Teachers support strike action as MPs back controversial legislation

Teachers in England and Wales have voted in favour of strikes in a dispute over pay, as controversial anti-strike legislation cleared its first Commons test.

Nine out of 10 teacher members of the National Education Union (NEU) voted for strike action and the union passed the 50% ballot turnout required by law.

The union has declared seven days of walkouts in February and March, but it has said any individual school will only be affected by four of the days.

The NEU’s Kevin Courtney described the outcome in England as “the biggest ballot result of any union in recent times”.

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The first day of strikes will be on February 1 and more than 23,000 schools in England and Wales are expected to be affected, the NEU has said.

School leaders in Wales are also set to take industrial action over pay, but heads in England will not stage strikes after the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) ballot turnout failed to meet the legal threshold.

In Parliament, MPs voted 309 to 249, majority 60, to give the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill a second reading.

The Bill would require minimum levels of service from ambulance staff, firefighters and railway workers during industrial action, although unions and opposition MPs have condemned the proposals as unworkable.

Details of the minimum service levels which will need to be maintained during strikes have yet to be set out, and the Government says it will consult on this.

Business Secretary Grant Shapps
Business Secretary Grant Shapps (PA)

Business Secretary Grant Shapps told MPs: “We want constructive dialogue with the unions and the public has had enough of the constant, most unwelcome, frankly, dangerous disruption to their lives.”

Mr Shapps added: “There comes a time when we can’t let this continue and that is why we need minimum safety and service levels – to keep livelihoods and lives safe, and it’s frankly irresponsible, even surprising, for the opposition opposite to suggest otherwise.”

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner criticised the Bill as “one of the most indefensible and foolish pieces of legislation to come before this House in modern times”.

She added: “It threatens teachers and nurses with the sack during a recruitment and retention crisis.

“It mounts an outright assault on the fundamental freedom of working people while doing nothing … to actually resolve the crisis at hand.”

Labour MP Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) also said: “(Mr Shapps) wants to talk about minimum safety, the reality is this: after 12 years of a Tory government, minimum safety no longer exists in our NHS.”

But Tory former home secretary Priti Patel said ministers should widen the the list of sectors which should be legally required to have minimum service levels when striking.

She said: “I want to basically ask the Government as well to ensure that they always look to keep legislation and measures open and under review so that we can continue to uphold standards to protect the public when it comes to them going about their daily lives.”

The Department for Education (DfE) has offered a 5% pay rise to most teachers for the current school year, but the NEU is demanding a fully-funded above inflation pay rise for teachers.

Mary Bousted and Mr Courtney, joint NEU general secretaries, said in a statement: “We have continually raised our concerns with successive education secretaries about teacher and support staff pay, and its funding in schools and colleges, but instead of seeking to resolve the issue they have sat on their hands.

“It is disappointing that the Government prefers to talk about yet more draconian anti-strike legislation, rather than work with us to address the causes of strike action.”

Dr Bousted indicated there will be no minimum service levels in place during the teachers’ strike.

She told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “I’d like those minimum service levels to exist every day, so that every day in all our schools we have enough teachers in the right subject areas so that all children can get the education they deserve.

“The minimum service levels that the Government is looking to impose will not be in law by the time of the strike and so, no, what does industrial action mean?

“If it is to have any effect – and we want it to have an effect, in fact, we would want the threat of industrial action to have an effect – and that means the withdrawal of our labour, so that your labour can be counted, and you can see the worth of it.”

In England, 90% of NEU teacher members who voted in the ballot backed strikes, with a turnout of 53%.

In Wales, 92% of NEU teacher members who voted in the ballot backed strikes, with a turnout of 58%.

Overall, 300,000 teachers and support staff in England and Wales were asked to vote in the NEU ballot.

Support staff in schools in Wales are also set to go on strike in the dispute over pay after 88% of balloted members backed action, with a turnout of 51%.

However, the NEU’s ballot of support staff in schools and sixth-form colleges in England did not achieve the 50% ballot turnout required by law for action.

Minimum service levels during strikes bill
Protesters outside the Houses of Parliament in London as the Bill on minimum service levels during strikes reaches its second reading (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

On Monday, the NAHT revealed that 87% of members in England taking part in the union’s pay ballot voted in favour of action short of strikes, while 64% supported strikes.

But the turnout was 42%, which is below the threshold required by law.

The NAHT has said it is considering re-running its industrial action ballot in England due to concern that the democratic process has been compromised amid postal disruption.

In Wales, 95% of members taking part in the school leaders’ union NAHT Cymru ballot backed action short of strikes and 75% supported strikes, with a turnout of 55%.

Dr Bousted told an online briefing announcing the ballot results that the NEU will meet with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan on Wednesday and will have “strength in the negotiations” after the vote.

Ms Keegan has called the strike vote “deeply disappointing” and argued it “will have a damaging impact on pupils’ education and wellbeing”.

The wave of industrial action will continue this week with members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in England due to walk out on Wednesday and Thursday.

The RCN announced on Monday that it will stage two more strikes in England and Wales on February 6 and 7, with more NHS trusts taking part than during two days of strikes in December.