The word of the day is “strike”
... but broadcasters and newspapers have failed Maths and English again.
On Monday, the BBC published the ‘independent’ report on impartiality and its news coverage of economics. I wrote about it yesterday. Today, BBC News summarised the Prime Minister’s response to questions about the teachers’ strike like this:
During the weekly PMQs, Rishi Sunak said that teachers have been given "the highest pay rise in 30 years", including a 9% raise for newly-qualified teachers, and that he believed "children deserve to be in school"
In fact, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) explains, “with inflation currently around 10%, most teachers are likely to experience real-terms salary cuts this year”.
This year’s reduction comes after repeated real terms cuts dating back to the Lib/Con coalition in 2010. Sunak’s “highest pay rise in 30 years” — 5% for most experienced teachers in September 2022, 9% for new and inexperienced teachers — is, per the IFS, “[among] the biggest cash-terms increases in teacher salaries for over 15 years”. But — it’s a Hollywood sign-sized BUT — in real terms, most teachers’ salaries fell by 5%.
Overall, salaries for experienced and senior teachers have fallen by 13% in real terms since 2010. Teachers in the middle of the salary scale have seen cuts of around 10% and starting salaries are down 5% in real terms. The smaller cut to starting salaries is due to the government’s concerted attempts to make them hit the ‘magic’ policy promise number of £30,000. They want them to hit that number because it sounds large when printed in tabloid newspapers.
In the same live blog — which consistently uses the loaded term “walkouts” to refer to strike action that 90.44% of voting National Education Union members supported (on a turnout of 53.25%) — the BBC published the following ‘fact-check’:
Are teachers getting a 15.9% pay rise?
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan told Sky News earlier that “40% of classroom teachers this year will be receiving up to 15.9% rise". This figure combines the School Teachers' Review Body's increase and also pay progression. Teacher pay increases in England, which came into effect in September 2022, varied, with less experienced teachers getting larger percentage increases. The pay band for qualified teachers with the least experience is M1. They will see their pay go up 15.9% as they move up to the next band M2 in 2022-23 (outside London) which you would expect to happen to almost all of them after their first year. This group of teachers makes up about 6% of classroom teachers in England. Looking at experienced teachers, on the other hand, who make up more than half of all classroom teachers, are much less likely to receive a pay progression increase. About 40% of experienced teachers are expected to move up a pay band this year and they will be getting a 9% or 10% rise. So the Education Secretary is correct, but the “up to 15.9%” does some heavy lifting.
This is a ‘great’ example of why so much so-called ‘fact-checking’ in the media turns out to be toothless and ultimately distorting in its own right. Keegan’s intention was to deceive — hence the use of advertisers’ favourite weasel phrase “up to” — and the BBC has enabled that. It is not a rise in real terms and, even if it were, the 15.9% would only apply to inexperienced teachers moving up a grade. To say “the Education Secretary is correct but [the stat] does some heavy lifting” is wrong. Keegan lied to Sky News and the BBC passed it on.
The framing of stories contributes to the overall distortion of the causes of the strike. A piece by the BBC’s Employment correspondent, Zoe Conway, headlined Strikes Update: How Wednesday 1 February’s walkouts will affect you, uses that w-word again and begins:
It already has a nickname: Walkout Wednesday. Hardly a term of endearment but a reflection of just how widespread the disruption will be. In fact, it's probably going to have the greatest impact of any strike day so far, because thousands of schools will be closed with parents stuck at home reliving the joys of working from home whilst trying to help their offspring to learn something.
Who gave it that nickname? The Daily Mail, three weeks ago. And inevitably a press keen on alliteration and inclined to avoid phrases like “general strike” have run with it. The flippant name undermines the seriousness of strikers’ concerns and the fact that industrial action is taking place across so many sectors.
Leading with the “impact” (often described as “the disruption” in BBC coverage) and combining it with the assumption that most parents will supervise home learning is taking a side. (We’ve taken sides too; my step-daughter was not in school today and we did not cross the digital picket line by getting her to complete the work set by her school, which will not be marked anyway.)
Consider too these lines from later in Conway’s piece:
Children may be set work to do remotely - but striking teachers are not required to do so. In addition, there is no automatic right for a parent affected by a lawful strike to claim compensation if they lose pay looking after a child.
Teachers are “not required to do so” because that would entirely undermine the point of the strike which is a removal of labour to demonstrate the necessity of that labour. That line, coupled with the ‘off-hand’ mention of a parental right to compensation, is a tacit acceptance of the government’s plans to legislate on “minimum service levels” and further restrict the right to strike.
