Spring term strikes loom as education unions issue ballots for industrial action

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

The prospect of mass teacher walk-outs during the spring term is a step closer after the two largest teaching unions launched formal ballots over pay. It comes as primary school leaders could also be taking to the picket lines.

The National Education Union (NEU), NASUWT, and National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) have all announced their announced intention to ballot members.

It comes as the Department for Education confirmed this year’s teacher pay awards (DfE, 2022; STRB, 2022).

It means school leaders and experienced teachers (M6, U1, U2, U3) will see a 5% increase from September 2022. Rises will be higher for newer teachers, with an 8.9% rise for M1 tapering down to a 5.5% rise for M5.

However, with RPI inflation running at more than 12% and CPI running at more than 10%, teaching staff are feeling the squeeze.

Under the 2016 Trade Union Act, ballots now have to achieve 50% turnout among those eligible to vote. On top of this, in order for strike action to be legal, 40% of all members eligible to vote must have voted “yes”. The Act also shortens the period for which the ballot is valid to six months.

Teachers balloting

The National Education Union (NEU) and the NASUWT are both balloting for industrial action.

The NEU’s ballot will be sent to around 300,000 teaching and support staff members in England and Wales and will run from October 28 to January 13.

The NASUWT’s ballot will run from October 27 to January 9 and will involve members in England, Scotland and Wales. The union has around 300,000 teacher members across the UK.

The NASUWT is campaigning for a 12% pay rise this year. Writing in Headteacher Update this week, general secretary Dr Patrick Roach urged his members to vote yes to action: “Our calculations indicate that a typical classroom teacher is today more than £50,000 worse off than they would have been had their pay kept pace with inflation over the last decade.

“In the midst of the worst cost of living crisis for almost 50 years we cannot accept what amounts to the biggest real-terms pay cut for teachers in a generation.

“If you want a real pay rise, if you are struggling to make ends meet, if you agree that the pay award should be guaranteed to teachers and fully funded, then we need you to vote yes for strike action and yes for action short of strike action.”

The NEU’s ballot says that the union’s dispute is centred on the “failure of ministers to give a commitment for a fully funded above-inflation pay rise – as measured by September’s RPI levels”.

The NEU said this week that if members vote for industrial action, then strikes could take place as soon as January 30.

And a vote for action looks likely after indicative ballots sent to 261,522 NEU teachers saw a 62% turnout with 86% of those voting for strike action. A similar exercise with 37,643 support staff members saw 68% turnout with 78% voting yes.

These levels of support would meet Trade Union Act thresholds. A statement from the NEU’s joint general secretaries Kevin Courtney and Dr Mary Bousted said:"Teachers have lost 20% in real terms since 2010, and for support staff in the same period the loss stands at 27%. This is simply unsustainable.

"The strength of feeling should not be underestimated. Teachers work among the largest number of hours of any profession, and according to the OECD those working in England work longer hours than teachers anywhere else in Europe. Pay, along with workload, lays at the root of a recruitment and retention crisis which should be of deep concern to the government, but about which they have been completely ineffective.

"The government believes that a starting salary of £30,000, promised at the 2019 election and introduced this September, will be generous enough to stem the flow. But they ignore the fact that inflation since 2019 has already wiped out its value.

"The government's refusal to fully fund the meagre pay rise for 2022/23 is the final insult."

Dr Roach added: “The NASUWT has done everything possible to seek a resolution to this dispute and to avoid escalation of industrial action in schools and colleges.

“The 5% pay award for teachers and headteachers is unacceptable at a time when inflation is running at more than 10% and it will result in even more financial misery for hard-working teachers.

“Teaching is at the bottom of the graduate pay league table. Teachers need and deserve a fully funded pay award which will begin the process of restoring the real terms value of teachers’ pay.”

School leadership ballots

A stark reminder of the strength of feeling over pay has come with the news that the NAHT is to ballot its members in England and Wales.

General secretary Paul Whiteman confirmed the move when addressing the TUC’s annual meeting in Brighton. The ballot will seek members’ views on both strike action and action short of strikes.

It follows a national consultation with the union’s members, who are mainly primary school leaders across England and Wales.

Its consultation in England saw a 64% turnout with 84% backing a ballot on industrial action short of strike action and 55% backing a ballot on strike action.

In Wales, 84% of NAHT Cymru members responded to the consultation with 91% wanting a ballot on action short of strike and 64% wanting to see a strike action ballot.

Mr Whiteman said: “Over the course of the last few months, I have travelled the country hearing from our members directly. I have never heard more anger and despair.

“Based on current projections, even with this year’s pay award, school leaders’ salaries will have lost about a quarter of their value since 2010. They are feeling demoralised and undervalued. Worse than that, they are finding themselves unable to provide the level of education and support for pupils that they know is needed, due to the massive cost pressures that keep piling on to school budgets and the government’s continued under-funding of education.

“It is almost unprecedented for the relentlessly reasonable professionals I know our members to be, but we have no choice but to move to a formal industrial action ballot to establish what next steps they would like to take.

“I have today written to the secretary of state for education to inform him that we are now officially in dispute. I can only urge him and the government to listen and take urgent action.”

ASCL, meanwhile, which represents the majority of secondary school leaders, is less certain about its membership’s wishes.

An indicative survey saw just 16% of 13,693 members surveyed respond – about 2,200 colleagues. Of those, 69% favoured holding a ballot on action short of strike action over pay while 50% favoured a ballot on strike action.

General secretary Geoff Barton says that consultation is on-going with members. At the time of the survey, he reminded ministers: Our members are traditionally extremely reluctant to consider any form of industrial action, and it is therefore remarkable that a majority of survey respondents favour an indicative ballot on action short of strike action, let alone the fact that half back holding an indicative ballot on strike action.”

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