through the annual ritual of supposedly concerned experts musing on the reasons for the latest stats showing falling pay, PwC’s chief economist John Hawksworth described it as “striking” that low unemployment was not leading to higher wages.

“In the 1970s or 1980s such low unemployment, combined with inflation rising towards 3 per cent, could have set off a wage-price spiral,” he pondered, as if the failure of wages to grow in line with inflation in modern Britain was some kind of odd meteorological phenomenon.

It is not. It is the direct result of government policy — and not simply in the public sector, where Chancellor Philip Hammond still seeks to pit workers against their private-sector comrades by implying their pay and pensions are to be envied.

Legislation shackling trade unions deprive workers of their most effective tool for winning higher wages — organising — or at least make it much more difficult, while a refusal to take action against employer abuses such as zero-hours contracts and bogus self-employment is forging a workforce dominated by insecurity and poverty.

Teachers who dare to walk out over pay will face the usual abuse from ministers claiming they are “letting pupils down,” as if that charge can possibly wash when we know the sacrifices they now regularly make for the children in their care, from providing breakfast at their own expense to working for free over holidays to run summer camps.

But we have recently seen teachers in the United States win major pay rises and significant additional funding for schools, by threatening school shutdowns in West Virginia and Oklahoma.

Teachers took a stand because years of tax cuts for the rich and spending cuts for public services had left schools in crisis. The stand they took has won dividends for their profession and their pupils alike.

The situation is not so different here.

Whether teachers will be forced onto the picket lines by a government that refuses to listen is up to ministers. If they are, our whole movement should be with them.

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