Subtly, the BBC story nudges the reader towards the same argument screamed by Leo McKinstry — the result of a 50s spiv and a bin bag full of piss being shoved in the machine from The Fly — in a Sun column headlined The government can face down the militant unions – but they need to take five brave steps first. He writes:
... the Government should stipulate that a strike will only be legal if it has the support of the absolute majority of the entire union membership in a ballot. At present the threshold is just 40 per cent, so the minority can dictate the policy. At the same time, unions should be required to give at least a fortnight’s notice of a strike to employers, as opposed to the present obligation of just one week. In addition, each separate walkout should need its own mandate at the ballot box. At present unions can call an endless programme of stoppages simply on the basis of one vote that could have been held months ago. Above all, the Government should end the unique legal immunity trade unions enjoy from being sued for damages that arise from their actions.
As I was writing this paragraph, Conway’s report on Radio 4’s PM concluded:
The government says pay rises would fuel inflation.
Is that true? The report didn’t ask that question for listeners; it gave the government the last word. Similarly, on the Today programme this morning, Nick Robinson opened a segment by comparing the teachers’ strike to severe weather and Covid, then did an interview with Keegan where, rather than seeking to challenge her rhetoric about “inflation-busting pay rises”, he echoed her phrasing in questions.
A BBC News article School strikes: How much are teachers paid and why are they striking? frames the dispute like this:
Unions say inflation means the pay increases are really cuts. They want schools to get extra money to ensure pay rises do not come from existing budgets.
“Unions say…” It’s a fact, not a claim and — as I’ve already shown — the unions are not alone in making it. Returning to the BBC Live Blog, its headline this afternoon was
Children deserve school, says PM, as teachers join strikes. What teacher would claim otherwise? Meanwhile, on Radio 4’s PM, the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, was allowed to claim that “even a day’s missed schooling can have a serious effect on children’s education”. The additional bank holiday for the King’s coronation on May 8 was not mentioned.
The Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the teachers’ strike was as deceptive and distorted as you might expect. It splashed today with a piece headlined Teachers who strike could still claim pay bylined to the paper’s education editor, Louisa Clarence-Smith, and a junior news reporter. It’s balanced on a letter from the Education Secretary and a small number of tweets, most of which cannot be found (they may have been deleted). The story begins:
Striking teachers will be paid, officials fear, with unions set to force the closure of classrooms at the vast majority of schools on Wednesday. More than 100,000 members of the National Education Union are expected to walk out in the most disruptive teachers’ strike in more than a decade, with 85 per cent of schools in England and Wales set to close to some or all year groups. However, schools have made the decision to close without knowing which teachers will actually be on strike because of laws that mean union members cannot be forced to tell their bosses. On Tuesday night, concerns were raised that this could enable striking teachers to claim that they are working and therefore be paid. In a letter to all schools, Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, told head teachers that any striking staff must not be paid. The letter, seen by The Telegraph, reads: “In all cases, where employees take strike action they are not entitled to be paid for any period during which they are on strike.” Mrs Keegan also stressed that teachers not on strike should turn up to work and could be asked to cover for striking teachers, although schools will not be able to force them to do so.
This is heavy spin on a standard letter by Keegan; you don’t get paid when you strike but if headteachers closed school without knowing staff were on strike it could be possible for people who intended to strike to say they didn’t choose to be out. But look at the Telegraph’s phrasing (“officials fear”; “concerns were raised”) and you’ll see it’s unsubtly trying to trigger its readers’ “something for nothing” rage.
Of the social media posts quoted in the story, only one is searchable, a tweet in reply to TalkTV’s bilious blowhard, Mike Graham, which purports to be from a teacher who is passionately opposed to strikes. The Telegraph quotes them saying:
If [head teachers] close the school because teachers won’t say if they’re striking in advance, they’ll get paid.
It doesn’t include the previous tweet…
And as a teacher who left her union and doesn’t support strikes, I’m peeved that they’ll get paid for sitting at home while many of us just want to crack on and teach our students. We’ve so much to cover with exam classes.
… or note that the Twitter user is a supporter of ‘parents group’ UsForThem, which is quoted later in the story. I say ‘parents group’ because UsForThem, which spun up during the height of the pandemic as a campaign group demanding schools fully reopen before pivoting to anti-vax rhetoric, is linked to opaque funding and connected with Tory Party factions such as the so-called Covid Recovery Group.
