Striking teachers will be paid, officials fear, with unions set to force the closure of classrooms at the vast majority of schools on Wednesday.
More than 100,000 members of the National Education Union are expected to walk out in the most disruptive teachers’ strike in more than a decade, with 85 per cent of schools in England and Wales set to close to some or all year groups.
However, schools have made the decision to close without knowing which teachers will actually be on strike because of laws that mean union members cannot be forced to tell their bosses.
On Tuesday night, concerns were raised that this could enable striking teachers to claim that they are working and therefore be paid.
In a letter to all schools, Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, told head teachers that any striking staff must not be paid.
The letter, seen by The Telegraph, reads: “In all cases, where employees take strike action they are not entitled to be paid for any period during which they are on strike.”
Mrs Keegan also stressed that teachers not on strike should turn up to work and could be asked to cover for striking teachers, although schools will not be able to force them to do so.
Teachers posting on social media on Tuesday said they believed some could still get paid while striking if their school was closed. “If [head teachers] close the school because teachers won’t say if they’re striking in advance, they’ll get paid,” one wrote.
Another teacher wrote on social media that she had voted to strike, but that the first day of industrial action coincided with a “free trip” her class had planned to take to the zoo.
Her dilemma was apparently resolved after she spoke to her union, and she wrote: “I’m still going to the zoo and making a donation to the hardship fund and striking on the other days.”
Unions have declared Wednesday a de facto general strike, with 500,000 workers walking out across seven unions, according to the Trades Union Congress. Train drivers, civil servants, airport and university staff are taking industrial action as well as teachers.
Commuters will be left stranded across the country as 15 train operators run zero trains on both Wednesday and Friday. Walkouts by the Aslef and RMT unions mean there will not even be reduced services operating for passengers who have faced months of strike action.
Hundreds of military personnel, along with volunteers from across government, are on standby to support public services.
Although health unions are not on strike, NHS bosses are understood to be concerned that the industrial action could cause chaos in hospitals as the teachers’ strike forces staff with children to take time off.
The NEU is striking after 48 per cent of its members in England, a minority, voted yes to industrial action. In Wales, 54 per cent voted to strike over pay.
About 40,000 teachers have joined the union since teachers’ strikes were announced a fortnight ago. They will be able to participate in the industrial action and maximise disruption.
Some head teachers told parents in the run-up to the action that they would not know until Wednesday morning whether children would be able to attend school. Exam years, children with special needs and the children of key workers have been prioritised if heads have deemed that only some classrooms can stay open.
While some schools have said they will adopt bigger class sizes and use volunteers to keep children in classrooms, many pupils have been told to expect a day of online learning.
Teachers who are not on strike have been told to come into school, but may have little to do. Some schools are likely to permit working from home, but it is unclear how this will be monitored. It is also unclear whether teachers who take time off to care for their own children because of the strike disruption will be paid.
Whitehall sources were alarmed by the suggestion from the NEU that 85 per cent of schools will be affected. Nick Gibb, the schools minister, insisted he expected the “majority” of schools to be open “in some capacity”.
Robin Walker, the Tory MP who is the chairman of the education select committee, said: “It’s really important that every effort should be made to keep schools open to as many pupils as possible. After all, we’ve been through with the pandemic, the last thing children need is to be out of school for any period of time.”
GCSE pupils have had only one year of undisrupted learning since starting secondary school.
With seven dates set for regional and national strikes by teachers in February and March, parents fear children will be held back as they attempt to recover from lost learning during pandemic lockdowns.
Arabella Skinner, of the parents’ group UsForThem, said: “By closing schools yet again, we are putting our children’s needs behind adults and we are suggesting that attendance at school is optional.”
Lord Blunkett, a former education secretary who served under Sir Tony Blair, said: “It is imperative that the Government and teacher leaders sit down and work out a way forward that avoids any further industrial action.
“The impact of disruption to a whole generation of children has already been incalculable over the last three years, and there is clearly an obligation on everyone to avoid continuing loss of teaching time and the damage this inevitably causes.”
Mrs Keegan thanked NEU members who have given advance notice of their intention to strike to schools so that head teachers can “do everything they can to keep their schools open for as many pupils as possible, particularly for the most vulnerable, children of critical workers and those taking formal exams and assessments”.
The NEU has notified schools of how many teachers at each one are members. However, head teachers cannot legally demand to know which members of staff these are, and members do not have to tell their bosses if they intend to strike.
This has meant schools have assumed a worst case scenario in terms of teacher numbers, leading to the expected widespread closures.