Striking is how the light gets in

One of our former branch members wrote this incredibly powerful reflection on the three days of strike action taken in December 2021, and the transformative power that we are fighting to return to higher education. Thanks to them for sharing it with us, and thanks to everyone who is part of the fight to make higher education a transformative space once again.


Striking is how the light gets in. It reminds us of all the positive things about working in education, that there are people on the ground trying to circumvent ‘the system’ and do good work. It is at once exhausting and energising. These are not original thoughts by any means though, and many similar words have been written in the past, these are mine.

One specific encounter in the last three days has reminded me that education is special and worth fighting for on every level. I was in an online rally on Thursday, with some external guest speakers. One speaker was from a university currently in local dispute, in addition to our national one. He was reporting live, from the picket which felt so exciting, a moment from the ‘front line’ for those of use joining remotely. His name seemed vaguely familiar, which I suppose isn’t unusual these days. Social media in particular has widened the number of people I know by name only, but it gradually dawned on me that we had actually met in real life. A very long time ago, I used to be a teacher and this articulate and passionate speaker, eloquently talking about the local dispute, had been a shy introverted teenager in the very first GCSE History class that I taught. His memory of our encounter is likely different to mine, so I describe it below with this disclaimer, but this is how it showed itself to me.

Education has within its power to be transformative as well as being frustrating, and beaming out from a London picket, here was a reminder of both of those things. As well as being shy and introverted, the teenager I taught was also super-smart. I remember clearly, even back then, my frustration at a GCSE exam marking scheme that relied on hoop jumping and did not leave room for those able to think beyond it. I remember explaining, time after time, that while this or that answer was well-argued and ‘right’ it would be difficult for an examiner to award it any marks because it did not do what the mark scheme dictated. It felt like crushing the abilities of a very bright student, whilst at the same time trying to encourage him to jump through hoops in order to get through the exam. ‘It will be different once you’ve got through GCSE.’

I do not remember what grade that he got in the end, I suspect he did end up with an A and I do know that the whole of that class, bar one student, got a C or above. It was before the days of numbered grades and even before the advent of the A* it was so long ago! Based on the one, rather brief encounter with this teenager, now a lecturer at a university and active in his union branch, I’m so proud of what he has become. I can’t claim to take any credit for that at all, but as we stand in the same union, in the same dispute, on the same (virtual) picket, I am reminded that education has the power to transform all those who are involved in it. That early encounter with a bright student who was in danger of failing because of the way the system was constructed was transformative for me.

I did not last long in secondary education. Even in 2000, when I abandoned full-time teaching, the workload and constraints on creativity were stifling. Yet my whole ‘career’, such as it is, has been in education of one sort or another. Post-school teaching I was in museum education and for the past nearly ten years, in universities. All of these jobs have had a profound effect on me as a person, on my views and outlook, but it is through union membership and activism that these views and outlook have been cemented into my work. Imagine a university where metrics do not matter, where good work is properly funded regardless of how lucrative it is, where there is no REF, no imperative to chase grants with miniscule chances of success, where creativity, exploration and experimentation are enough. The conversations I have with colleagues now are not wildly different to those I had with that teenager. ‘Here is the system, it’s a bit broken, this is what we need to do to get around that and make it work in the best way we can.’ I know that many similar conversations take place everyday, up and down the country.

We fight for a sector where these conversations are no longer necessary and the last three days have reminded me of that. I’m tired, but standing both in person and virtually with colleagues on pickets, talking to them, and my encounter with the past remind me that education is always worth fighting for. I return to work energised by it, more determined to make a difference, in the same way that I was determined to make a difference in schools. I am more determined to fight on, with more strike action if necessary, for the higher education sector that we all want, need and deserve. I am reminded that the transformation of people is the goal of education. We all need a reminder of the light sometimes, and striking is how that light gets in.