'Any time, any place' – NEU open to further negotiation

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As a second meeting between the DfE and education unions this week yields "no progress", the National Education Union says it is “willing to enter into negotiations any time, any place” to avert seven days of planned strike action.

An NEU industrial action ballot involving more than 300,000 teachers in England and Wales closed last week and saw more than 90% voting to walk-out in their dispute over pay.

The ball is now in the government’s court, but an initial meeting last week between the Department for Education (DfE) and four education unions including the NEU and a second meeting on Wednesday (January 18) have yielded “no progress” (see later).

The dispute centres on historic real-terms cuts to teachers’ pay which equate to as much as 13% since 2010 (Sibieta, 2023).

The latest pay settlement has proved the final straw for many. Coming in September, it saw the government agreed to pay rises of 8.9% for new teachers falling to 5% for more experienced teachers. However, against the backdrop of soaring inflation, which hit 10.5% in December, and a cost of living crisis, it means most teachers are likely to experience real-terms salary cuts this year (Sibieta, 2023).

This, the NEU’s joint general secretaries Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney said, was “an unsustainable situation”.

They were stark in their criticism of the government’s attitude: “The government has been happy to sit by as their own recruitment targets are routinely missed. Teachers are leaving in droves, a third gone within five years of qualifying. This is a scandalous waste of talent and taxpayers' money, yet the government seems unbothered about the conditions they are allowing schools and colleges to slide into. The reasons for the recruitment and retention crisis are not a mystery.”

The NEU wants to see a 10% pay rise to match inflation. The general sectaries added: “The government must know there is going to have to be a correction on teacher pay. They must realise that school support staff need a pay rise.

In the ballot of NEU teacher membersin England, 90.44% voted yes to strike action with a turn-out of 53.27%. In Wales, a 92.28% voted yes on a turn-out of 58.07%.

In the ballot of NEU support staff members in schools, 84.13% voted yes but the turn-out of 46.46% fell short of thresholds that require a 50% turn-out in order for action to be legal. In Wales, however, NEU support staff members in schools voted yes (88.26%) with a turn-out of 51.3% meaning they are able to take action.

The NASUWT and NAHT fall short

It comes as both the NASUWT and National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) failed to achieve the legal thresholds for industrial action in their respective ballots in England.

The NASUWT’s ballot of members in England and Wales saw 90% of those who voted supporting strike action. However, the turn-out of 42% fell short of the 50% threshold.

General secretary Dr Patrick Roach said that they remained in dispute with the government over pay and said they would be announcing plans shortly for further balloting of NASUWT members.

He added: “The NASUWT has written to ministers in England and in Wales to confirm that we remain in dispute over teachers’ pay. The UK has some of the most draconian laws on workers’ rights anywhere, including the imposition of arbitrary industrial action ballot threshold requirements and prohibition on unions balloting members online.

“The NASUWT will be campaigning vigorously to ensure the repeal of all anti-trade union laws. But no anti-trade union laws are going to stop us from doing whatever it takes to secure a better deal for our members, including by announcing plans shortly for further balloting of members.”

The NAHT meanwhile saw its members in England voting for strike action (64%) and for action short of strike action (87%). However, again it fell short of the 50% threshold, with 42% of members voting.

The NAHT has also said it will consider rerunning its England ballot. General secretary Paul Whiteman said that despite not meeting the legal thresholds, their England ballot still saw almost 10,000 school leaders say they are willing to take industrial action.

An earlier NAHT online consultative ballot saw a 64% turn-out and Mr Whiteman blamed the postal strikes for the lower turn-out in the actual ballot – saying that many members had not received voting papers in time.

He added: “It is ironic that legislation which the government claims protects the democratic rights of members has actively worked against that objective by not affording an alternative means of voting or allowing a clear ability to extend the deadline. It is notable that elections for party leaders are not constrained in the same way.

“I warn the government that they are on notice – 10,000 school leaders have made it clear that they are at breaking point with the way things are. That is something that must be listened to. We remain formally in dispute with the government.”

The union is proceeding with industrial action in Wales after 55% of its members voted, with 75% backing strikes and 95% backing action short of strikes.

Second DfE meeting fails to break deadlock

The NEU has now declared seven days of strike action, the first of which on February 1 will affect an estimated 23,400 schools in England and Wales.

Dr Bousted and Mr Courtney said they would be willing to sit down again with education secretary Gillian Keegan despite two meetings so far yielding no progress: "It continues to be the aspiration of the NEU and its membership that this dispute can be resolved without recourse to strike action. We regret having to take strike action, and are willing to enter into negotiations at any time, any place, but this situation cannot go on.

“We met with Gillian Keegan last week and would be happy to do so again, but no concrete proposals on teacher or support staff pay were put forward."

A second meeting between the Ms Keegan and the four education unions – NEU, NASUWT, NAHT and ASCL – took place on Wednesday morning (January 18).

Dr Bousted said this morning that, once again, the meeting yielded “no real progress” and that there was no new money on the table.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, echoed the view: “While it is good that these talks are continuing, and we are fully supportive of an on-going dialogue, we have to report that no progress was made at this meeting and we are no nearer a solution."

He added: "Nobody wants to see industrial action, but it is not surprising that members of the NEU have voted in favour of strike action in these circumstances. Teacher shortages are a critical issue for virtually every school and college in the country and are causing educational damage on a daily basis. The government must do better for teachers, leaders and pupils.”

Following the second meeting, a Department for Education press statement said: “Education Secretary Gillian Keegan held a further meeting with union leaders this morning, listening to their concerns and engaging in a constructive discussion around a broad range of issues. She reiterated that strike action would be highly damaging to children's education, particularly following the disruption experienced over the past two years. Discussions will continue this week, ahead of the planned strike action.”

NEU members eligible to walk out are teachers in England state-funded schools and in Wales state-funded schools as well as support staff members in Wales state-funded schools and teachers in sixth-form colleges in England. The list of planned NEU strike days is as follows:

  • Wednesday, February 1: All eligible members in England and Wales.
  • Tuesday, February 14: All eligible members in Wales.
  • Tuesday, February 28: All eligible members in Northern, North West, Yorkshire & The Humber regions.
  • Wednesday, March 1: All eligible members in East Midlands, West Midlands, Eastern regions.
  • Thursday, March 2: All eligible members in London, South East, South West regions.
  • Wednesday, March 15: All eligible members in England and Wales.
  • Thursday, March 16: All eligible members in England and Wales.

The pay dispute

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says that since 2010, salaries for more experienced and senior teachers have fallen by 13% in real-terms. Teachers in the middle of the salary scale have experienced cuts of 9% to 10% and starting salaries have fallen by 5% (Sibieta, 2023).

The pay rise this year saw a 5% increase for school leaders and experienced teachers (M6, U1, U2, U3). Rises are higher for newer teachers, with an 8.9% rise for M1 tapering down to a 5.5% rise for M5 (STRB, 2022; DfE, 2022).

However, the IFS analysis says that with inflation running at around 10%, most teachers are likely to experience real-terms salary cuts this year. Indeed, salaries for teachers on most pay grades are expected to fall by 5% in real-terms in 2022/23 (Sibieta, 2023).

The anger over real-terms pay cuts come at a time when workload, wellbeing and a funding crisis in schools is driving down retention rates (see our report here).

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