‘Girl, 13, crushed to death by a falling branch as she sat on park bench because her teachers were out on strike’ ran the Daily Mail headline the day after 25,000 teachers and civil servants went on strike to protest against the government’s pension reforms.
The rationale behind such a controversial headline? Sophie Howard would not have died if teachers and civil servants had not taken industrial action.
While there is some truth in the Daily Mail’s headline, it is ludicrous to suggest that teachers at her Peterborough school are in any way to blame for her shocking death.
The blame could just have easily be laid at the feet of Lord Hutton’s parents for giving birth to him. Or even their parents, ad infinitum.
So who, or what, is really to blame for the sad passing of this teenage girl?
As thousands of people marched through Manchester at the end of last month, the answer was still being hotly debated. Not by the marchers, however – they had already fixed their steely gaze on the government: “Con-Dem the Coalition”, read one placard.
“‘Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the Tories on the top. Stick the Liberals in the middle and we’ll burn the bloody lot!” sung one marcher defiantly.
Earlier on the morning of the strikes Mark Serwotka, General Secretary for the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), accused the Cabinet office minister Francis Maude on the BBCs Today programme of ‘floundering’ over public sector pensions.
“While we’re talking, we’re not negotiating,” he said. “It’s time for [the government] to engage properly.”
Mr Maude responded by saying the government was taking part in the talks in “good faith” and they were “making progress”.
Speaking to Mancunian Matters on the Manchester picket lines, Paul Fogerty, Secretary for the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) said: “Negotiations are both way – there has to be some give”.
The blame continued to be thrown back and forth as the day’s marches progressed to their culmination.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said the strikes were wrong and that parents and the public have been let down because “the government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner.”
Regardless of whether the government or public sector workers are at fault, pension reforms have caused the first mass strikes since the general election.
In Manchester alone more than 240,000 children were forced to take a day off as 383 schools across the region closed.
Martin Kettle, writing in the Guardian, referred to the strikes as the coalition government’s Iraq moment.
While the marches in Manchester and London were nowhere near the million-strong marches held in opposition to the Iraq war, feelings ran just as high.
“We’re here today because the pensions we were all promised, that we all worked so hard for are being stolen from us by a government that nobody voted for,” said Karl Walker, 41, a teacher from Stretford.
Pensions have been deemed ‘unaffordable’ by the government following a commissioned report into public sector pensions by Lord Hutton.
The proposals put forward intend to increase the pension age to 68 by 2044; final salary schemes will end and instead be based on the number of years of service as opposed the final salary and pension contributions will increase by three percent.
The report states that pensions have to be reformed because they are infair to the taxpayer and “the current schemes have not responded flexibly to changes in working lives and longevity”.`
However, the report shows that public sector pension payments peaked at 1.9 per cent of GDP in 2010-11 and will gradually fall over the next fifty years to 1.4 per cent in 2059-60.
Speaking outside All Saints Park, to a crowd of teachers and civil servants, Barry Lovejoy, of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “It is a fib of affordability.
“Employment in the public sector dropped by 33,000 this quarter while the average FTSE 500 director’s salary rose by 55%.
“This isn’t a great pension reform. It’s a great pension robbery.”
While large numbers of private sector workers supported industrial action on June 30th, they were not in the majority.
Only 38% suported civil servants’ strikes whereas 50% opposed them. The YouGov poll also showed that 49% thought it was wrong for teachers to strike; only 40% thought it was right.
Nonetheless, the NUT were not surprised nor deterred by this data.
Speaking to Mancunian Matters, Kevin Brown, a senior NUT member, said: “Many private sector workers have no proper pension provision.
“The government should be acting on this, not attacking public sector pensions.”
Dr Erica Mitchell, a teacher from a Tameside school she wished remained anonymous, showed me her pension slip.
“I’m going to end up w orking 6 years longer, paying almost £50 a month more into my pension, and I’m going to be losing almost £8,000 over 20 years because of these changes.”
Her pension slip showed her annual pension figure: £7194,65 after 25 years of service.
As the march in Manchester reached Castlefield Arena, Manchester Kids Against the Cuts unfurled a giant bandage with the words ‘Education cuts never heal’ written in mock blood.
Jacob Baldon, an A-level student in Halifax and self-proclaimed Black Anarchist, said: “Their future is our future, that’s why we’re here.
“To support those teachers that supported us in Parliament Square during the student protests last year.”
The black bandana that hid Jacob’s face could not however, hide the confusion, distrust and betrayal that so obviously brought him to the march.
A clear sense of, not who is to blame but, who is to hurt the most becomes strikingly clear.
Not teenage girls like Sophie Howard, though her death was a freakish and sad accident; not the teachers who will retain some modicum of wealth upon retiring and certainly not the government who, despite having no mandate, face no strength in opposition.
The real victims of pension reforms and industrial action like the teachers’ strikes of June 30th, are the children whose education suffers and whose opportunities suffer when they themselves enter the workforce, skilled but at the bottom of a 68 rung ladder.