The Telegraph writes:
Arabella Skinner, of the parents’ group UsForThem, said: “By closing schools yet again, we are putting our children’s needs behind adults and we are suggesting that attendance at school is optional.”
UsForThem has fewer followers on Twitter than I do (33k vs 42k), while just over 12k people follow its group on Facebook. It is a fringe outfit given a big voice by papers including the Telegraph and The Daily Mail. Its co-founder, Molly Kingsley, is a contributor to the Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Telegraph, The Critic and Spiked. Like so many think tanks and pressure groups, it exists to give its leaders something pseudo-impressive to put under the name during TV appearances.
A further story by Clarence-Smith — this time written with data journalist, Ben Butcher — headlined England’s teachers among the best paid for fewest hours in Europe continues to the deliberate and brazen distortions. It begins:
Teachers in England are among the highest paid for the fewest hours in Europe and the developed world, analysis has found ahead of a mass walkout over pay. Data published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that average salaries for experienced teachers in England are higher than in countries including Sweden, Switzerland, France and Finland. However, teachers in most state schools in England are legally required to be at work and available for work for a maximum of 1,265 hours over 195 days of the year – lower than the requirements for any other developed nation which provided data to the OECD, except for Luxembourg.
The reason the Telegraph doesn’t link to the OECD data it quotes is that it’s not current; the newspaper is using figures from 2015 to make its claims. The most recent OECD data on teachers’ salaries do not include the UK. In 2022, the OECD said that England was one of the few countries in the group where teacher salaries had gone down since 2010.
The claim about teachers’ working hours is also laughable. There is a huge difference between the hours teachers are legally required to work and the hours they actually work. In 2019, a paper by the Nuffield Foundation and the UCL Institute for Education found a quarter of teachers worked more than 60 hours a week, that the workload and high working hours had not changed in 20 years, and that on average teachers worked 47 hours a week in term time, 8 hours more than teachers in comparable OECD countries.
As with the previous article, Clarence-Smith quotes a fringe pressure group; this time it’s the Campaign for Real Education, which claims to be on “neither the left nor right” but appears almost exclusively in right-wing papers and on right-wing news channels such as GB News. The Telegraph writes:
Chris McGovern, the chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: “Our education system is so expensive. We pay more per head than most counties in the world. We need to reward the best teachers, but we don’t need to reward the poor teachers. Our teachers are paid well compared to many teachers in Asian countries who do much better than our children do. Strike action is despicable, iniquitous and inexcusable – and it’s very short-sighted and selfish. The solution is within the existing budget.”
According to figures from the House of Commons Library, public expenditure on education has fallen as a proportion of GDP each year from 2011/12 to 2018/19. There was a small increase in 2019/20 (the first since 2009/10). OECD analysis put the UK’s public expenditure on education at 3.9% of GDP in 2018, ranking 19th out of the organisation’s 37 members. A 6.1% of GDP figure is sometimes bandied around but that includes spending on private schools.
A further Telegraph piece bylined to Butcher and the paper’s digital projects editor, Alex Clark, and headlined, Mythbusting the school strikes: the truth behind teachers’ pay and workload, is mostly myths and very little busting (though I can’t guarantee that the writers didn’t cum in their trousers). Despite giving (relatively) accurate figures on real terms pay cuts and working hours, the authors read the same UCL and Nuffield Trust report that I mentioned earlier but reach this conclusion:
… working hours of at least 45 hours [have been] recorded since the mid-1990s. Astonishingly, [the researchers] estimate that just 21 of these hours are directly dedicated to actual teaching.
That twist is followed by this chart:
You can’t teach a lesson without planning a lesson; without marking you can’t tell how students are responding to and learning from teaching; your school can’t have data on pupil performance or function as an organisation without management and admin; interacting with pupils and parents is also an intrinsic part of teaching. ‘Other’ likely includes things like assisting with extra-curricular activities and taking part in professional development. All the chart demonstrates is that The Daily Telegraph is either ignorant about what teachers do or playing at ignorance in service of its ideology (I lean heavily towards the latter).
At the end of the article, Butcher and Clark further mistreat the data:
Just 51 per cent of people support the teachers, way below the 64 per cent support for nurses, according to YouGov. And not even the teachers seem convinced; with a low turnout, just 48 per cent of union members actively backed the strike. Despite this, teachers remain one of the country’s most respected occupations; 68 per cent of adults would be happy for their child to work in the sector, behind only Australia in international rankings.
