My son's teacher is right to strike

'They are not militants who care more for political point-scoring than for their pupils. They could not care for them more'
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The Independent Online

My eldest son, like thousands of other children, found himself with an extra day off school yesterday. His primary, like a fifth of those in our borough, was closed. The occasion? A one-day strike by teachers demanding an increase in the allowance they get to help with the cost of living in London. At the moment they get £3,000, and they'd prefer it to be £4,000. The police get £6,000, although why it is so much more expensive for a policeman to live in London than a teacher, no one is prepared to explain.

My eldest son, like thousands of other children, found himself with an extra day off school yesterday. His primary, like a fifth of those in our borough, was closed. The occasion? A one-day strike by teachers demanding an increase in the allowance they get to help with the cost of living in London. At the moment they get £3,000, and they'd prefer it to be £4,000. The police get £6,000, although why it is so much more expensive for a policeman to live in London than a teacher, no one is prepared to explain.

Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, insisted prior to the action that it would do the teachers' cause no good, would risk damage to the education of the children and would inconvenience parents. Whether or not it would achieve its real aim, of embarrassing the Government, she omitted to comment.

What is embarrassing for the Government is the timing of a leaked document that confirms the Treasury is looking into adopting regional pay scales for public service workers anyway. Essentially, both the Government and the National Union of Teachers see a similar problem and a similar solution (as the financial inducements to join the Metropolitan Police have already shown). But they've been locked in conflict for so long that it has become a habit. Neither side likes to give in.

It is notable that the areas of London most behind the call to strike are the most deprived inner London areas – Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Southwark and Lambeth. Critics would say that this is simply because they're lefty areas full of lefty militants. But it actually has a lot to do with the straightforward fact that it is in these areas that schools are facing the biggest problems. Much of Labour's education policy is not as successful with helping the sort of school that is common in such areas as it is with driving up standards in less polarised schools.

My son's is by no means one of the schools in great difficulty. It has a mixed bunch of pupils, with many coming from affluent households, as well as from the poorest. Early on in my son's nursery education, I remarked that the books he brought home from school to be read to him were way below what he could cope with. It was gently explained to me that some of the children had to be shown what a book was and how it worked – sometimes because English wasn't their first language, sometimes due to other parental shortcomings.

This may not appear to be the sort of educational challenge that an extra £1,000 a year for living in London would help with, but the odd thing is that it is. Because in the areas with the very mixed populations – those in which the strikes are most prevelant – it's not just the schools that are polarised, it's everything, even the parks, even the shops. Only if you are in dire straits will you qualify for a council house in these areas – a single, newly qualified teacher would be on the lists for donkey's years. Yet teachers' salaries exclude them – just – from most of the part-purchase schemes run by housing associations.

Meanwhile, as an expanding middle class seeks bigger homes, cheaper house prices and private rentals, prices even in these parts of town are quite, quite insane. The pay rise teachers want so much translates into a mortgage that's £25,000 or £30,000 more than they can presently afford. In the inner city, it will lift them out of no man's land.

At the same time, though, back at school they are up to their armpits in another aspect of the same problem. Because it is so difficult for any but the most needy to get council accommodation, many estates have "sunk" under the weight of the social problems that are concentrated in them. And these are the places that provide the pupils at London's most hard-to-staff schools.

Kingsmead Primary School, which mainly serves the Kingsmead estate in Hackney, east London, is typical. It is the subject of a Channel 4 documentary series, Boys & Girls, which follows several individual pupils though a year there. One episode focuses on Jordan, a 10-year-old boy who lives with his mother and two brothers but has met his father only twice. His mother has just broken up with a boyfriend of six years who was violently abusive and still comes round in the early hours to terrorise the family through the letterbox.

The mother, Lorraine, expects a lot of maturity from her boys. When one calls her mummy, she says: "Mummy! That's what little kids call their mums!" Jordan himself works hard at pleasing his mother by stripping wallpaper prior to redecoration.

At first Jordan seems a lively, lovely, engaged little boy. It is at school that his troubles become apparent. Again and again his teacher, Lisa, confounds his violent outbursts with gentle patience. She cuddles him, and holds him, and strokes him. Her reward is seeing him coming to school again, behaving much better after last term, when he was excluded.

He in turn thinks Lisa is "wonderful". The constant emotional engagement looks, and must be, exhausting. But after a bout of impetigo, Jordan starts refusing school again. By the time he is persuaded back – by the film crew – his violent, controlling behaviour is again much worse. Just keeping Jordan in the classroom is a full-time job. How Lisa has any time for the other 29 pupils is a mystery.

Carla, in her final year of primary school, has a family that was obviously much less happy than Lorraine's to be seen on camera. Viewers do not know much about the family, except that social workers are involved in the home. Carla is "uncontrollable" and "confrontational" and faces permanent exclusion if she does not buck up at school. Her comment on Kingsmead is: "It's quite rubbish, but still... I have to learn." It quickly becomes apparent that Carla, like Jordan, depends on her teachers for much more than just learning. Her neediness, and the relaxation in her tough, tense little face when she is in the ambit of her hero, Trisha, the head, is gigantic. And because she's such a difficult 11-year-old, she's in that ambit often.

Neither Jordan nor Carla gets on well with the other pupils, with Carla in particular preoccupied by her ostracisation from her peers.They look to their teachers, above all else, for affection and something they believe to be a parental love. Carla tells Trisha she is beautiful, and writes a story in which a lovely princess called Trisha has a little girl called Carla.

What is clear in looking at the work done within these schools is that it is not measurable by the sort of targets that the Government appears most interested in. It is often pointed out that the very teachers who so much want extra money for working in London are the same ones who are most vehemently opposed to the Government's preferred option, performance-related pay.

But the attempts we see in Boys & Girls to make an education out of Carla's love and Jordan's admiration must be invested before any measurable performance begins at all. Time, energy, emotion: all are spent on just trying to make these children capable of functioning. Their teachers are social workers, psychoanalysts, nurses and surrogate parents. No wonder the fight to persuade more people to teach in their schools is one that needs every possible inducement.

The teachers at my son's school may have been on strike yesterday, but they are not militants who care more for political point-scoring than for their pupils. They could not care for them more. It's not the strikers' position that is political posturing. Maybe the Government should start asking whether their position is.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

'Boys & Girls' is on Channel 4, starting on Sunday at 8pm

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