Teacher strikes: ‘No further excuse to delay talks’

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Pay demand: On March 15, the first of two days of national strike action, the National Education Union held a march in central London involving thousands of teachers and culminating in a demonstration and rally in Trafalgar Square (Image: Paul Haigh)

As parent support for teacher strike action grows and the Budget offers nothing on school funding or teachers’ pay, the industrial dispute looks to be far from over. Pete Henshaw takes a look...

As the final day of National Education Union strike action ends, education secretary Gillian Keegan has been told that she has “no further excuse to delay talks”.

The Department for Education (DfE) has been refusing to enter intensive negotiations with unions over teachers’ pay while the NEU is taking strike action.

However, the two national walk-outs on Wednesday and Thursday this week were the final ones in the current series of planned action.

In a joint statement, NEU general secretaries Kevin Courtney and Dr Mary Bousted said: “From Thursday night, Gillian Keegan will have no further excuse to delay talks, since we currently have no further strike dates identified. We hope that this opportunity is not squandered and this dispute can be resolved.”

Wednesday (March 15) saw NEU members in England begin two days of strike action with a national demonstration and march taking place in London. Thursday (March 16) saw individual school pickets throughout the country.

The strikes took place despite Ms Keegan writing to the NEU and other unions in a last-ditch attempt to avert action. The letter was not well received.

In their response, Dr Bousted and Mr Courtney wrote: “The NEU has said repeatedly that we will meet for talks any time, any place, anywhere. It is your precondition that we call off strike action in order to have talks which lies in the way.

“Last week, we, alongside the other education union leaders, asked for talks through ACAS in order to make progress. You refused to engage.”

The NEU has pointed to Scotland and Wales where union members have been able to consider pay offers.

“No preconditions were thought necessary by the Scottish and Welsh governments, and the sky did not fall in. Progress has been made. The DfE's attitude towards talks is not only unusual but counterproductive.”

The letter accuses Ms Keegan of “playing politics”. It continues: “If the prime minister and chancellor really have invested you with the ability to enter serious negotiations and make new offers on pay, then there should be no need for such a stumbling block.

“We welcomed the talks at the start of the year, but the talks were only initiated when it was clear that our ballot would be successful.”

DfE meets with other unions

Earlier this week, the DfE did call in representatives from other education unions on a one-on-one basis.

Following a meeting with Ms Keegan on Monday (March 13) Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said that the education secretary accepted that “detailed negotiations must proceed without any further delay”.

He added: “Today’s meeting has given us the assurances we have been seeking. There is nothing that should now stand in the way of detailed negotiations and getting a deal onto the table.

“Ministers have heard from us and we have heard from them on their starting point for pay negotiations for this year and next year. While there are numerous issues that will need to be discussed and a lot of ground to make up, there is the scope to find a basis for agreement which all sides can support.”

And following a meeting on Tuesday (March 14), Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the discussion had been “helpful”.

He added: “It is vital that any further talks are accompanied by a meaningful offer on pay and conditions which ends industrial action and addresses the underlying teacher recruitment and retention crisis.

“To be clear. Talks had been taking place until the secretary of state refused to engage further with all education unions. All of us had wanted the talks to continue. Her reason for ending talks was her view that the NEU should first pause strike action – despite there being no hint of an actual offer. This precondition created an impasse, and she subsequently rejected our joint call to bring in ACAS to conciliate. Parents should know that this week’s strikes could have been averted if proper negotiations had taken place to secure a settlement.”

Parent support is growing

Another blow for the DfE this week came with the news that parental support for teachers seems to be growing.

A survey by charity Parentkind in January found that 54% of more than 1,200 respondents backed the NEU strikes. A second poll this week involving more than 1,000 parents shows that this figure has risen to 63%.

Two-thirds of of the parents (68%) have a child in primary school and 56% have a child in secondary. And of these parents, 72% agree that teachers should receive a pay settlement in line with current inflation; 83% are also concerned about the impact of teacher shortages at their child's school.

The Budget: Nothing substantial for schools

The industrial dispute is now set in a context of a Budget this week that offered very little for education.

There was nothing extra in chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Budget on Wednesday (March 15) for school funding, teachers’ pay and no additional support for energy bills.

And despite the DfE having identified building collapse as one of six key risks facing education, there was nothing extra for the school estate. Indeed, the Capital Departmental Expenditure Limits for education seem to have been reduced from £6.3bn as listed in the Autumn Statement to £5.9bn in this week's Budget.

The only announcement was a plan for primary schools to provide wraparound childcare to pupils from 8am to 6pm from 2026. Mr Hunt has allocated £289m over the next three years to launch this initiative. Needless to say, many primary schools already offer this kind of provision as an option for parents.

Commenting on the budget, Mr Barton said the government was living in a “parallel universe”.

He added: “We heard the chancellor announce £11bn for defence and not a penny to address the teacher recruitment and retention crisis affecting our schools and colleges or resolve the associated industrial action that is taking place as the chancellor was speaking.

“Most schools and colleges are experiencing severe teacher shortages as a result of real-terms pay cuts since 2010 and increasing workload pressures. Teachers are the lifeblood of the education system. What will it take for the government to take action to improve recruitment and retention?”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said it was “bitterly disappointing”.

He added: "We are in the middle of one of the most serious recruitment and retention crises we have seen for decades, and we have a school estate that is literally crumbling in places. Rather than addressing those obvious and pressing priorities, the government has chosen to focus on what appears to be a half-baked scheme to extend wraparound care in schools that won’t take effect for another three years. Once again, we are left with the feeling that this government is detached from the reality of what is actually going on in our schools."

And chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, Leora Cruddas, warned that schools “continue to face rapidly rising costs”, not least when it comes to energy.

In January, the government extended the Energy Bill Discount Scheme for non-domestic customers including schools but increased the thresholds at which support would be offered. In the Budget, the energy price guarantee for domestic customers was extended until June, but there was nothing additional for schools.

Ms Cruddas continued: “The chancellor has extended support for energy costs at home but in two weeks will cut (reduce) support for school's energy bills, making it even harder for school trusts to balance the books. This is a missed opportunity to support public sector services to manage energy-related cost pressures."

Teachers’ pay dispute far from over

Amid all of this, the row over teachers’ pay is set to deepen if the DfE goes ahead with its plans for an average 3.5% pay rise from September.

Earlier this year, 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 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).

Last week, five education and teaching unions submitted a joint statement to the STRB urging them to ignore the DfE’s recommendations (ASCL et al, 2023).

The statement accuses the STRB of having failed to protect teachers and school leaders from real-term pay cuts for more than a decade.

The nine-page submission states: “Teachers and school leaders are demanding fully funded, inflation-plus pay increases. These increases are essential to address the cost-of-living problems caused for our members by pay cuts.

This means that the STRB must reject the government’s attempt to ignore thereality facing teachers and school leaders every day. It must instead take a holistic and evidence-based approach, and recommend the urgent improvements in pay, conditions and workload that areneeded to protect our education service.

The proposals for September 2023 come amid historic real-terms cuts to teachers’ pay which equate to as much as 13% since 2010. Salaries for teachers on most pay grades are expected to fall by 5% in real-terms this year alone (Sibieta, 2023).

The pay rise this year (September 2022) 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. However, inflation is still running at around 10% after peaking at 11% in October 2022. The NEU is currently pushing for a 10% pay rise.

Mr Barton summed up the unions’ feelings: Despite repeated warnings, the STRB has failed to comprehend the scale of the issue and urgent intervention is now required.”

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