'We will not go away...' Coordinated autumn strikes loom after stark warning to DfE

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

With the prospect of coordinated strike action by four education unions this autumn, it is “inescapable” that the Department for Education must change its approach to the teacher pay dispute.

This week saw two further days of National Education Union (NEU) strike action and an historic pact signed between the four main education unions pledging coordinated strike action this autumn.

The NASUWT, NEU, Association of School of College Leaders, and National Association of Head Teachers are all conducting strike ballots after their members rejected the government’s pay offer.

The rejection was overwhelming in votes held by the four unions: 98% rejected the offer in the NEU vote, 87% in both ASCL’s and the NASUWT’s, and 90% for the NAHT.

The pay offer, which was branded “insulting” by union leaders, centred on a 4.5% average pay rise from September 2023 as well as a £1,000 one-off cash payment this year.

Unions have been pushing for a pay increase to match rates of inflation of around 10%. The demands 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 given the high levels of inflation this year (Sibieta, 2023).

Last week the NEU announced it would be balloting for further strike action, with the vote to run from May 15 to July 28.

It comes after both NASUWT and ASCL (for the first time in its history) said they would ballot their respective memberships during the summer term. And during its annual conference over the bank holiday weekend, the NAHT confirmed its intention to ballot members “over pay, funding, workload and wellbeing”.

The NAHT ballot is to ask one question: whether school leaders are willing to take strike action. General secretary Paul Whiteman said: “The government knows what it needs to bring to the table to continue negotiations. And our ballot announcement sends a strong message that we will not go away. This dispute will continue – the government needs to recognise that and engage.”

The NEU confirmed its ballot in a letter to education secretary Gillian Keegan. It stated: “We are writing to you further to our letter of April 19. You have not responded to our letter and you have not provided the undertakings we sought in order to avoid proceeding to a reballot of teacher members in England for industrial action.

“As a result, we are now writing to employers informing them that the NEU intends to hold a ballot of teacher members in state-funded schools in England. We reiterate that we remain ready to negotiate with you and your officials at any reasonable time to resolve this dispute.”

Following the announcement, joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “This action should be entirely unnecessary. Despite both the governments in Wales and Scotland reaching a settlement, Gillian Keegan has wilfully washed her hands of anything to do with the dispute for a fully funded pay rise for teachers in England.

“The entire teaching profession has rejected the previous offer, one which would give teachers in England lower pay than either Wales or Scotland. Such is the anger among members that she now faces the situation of all education unions taking a united stand against government with all considering or having announced they will ballot members.

“The secretary of state who remains, by some distance, the biggest obstacle to getting a sensible resolution, needs to address this issue head on and come to the negotiating table with all the education unions.”

The news that the four unions plan to coordinate autumn strikes should all four ballots be successful came in a joint press conference on Friday (April 28), held at the NAHT annual conference in Telford.

It was an historic act from the four unions and raises the prospect of thousands of school closures across the country should strikes take place.

Writing in Headteacher Update this week, Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said the pact was an “unprecedented show of unity”, but added that the secretary of state still had “a window of opportunity to get back around the table with us while there’s still time”.

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary said the unions were committed to working together to “fight for fairer pay, improved funding, manageable workloads and other changes that are needed to ensure schools have the capacity to provide the level of education that children and young people deserve”.

In a statement released after the NEU strike action on April 27, a DfE spokesperson said: “Any strike action is hugely damaging. We have made a fair and reasonable pay offer to teachers recognising their hard work and commitment. Thanks to the further £2bn we are investing in our schools, next year, school funding will be at its highest level in history.”

Speaking after the two days of NEU strike action on April 27 and May 2, joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said that the government’s consistent failure to hit teacher training recruitment targets and the on-going retention problems in teaching were due to 13 years of real-terms pay cuts and that something had to change.

He said: "Gillian Keegan has achieved nothing this past month other than to bring the teaching profession together. 98% of NEU members rejected her pay and funding offer on a two-thirds turnout. Three other unions have received similarly overwhelming verdicts from their membership. In total, four education unions will now carry out ballots this summer term with a view to co-ordinated action in the autumn term.

"The Department for Education should be in no doubt that teachers are fully committed to securing a resolution to the pay dispute. It is inescapable that something must change.”

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