Ministers warned after pay talks to act ‘now or never’ to avoid teacher strikes

Ministers have been warned to act “now or never” on teachers’ pay to prevent possible strikes following talks between unions and the education secretary.

Union leaders said “no concrete progress” was made during a meeting with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan on Monday, with one school leaders’ union boss describing the discussions as “largely unsatisfactory”.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), urged ministers to come forward with “real and concrete proposals very quickly” to avoid possible strike action this year.

She told the PA news agency: “We’ve made it very clear to the Government that the time for intensive negotiations around a better pay offer for this year is now. It’s now or never.”

Dr Bousted added: “At the moment there’s nothing concrete that would, if the members vote to take action, stop us doing that because there’s no concrete offer from the Government, particularly on this year’s pay award.”

The NEU and teachers’ union NASUWT, as well as school leaders’ union the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), are balloting members on strike action with results due in the coming week.

When asked about the impact of possible strikes on families, Dr Bousted told PA: “It certainly makes life more difficult for parents and we have no desire to do this.”

But she added: “Schools are running out of teachers and unless we take action now, or unless the Government listens, then the situation is going to go from critical to catastrophic.”

In a statement following the meeting at the Department for Education (DfE) on Monday, Dr Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint general secretaries of the NEU, said: “There is no concrete progress but the existence of these discussions is due to the possibility of industrial action.”

They added: “If the Government wants to avoid industrial action then there is only a small window of opportunity before the NEU declares its ballot result and its plans for action.”

Following the meeting with Ms Keegan, Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: “Given the pressing issues, the minister must now intensify and accelerate a programme of further talks.

“We have been clear we will meet any time and any place to discuss these issues and that we will commit the time necessary to make progress.

“However, we will remain in dispute with the Government unless tangible progress is forthcoming.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The meeting was constructive but largely unsatisfactory in that our concerns over the long-term erosion of teacher pay and conditions, the inadequacy of this year’s pay award, and the ongoing teacher recruitment and retention crisis remain unresolved.”

ASCL recently carried out a consultative ballot of its members which found the majority supported proceeding to a formal ballot on strike action.

Mr Barton said: “We are expecting further talks to take place in the near future, and we sincerely hope that these issues can be resolved through discussion rather than industrial action.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said Ms Keegan held a “constructive meeting” with union leaders and “she expressed the importance of working together to avoid strike action especially given the significant disruption due to the pandemic over recent years.

“Alongside starting open discussions on the evidence submitted for next years’ pay award, the Secretary of State listened to union leaders’ broader concerns. The Education Secretary expressed her willingness to continue talks over the coming days and weeks.”