If the Telegraph supported the action, it would say “over 50% of people support teachers” but, because it doesn’t, we get “just 51%” and a comparison to the public’s solidarity with nurses. This is a classic attempt to play groups off against each other and the turnout figure (53.25%) and level of support (90.44%) are not included because the writers want to avoid the reader coming to their own conclusion.
The insinuation that public support for the strikes is soft was the central argument in The Times’ leader column (The Times view on striking teachers: Harsh Lesson):
Indeed, striking teachers should not expect to continue to count on public sympathy if the walkouts continue. Parents will rapidly lose patience if today’s disruption to their daily routine is repeated too often. Arguments about cost of living pressures will cut little ice with those trying to get one child to school while looking after two others stuck at home, particularly when all families are being hit by rising prices and many have far more to lose from persistent high inflation. The reality is that the NEU campaign can succeed only by inflicting damage on children. That is not a position that any teacher should be comfortable taking.
Translation: “Don’t rely on the public’s support; we intend to do our level best to undermine and erode it.” Remember, The Times is edited by former Sun and Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher, who learned his national newspaper ‘chops’ at The Daily Mail, and that the paper’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, is a strike breaker and union buster to his desiccated core.
While The Times wraps its anti-union rhetoric and mumbled threats in faux-rationality, its more honestly loutish sibling, The Sun, simply growls and thrashes around. While its front page today avoided mention of the strikes — in line with Victoria Newton’s risk-averse attitude to splashes — inside the headline above an unhinged spread on pages 8 and 9 reads Lockdown 2023 with a strapline that predicts, with drool dripping from the sides of its mouth, a “UK DAY OF CHAOS”.
Like other papers, The Sun hammers away at the “Walkout Wednesday” angle, pulling from the big bucket of 1970s strike coverage cliches:
Union barons will today plunge Britain into lockdown as 500,000 workers go on strike — bringing the country to a near-standstill.
Several things are happening in that single sentence: Pretending that the strikes are not the result of democratic votes — with very high thresholds — but the doing of the “union barons” (who aren’t just elected officials); dog-whistling to those who obsess over the threat of new lockdowns; and pre-reporting events with a claim of “near-standstill” that cannot be disproved because it means whatever the paper says it does.
The Sun — in common with the BBC — features “human interest” stories about the strike on its live blog. One particularly grotesque one today was the tale of a mother who said her child had experienced “an anxiety attack” due to the strikes. The Sun presented the story like this:
Mum shares harrowing photo of her son, 12, having anxiety attack over teacher strikes A mum-of-three has slammed today's teacher walkouts, claiming the school strikes have triggered her eldest son back to the mental toll of lockdown. Becky Bohan, 43, shared a harrowing photo of her son curled up on the ground having an anxiety attack following today's strikes. In the photo, her eldest son can be seen cradled in a blanket lying on the floor of their home.
Nothing says supporting your child’s mental health like sharing a picture of them in a traumatic moment with The Sun. Could Bohan's business selling self-care workshops have played any role in wanting this coverage? You’d be a horrible cynic to say that.
The Daily Mail gleefully repeated its “Walkout Wednesday” line with a front page that screamed CYNICAL WALKOUT THAT BETRAYS OUR CHILDREN… AGAIN. At the top of the page, Sarah Vine’s makeover picture was plonked beside the headline Does anyone give a fig about all of us hard-working taxpayers whose lives are being wrecked by strikes?
The online version of Vine’s screed has an even more laughable headline Britain is now a nation split between silent strivers and noisy strikers... and right now, the latter are winning. Sarah Vine: silent striver is about as plausible as Keir Starmer: charismatic preacher or Alastair Campbell: moral leader. Vine writes:
Don't know about you, but I've come to view these endless strikes as a bit like the weather. They control my life, but there's not really an awful lot I can do about them. As with everything these days, one must just accept the general nightmare of it all and get around it as best one can. And so I haven't bothered phoning the doctor about the nagging pain in my hip, because the chances of anything being done about it are vanishingly small. As to my frozen shoulder, which is sometimes so painful it wakes me up at night, pah. Why bother? I'll only be made to feel guilty for taking up some poor underpaid, overworked nurse's time. Likewise public transport. I made the mistake of going to the theatre the other night. Honestly, it would have been easier (and cheaper) to get to the Moon. My son, who is in his A-level year, now has to get up at the crack of dawn to stand a chance of catching a delayed train or Tube to reach school on time — although this morning who knows if he will even go, since today the teachers are on strike, too. Meanwhile, my daughter and her university colleagues are saddling themselves with debt, paying full-on fees and accommodation costs while her lecturers strike for 18 days in February (on top of the extra days last term). I mean, there are only 28 days in February, and eight of those are weekends. So that's, what, two days the lecturers are working next month? No wonder so many of her cohort are dropping out.
