Page last updated at 23:59 GMT, Friday, 25 April 2008 00:59 UK

School pay strikes then and now

By Mike Baker

Mike Baker

It was almost like the old days - I won't say the "good old days". More like Life on Mars meets the NUT.

The first national teachers' strike for over two decades transported us back to the mid-1980s and the long-running battles over pay.

Yet there are some crucial differences between then and now - differences that suggest we are a still a long way from returning to the long-lasting levels of disruption faced back then.

Let's drop in on 26 February 1985.

Schools are closing all over the country. The teachers are on strike over a pay increase of at least 1,200 a year.

The Times carries a front page picture of Glenys Kinnock, wife of the then leader of the Labour Party, joining the strike.

On that day an estimated 2,000 schools were forced to close and pupils were affected at a further 20,000, leaving only a very few untouched.

So far, so similar (well apart from the Labour leader's wife being on strike).

But this was not simply a one-day strike. The NUT was in the middle of a rolling programme of three-day strikes. Moreover, they were not alone: the NASUWT were staging their own half-day strike that day.

Respect lost

Back in 1985, the strikes followed several years of intermittent industrial action in schools. And it was to continue for another two years.

Nor was there an independent pay review body. In those days, teachers negotiated their pay directly with management through the Burnham Committee, which involved the six teacher unions, the local councils, and observers from the then Department of Education and Science.

The strikes ran for so long that a special Cabinet committee was set up to deal with the issue.

It only ended in 1987 with a Teachers' Pay and Conditions Act which set up a forerunner of the pay review body and which proposed a restructuring of teachers' pay to include incentive allowances.

By this time teachers had lost a great deal of public support and respect. It left the teacher unions greatly weakened and, in many ways, it marked a watershed in their role.

Until the mid-1980s the unions, especially the NUT which back then was easily the largest, had been central to the education policy-making process.

After this period, they were shunned by government. Moreover, because they had lost much public support, Mrs Thatcher's Conservative government was able to introduce far-reaching school reforms such as the national curriculum and testing, despite union opposition.

The long-running strike action meant a large proportion of the public was persuaded that policy towards schools was no longer the preserve of the teaching profession.

In short, the long-term effect of the pay strikes was pretty disastrous for teachers. Of course, there were wider factors at play - the general political mood swing of the country for a start - but it is a sobering precedent for the NUT.

This week's one-day strike is, of course, nothing like a return to the industrial unrest of 20 years ago, despite some commentators reviving memories of the "winter of discontent".

Although a few of the more active members of the NUT might wish it to be otherwise, it is hard to see this single one-day strike as anything other than a symbolic statement.

Doomed to failure

Mind you, I am sure the discontent over pay is absolutely genuine: inflation is eroding teachers' pay, although it has to be said that other groups have fared even less well.

But a 32% turnout on the ballot suggests there is no widespread appetite for industrial action. Attempts to move onto the next stage - rolling strikes in different parts of the country - look doomed to failure.

The refusal of the other unions to join the NUT is another sign that further strikes are not currently a realistic prospect.

That is not to say that teachers in other unions are happy with their pay award. But at the annual conferences of the NASUWT and the ATL, there were no calls for strike action.

Indeed the NASUWT surveyed its full membership and found no appetite for industrial action over pay. By contrast, its members are far more likely to take action over workload issues.

The 1980s strikes took a heavy toll on teachers. By contrast, until this year teachers have fared relatively well from the pay review body, showing real terms pay increases since 1997.

A one-day strike may or may not have been a useful shot across the government's bows but the scene does not look set for anything like a return to the past.

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