Teacher strikes: The DfE is running out of time

Written by: Dr Patrick Roach | Published:
Last chance? Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, says the DfE still has a 'window of opportunity' to get back around the negotiating table and end the pay dispute

An historic agreement between four unions to coordinate autumn strike action is a direct result of the government’s refusal to repair the damage caused by 13 years of underfunding education, says Dr Patrick Roach – but a 'window of opportunity' remains for the DfE to act...

Last week, the NASUWT and other education unions came together in an unprecedented show of unity to announce plans to continue our respective disputes with the government over teachers’ pay, workload and working conditions.

The NASUWT has already announced that we will undertake a ballot of members in schools and sixth forms in England this term and we have now committed to coordinating any future industrial action with the National Education Union, the Association of School and College Leaders, and National Association of Head Teachers, who are all conducting their own ballots over the coming months.

What has brought all four unions to this place for the first time in our collective history?

The immediate context is the overwhelming rejection last month by teachers and school leaders of the government’s pay offer.

A total of 87% of our members rejected the revised offer, an offer which was little advance on the pay award originally imposed for this year and which still represented a further significant real-terms pay cut for teachers. The government also failed to offer any measures to address the critical issues of teacher and leadership workload and working time which also form part of our dispute.

The secretary of state’s haste to attempt to strike a deal in just six days backfired and resulted in a contemptuous offer that received the response it deserved from the profession.

I have asked the education secretary to return to the negotiating table. She started the negotiations with us on pay and she cannot leave unfinished the job of settling this dispute.

Because this dispute has a wider context than just this year’s pay award. It comes on the back of the last 13 years in which schools and colleges have been systematically defunded, and where the pressures placed on teachers and headteachers have increased massively as services to support children and families have been reduced or axed entirely.

We have had 13 years in which we calculate that teachers’ pay has fallen by more than 25% in real-terms due to wages not keeping pace with inflation, while UK teachers continue to work the longest hours in Europe (OECD, 2019).

Thirteen years where the government has presided over a system of pay and conditions that gives permission to employers to overload teachers and school leaders and to disregard their right to a life outside work.

Indeed, the government has been forced to publish evidence that it sought to bury confirming that teachers are now working on average around 52 hours per week, with one in five working at least 60 hours per week on average (Adams et al, 2023).

We have had 13 years where teachers and school leaders have increasingly found themselves struggling to support vulnerable pupils who are being left waiting months, if not years, to access vital mental health assessments and support.

Thirteen years where schools are left in limbo as other agencies are so over-stretched and under-resourced that they are unable to respond when schools raise safeguarding concerns to keep children safe.

We want an education system built on high investment, not a system built for failure and which is educating children on the cheap. And, in the world’s sixth largest economy, there is simply no reason why governments cannot invest the resources needed to deliver the very best and ensure that no child is left behind.

A general election is looming, and ministers should be wary of an oncoming wave of unprecedented and coordinated industrial action from teachers and school leaders.

If politicians want the votes of hundreds of thousands of teachers and headteachers, not to mention millions of parents, they need to show they are ready to step up and repair the damage caused by the last 13 years.

Our members shouldn’t have to take industrial action simply to achieve decent pay and to benefit from the working conditions to which they are contractually entitled.

They shouldn’t be forced to take industrial action to demand a system in which schools and colleges have the funding and resources to provide a world-leading education for every child, whatever their needs or background.

The secretary of state has a window of opportunity to get back around the table with us while there’s still time.

Gillian Keegan should commit to negotiating a proper and decent deal for teachers and school leaders which is acceptable to the profession, and which would avert industrial action in our schools and colleges.

She owes it, not only to the profession to do so, but also to the country’s children and young people. But, if the government fails to deliver a better deal for teachers, they will have to deal with the consequences.

  • Dr Patrick Roach is general secretary of the NASUWT.

Further information

  • Adams et al: Working lives of teachers and leaders (wave 1), DfE, April 2023: https://bit.ly/3orG7a8
  • NASUWT: NASUWT members reject the Government's pay offer, April 2023: https://bit.ly/3oPlqVE
  • OECD: TALIS 2018 Results (Volume I): Teachers and school leaders as lifelong learners, TALIS, OECD Publishing, 2019: https://bit.ly/3HuaLWT

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