While Vine has a little snap at the government — in which her ex-husband Michael Gove serves and for which she campaigned so hard — she concludes that it is the unions and the strikers who are most to blame:
The ordinary people of Britain, the ones who can't afford to lose the work, or who don't have nice gold-plated pensions or sharp-elbowed union reps, they're just the mugs in the middle.
Vine makes far more than the Prime Minister — the usual metric used by these papers when attacking people for having jobs they don’t approve of — but pantomimes that she is one of “the ordinary people of Britain”.
Lecturers in precarious employment; teachers whose pay is continually driven down as their conditions worsen; rail staff whose wages and working environments grow progressively worse? They are not ordinary people; they are the blob, the inconvenient mass, the tools of “the union barons” that Vine needs as the villains of her latest fairy story for angry retirees in the Home Counties.
I agree: nurses do deserve to be paid more, so do ambulance drivers and junior doctors. God knows they have difficult and important jobs. But there are reasonable demands and there is pie-in-the-sky. Double-digit pay rises, which is what they are demanding, are just not feasible in the current economic climate.
Vine is saying people should accept pay cuts, year after year. I hope the Mail quotes this back to her at her next contract renegotiation but I know they won’t. Sarah Vine belongs to the segment of the media class that only fails upwards, richly rewarded all the way. Her stories about the economy are told in the voice of a rich 1950s housewife with jackboot fantasies:
That is the point that Labour and the unions and all the mini-Corbynistas on the picket-lines either don't or won't understand: you paralyse the country, you cripple the economy, and a crippled economy can only afford to pay its workers less, not more. It's a vicious circle that only has one outcome: bankruptcy. Or Italy, if you prefer.
The Mail’s leader column is even more rabid:
How utterly dispiriting that the main teaching unions are still playing politics with the education of millions of children. After the chaos caused by Covid lockdowns, parents and pupils had craved normality at school. Sadly, their hopes lie in tatters. Just when children are struggling to get back up to speed after classrooms were shut during the pandemic, their education – including exam prospects – is once again being blighted by the teacher strikes.
Teachers worked throughout the pandemic; they kept schools open for the most vulnerable and delivered education virtually to millions of others. The Mail is involved in a concerted effort to wipe that history away; like the other papers I’ve discussed today, they lie effortlessly about pay:
It is hard to take seriously any claim that teachers have suffered more hardship than private sector workers since the financial crash. Pay remains relatively high, pensions are gold-plated, job security is good, and holidays are frequent and long.
All of that is to be expected from the Mail, Telegraph, and The Times but many people still pretend the BBC is different. It is not. The final two pieces on its live blog today were a case study of a mother whose child kept interrupting her while she tried to work ('She's calling 'mummy' every time I make a work call') and these paragraphs of analysis from Employment correspondent, Zoe Conway:
Could these strikes lead to irritation rather than pay rises? There are those within the trade union movement who would like today to be a day of shock and awe. A day when the disruption is so great that the government becomes desperate to make it stop and so finds more money for pay rises. That’s why seven trade unions chose to synchronise their strikes today affecting schools, trains, government departments, buses and universities. The day could very well have the most widespread impact of all the strikes so far as its hard for parents to escape the impact of school closures. But the country is not going to grind to a halt. This is not 1979 when bodies went unburied and the rubbish piled up. If the public feels merely irritation and inconvenience, is the government really going to feel compelled to act?
It’s just speculation about vibes and what’s more, it’s vibe speculation that repeats and amplifies myths about 70s strikes while straining to let the government off the hook. Today’s word was “strikes, for the BBC, perhaps tomorrow’s should be “disgrace”.
Thanks to DKD for reading today’s draft.
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The modern piss-weak version of the industrial correspondent.
I am a horrible cynic.
Great piece Mic! This really deconstructs the dominant narrative of blaming the strikers and attempting to sow division. Vine conveniently forgets that the Tory government put uni fees up to £9000 a year, of course.
One small point: University staff are striking 18 days across February and March, not all in February, which I am sure Vine knows perfectly well.
"Walkout Wednesday" reminded me of my favourite Sun headline from a civil service strike way back in 1981: "Brolly Brigade Plan Misery Monday" 😀