A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 01 2011

Public Education Across the Atlantic

Imagine for a second that you’re a student (“pupil”) in the United Kingdom today. You wake up and, ready to face the challenges of the day, select clothes to wear, scarf down breakfast and run out the door, eager as always to leave the house, see friends,¬†learn something. Soon enough you arrive at the gate to your school and you attempt to enter, only to nearly walk into a sign that looks something like this:

Perplexed, you wonder what could have happened. You decide to investigate. How about the newspaper stand? You attempt to cross the street and realize you don’t have anyone helping you navigate traffic:

By the time you reach the stand, you have a good idea of what’s going on. But you want to confirm. You pick up a copy of the local paper and read this. School’s are closed because of an¬†industrial action–in this instance, as part of comprehensive strikes in the public sector against a pension reform proposal, which asks workers to contribute slightly more and retire slightly later.

Indeed, almost half of UK schools were closed today. Several major teachers unions asked their teachers to strike. Though most of the public sector was affected by the industrial action, the schools were undoubtedly hit hardest.

It is certainly an unfortunate day for you, a pupil in the UK.


I happen to be in England right now. Every TV news station is airing non-stop footage of the strikes (crowding out Wimbledon coverage). The talking heads debate the cause, effectiveness, legitimacy and legacy of the strikes. The newspapers echo this, only in text format.

I don’t know enough about UK politics to comment much about the current crisis. But, based on what little I’ve read, the proposed pension reforms seem reasonable in light of current economic conditions. The government is pressed for money, and pensions are bloated. The private sector has made cuts. Why can’t the public sector as well?

What infuriates me most is the way the teachers union attempted to ensure the closure of as many schools as possible, in order to increase the magnitude of its negative impact. When education secretary Mike Gove implored heads of school to enlist parents and other volunteers to fill in staffing gaps to minimize disruptions to student learning, a union leader responded with “grave concerns“:

We would strongly advise our members not to accept voluntary help to cover for absent staff this Thursday. When qualified staff are present, the voluntary help of parents is a very welcome contribution to schools and something to be very much encouraged. However, where qualified staff are unable to supervise them, the presence of voluntary, temporary helpers can have very serious implications for the safety and well-being of pupils.

Translated: “Don’t let people fill our teachers’ spots. Our strike will be most effective when we minimize the number of students learning. Therefore do the most that you can to abandon the schools!”

I heard a working mother sobbing on TV because she could not find any child care for her kids. It was sad, but not rare. The strikes were extremely disruptive to schools.

This brings me to a point: the level of unionization in the UK (and other European countries) is still far higher than what we see in the US. Even though Margaret Thatcher boldly smashed the unions in the 1970s, today’s strikes show that their remnants still play a significant role in British society. Education basically ground to a halt. Could something like that ever happen in the US today?

I find the union dynamic in education intriguing. Others do too. Terry Moe of Stanford, for one, finds teachers unions to be an insidious influence. I presume that he believes that the US needs someone to do to teachers unions what Thatcher did to manufacturing unions. Might Chris Christie fit the bill? Only time will tell.

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    Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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