Teacher strikes: DfE rejects unions' offer of ACAS conciliation

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

Conciliation talks led by ACAS will not take place in the teacher pay dispute after the Department for Education refused an offer from education unions.

On Monday (March 6) four education unions including the National Education Union wrote to education secretary Gillian Keegan suggesting “a day of conciliation talks convened by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS)”.

However, speaking to ITV on Wednesday evening, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, confirmed that the offer had been rejected.

She said: “Unfortunately, Gillian Keegan wrote back just this evening about 6pm and said that she would not go to ACAS.

“We want to negotiate face-to-face but the secretary of state, the government, have put what we consider to be an unacceptable precondition – that we pause the strike action in favour of negotiations where we have virtually no idea about what the scope of those negotiations are.”

The DfE has said it is prepared to enter more intensive “formal talks” on “pay, conditions and reform” but only if the NEU pauses its current series of strikes.

The NEU staged a national walk-out on February 1 when 200,000 teachers stopped work and one in 10 schools closed. A series of regional strikes took place last week and two days of national strike action are planned next week on March 15 and 16.

However, the NEU is so far refusing to back down. It says that strike action is the only thing that has brought the government to the table, and it is unwilling to pause without more details about the scope of potential talks.

In a statement on Wednesday (March 8), the NEU said: “This was a serious offer to engage in talks and look for a settlement of the dispute. We want to resolve this dispute in the interests of our members and the pupils they teach. The secretary of state has a duty to engage in negotiation. She must begin to exercise that duty.”

The letter was also signed by the NASUWT, National Association of Head Teachers, and Association of School and College Leaders.

NAHT general secretary, Paul Whiteman, said: “Using ACAS to create a safe environment between parties in order to begin movement is a well-trodden path in industrial relations. The success rate at ACAS is impressive. It is extraordinary for any party to a dispute to refuse such an offer.

“I am really worried that the government is not serious about finding ways through these difficulties. I hope for the sake of children the government can see beyond political posturing and join us all around a table.”

Mr Whiteman has written for Headteacher Update calling for the government to start taking school funding and the recruitment and retention crisis in education seriously.

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, added: “Unfortunately, the government appears to be more interested in playing political games than bringing forward a meaningful offer to improve pay and conditions and end the industrial dispute. The fact that the government has ignored our proposal to bring in ACAS reinforces that impression.”

And Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT’s general secretary, added: “According to the secretary of state, the government’s commitment to engage in proper negotiations has been agreed at the highest levels by the prime minister and the chancellor.

“So, we have to question why, after a number of weeks, progress has still not been made in convening the negotiations we have been promised. The patience of our members is running out.”

Both the NAHT and NASUWT have previously balloted for strike action but failed to reach legal thresholds to allow national walk-outs to take place.

The NAHT has said it is “committed to balloting again” over strike action but only if the current talks break-down. A total of 42% of eligible members voted in its last ballot, short of the 50% required by law. Of those members who did vote, 64% supported strikes.

The dispute centres on historic real-terms cuts to teachers’ pay which equate to as much as 13% between 2010 and 2022 according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. In real-terms, salaries for more experienced and senior teachers have fallen by 13%, teachers in the middle of the salary scale have experienced cuts of 9-10%, while starting salaries have fallen by 5% (Sibieta, 2023).

Indeed, salaries for teachers on most pay grades are expected to fall by 5% in real-terms this year alone due to soaring inflation levels.

The DfE angered unions further after its formal evidence to the School Teachers Review Body recommended a below-inflation rise of just 3% for experienced teachers from September 2023 in addition to rises for new teachers to bring starting salaries to £30,000 (meaning an average pay award of 3.5% across the board).

The DfE’s submission says that schools will be able to manage the pay rise from existing budgets (DfE, 2023).

Speaking earlier this month after the NEU’s series of three regional strikes, education secretary Gillian Keegan said: “We made a serious offer to the leaders of the NEU to pause the planned strikes so we can talk about pay, conditions and reforms. My invitation to have serious and intensive talks on all areas of this dispute still stands and I urge the NEU to take up the offer.”

Meanwhile, an Ipsos poll of more than 2,000 people published to coincide with the NEU’s regional strikes found that 60% of parents/carers supported teachers taking strike action and shared concerns about the lack of education funding.

Dr Bousted said: “While no teacher wants to be on strike action, we are grateful for the support of parents, and do not take it for granted. Many understand first-hand the issues faced by schools and colleges and their children’s teachers. They need no persuasion that there is disruption every day of the school year, thanks to the government’s poor decision-making and short-sighted policies on education.

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