London GDST strike rally London GDST strike rally. Photo: Kate O'Neil

On Thursday morning, 1,500 teachers, members of the National Education Union, began the first of six days of strike action to defend their pensions. Counterfire members report from the picket lines

Newcastle High School for Girls – Tony Dowling

At the Newcastle High School for Girls the well attended picket was joined by NEU president Daniel Kebede, Regional Secretary Beth Farhat and Newcastle district secretary Shaun Dunlop.

Speaking at the picket Daniel said:

“The employer intends to fire and rehire them and employ them on lesser conditions, take them out of the Teachers Pension Scheme. Fire and rehire has no place in a democratic society. Its the thin end of the wedge – if they take their pensions they’ll go for academies next and then they’ll be after local authorities after that.”

The Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) proposes to remove its teaching staff at these independent schools from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme. If this were to go ahead, teachers will be at least 20% worse off on average in terms of the annual amount they receive in pension payments. The Trust has been unable and unwilling to demonstrate any financial imperative for this decision. What is in the public domain shows Trust finances to be in good health.

This attack by the GDST on teachers is both unnecessary and simply adds further to the cost of living crisis being suffered by workers across the country. Like many other workers, teachers’ salaries are in real-terms decline and exacerbated by soaring inflation, rising interest rates and the fuel and energy price hikes, so this outrageous ‘fire and rehire’ practice by employers needs to be fought.

That’s why Kay Gray, NEU rep at the Newcastle Girls School has agreed to join the People’s Assembly ‘Cost of Living Crisis’ rally in Newcastle on Saturday where we will be joining the dozens of similar demos and rallies around the country to build a movement that tells the Tory government that we refuse to pay for their crisis.

newcastle-gdst-strike-lg.jpgPhoto: Tony Dowling

South Hampstead High School – Orlando Hill

Seven o’clock in the morning, the sun had yet to rise and the picket line in front of the main gate of South Hempstead High School in north London was blooming with bright coloured balloons. You can tell it is a teachers’ strike from the well-drawn colourful placards. The school is part of the Girls Day School Trust (GDST) whose teachers are striking in defence of their pension scheme

The atmosphere was uplifting and confident. The headteacher came out for a chat with the teachers and asked the NEU not to tie their banner to the school’s railings. Students arrived, some with their violin cases on their back. Despite 35 teachers having agreed to lay down their pens, the senior leadership team decided to keep the school opened. Parents dropping the kids off showed support. One shouted out “go for it!”

The main problem that the teachers faced is what to do with so many teachers on the picket line. The picket line was split into smaller groups and sent to the other entrances and some teachers had to take off their yellow high-vis jackets and become supporters. 

As I rode off on my bicycle one of the teachers in the picket line shouted “happy revolution.” 

Photo: Orlando Hill
Photo: Orlando Hill

Streatham and Clapham High School – Ben Tunstall

Outside the gates of Streatham and Clapham High School, a group of 20 teachers spoke of the huge support there was for the strike amongst the staff and the parents. Parents had offered the strikers use of their houses for tea and toilets with more offers coming in as the morning progressed.

Spokesperson Dr Sadaf Choudhry, a Science teacher, said,

“Teachers aren’t paid enough and at a time of a cost of living crisis, it devalues the entire profession.”

She described the support from parents as “amazing” – less than half the students had turned up. For many teachers this is the first industrial action they have taken part in.

A Modern Languages teacher, Fiona H said,

“I’ve been on lots of marches but never a picket line. No to fire and rehire!”

The strikers were joined by Streatham MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy, herself an alumni of the school, and then joined a rally of all 23 schools outside GDST headquarters in Victora.

Photo: Ben Tunstall

London rally – Kate O’Neil

After their morning picket lines, hundreds of striking teachers with many homemade placards from throughout London converged at the Girls Day School Trust (GDST) office in Westminster, where they protested and presented a letter to the trustees. Trust management refused to come down and receive the letter – a clear sign of their lack of willingness to talk.

But the mood was confident and boisterous. One of the homemade placards read ‘You can’t teach girls to know their worth without teachers that know theirs.’ This theme was reiterated several times throughout the day. After submitting their letter, they marched to a hall where they held a lively rally with NEU joint general secretaries Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted.

At the rally, there was much talk of how the Trust has the money to keep teachers in TPS, the ‘eye watering’ salary of the CEO and the fact that these workers have not had a pay rise in two years.

Speakers also observed how GDST has been caught off-guard by the strike. Mary Bousted talked of how the trust thought they could quietly push through changes to TPS and ‘ignore the NEU’ but have been proved wrong. Two thirds of teachers working at these schools are NEU members and voted overwhelmingly to walk out. According to Kevin Courtney, the teachers’ 95% yes vote to strike with an 84% turnout was one of the biggest ballot results in the history of the British trade union movement.

One consequence of this was the feeling of tension at the schools, which were not used to experiencing industrial strife. Bousted spoke of a ‘discomfort’ on the part of school leadership and of how picketers at one school this morning were patrolled by senior staff who suggested they were ‘not being respectable.’ This shows the school bosses feel threatened. The fact that strike action against them is such foreign territory is something that the union can perhaps take advantage of.

Strikers were urged to prepare for, and stand up to, ‘divide and conquer’ strategies from management and to go back to the schools to build support among parents and non-striking colleagues. GDST teachers know this could be a drawn-out fight, but they are angry and determined to win.

Photo: Kate O’Neil
Photo: Kate O’Neil
Photo: Kate O’Neil
Photo: Kate O’Neil
Photo: Kate O’Neil
Photo: Kate O’Neil
Photo: Kate O’Neil

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.