Teaching strikes will hurt children, Education Secretary tells unions
Union bosses are risking children’s safety by insisting that their members keep headteachers in the dark about whether they will strike, the Education Secretary has said.
Gillian Keegan has written to leaders of the National Education Union (NEU) ahead of the first day of industrial action next Wednesday, asking them to encourage teachers to alert school leaders if they intend to walk out.
The NEU has advised its members to “ignore” any questions from headteachers about whether they intend to strike, on the basis they are not legally required to provide this information.
However, education leaders have warned that this will force far more schools to close because they do not want to risk a situation where pupils turn up for lessons open only to find they do not have enough staff to operate safely.
The NEU has warned that more than 100,000 teachers are expected to strike, closing more than 12,000 schools to some, or all, year groups and affecting as many as 4.5 million pupils.
Dr Mary Bousted, the union’s joint general secretary, said she expected the “majority” of the 25,000 schools in England and Wales to be closed to all or some classes on Feb 1.
Writing in The Telegraph, below, Mrs Keegan said: “To help keep schools open, headteachers need time to prepare to minimise the disruption to children’s learning by understanding how many of their teachers will go on strike.
“That is why I have written to union leaders, calling on them to encourage members to let headteachers know if they intend to take strike action next week.
“Doing so will not compromise their right to strike, but will give headteachers the best opportunity to protect children’s learning, and so I urge teachers to share their plans with heads.”
Mrs Keegan went on to suggest that by refusing to inform schools of their plans, teachers could be putting their pupils’ safety at risk.
“We know school is also the safest place for children to be, and so keeping school leaders informed will help ensure these strikes are safe for children too,” she said.
Teachers will begin seven days of strikes on Wednesday, along with several other unions in what has been labelled a “de facto general strike”.
Train drivers who are members of the RMT and Aslef will also begin fresh strikes on Feb 1, prolonging the disruption that has brought misery to commuters in recent months.
In addition, the University and College Union, which represents lecturers, announced that more than 70,000 staff at 150 universities will also walk out on Wednesday.
The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents civil servants, declared that 100,000 members in 124 different government departments and other arms-length bodies will strike on Feb 1.
This will make it the biggest single day of strike action for the union since 2011 and will include walkouts at the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education.
Leora Cruddas, the chief executive of the Confederation of Schools Trust, which represents academies, said that it makes “logistical planning” harder to manage if headteachers have no idea how many of their staff will show up to work on Wednesday.
She said: “They have to take a cautious approach, we can’t have children coming to school then not enough staff on the day. We don’t want to be in a position, unless in really dire circumstances, that we are having to send children home.”
Issuing advice to its members, the NEU explained that it is required by law to give employers 14 days’ notice of the number and description of members it is calling upon to take action in each workplace.
However, it added that “individual workers are not required to provide any information whatsoever” and said if they are asked whether they intend to strike, they should “ignore any such request”.
The union has already rejected Mrs Keegan’s plea for information, calling it “political point scoring”.
Arabella Skinner, the director of UsForThem, the parent campaign group, said that the situation is “an absolute nightmare”, adding: “Most schools are really struggling to stay open because they don’t know what the situation will be.”
Protecting our children’s education and wellbeing must remain a priority
By Gillian Keegan, the Secretary of State for Education
During the pandemic, we were all prepared to sacrifice the things most important to us – meeting our friends, spending time with family – all in an effort to protect one another.
For children and young people most of all, that sacrifice has had lasting and significant impact.
The Prime Minister has been clear that education is right at the top of this government’s priorities – not just to catch up after Covid, but to create an education system to rival the very best in the world.
Since the pandemic though, all of us – the Government, teachers, school leaders and parents – have been pulling in the same direction to help children catch up and get the education that will lay the foundations for their future education and careers.
And yet despite this, parents across the country are once again facing uncertainty for their children.
That uncertainty follows three of our major teaching unions balloting for strike action in the three months up to January. One of them, the National Education Union, met the threshold, with fewer than half of its membership voting to walk out.
Well before we knew the results of these ballots, I was clear that unions do not need to strike to have a meeting with me. These are not hollow words. The union leaders themselves have commented on the constructive approach my department and I have taken.
We are still in active talks on a range of issues with all the unions, including pay – whether they are striking or not. I am disappointed that the NEU is going ahead irrespective of these meetings, which are due to continue on Monday. It is clear that strikes are not being used as a measure of last resort.
As parents, schools and pupils prepare for the disruption, there is one thing I am crystal clear about: I want as many schools to be open with as many children attending as possible.
My department has published guidance setting that out, and where schools have no choice but to restrict attendance, we are asking them to prioritise vulnerable children, children of critical workers and those who are set to take exams.
Teachers are free to choose to strike where a mandate has been achieved. But government, heads and unions should all work to minimise the impact on children. Parents, too, will be looking towards next week unsure whether or not they will be able to go to work.
Roadmap to limit disruption to children’s learning
To help keep schools open, headteachers need time to prepare to minimise the disruption to children’s learning by understanding how many of their teachers will go on strike. That is why I have written to union leaders, calling on them to encourage members to let headteachers know if they intend to take strike action next week.
Doing so will not compromise their right to strike, but will give headteachers the best opportunity to protect children’s learning. And so I urge teachers to share their plans with heads. We know school is also the safest place for children to be, and so keeping school leaders informed will help ensure these strikes are safe for children too.
Of course, with fewer than half of the NEU’s members voting in favour of strikes and other unions not meeting the threshold for action, there will be thousands of teachers who do not intend to walk out and will support heads and leaders in keeping schools open. I am hugely grateful to those teachers for the support they will provide to children next week.
On the top of my in-tray when I became Education Secretary last October was a letter from the unions, calling for a £2 billion increase to school funding next year and the year after. At the Autumn Statement, that’s exactly what we delivered, demonstrating education as a top priority for this government.
In fact, our investment means that school funding will be higher, in real terms, than ever before. The NEU’s own campaigning website proclaims proudly that “our campaign worked”.
On pay this year, teachers saw the biggest pay award for 30 years – up to an 8.9 per cent increase to starting salaries and a five per cent increase for more experienced staff. Starting salaries remain on track to reach £30,000 this September.
Heading towards common ground
One of the reasons the £2 billion funding increase met the unions’ demands is that it fully funds those pay rises – something I don’t think is always being made clear to parents, schools and teachers.
In reality, the majority of classroom teachers will see far greater salary rises as a result of moving up the pay scale every year. The Government’s pay award simply reflects the increase teachers receive if they stand still.
Indeed, 60 per cent of classroom teachers, excluding those who are already at the top of the pay band, will have had pay increases of up to 15.9 per cent this year. Teachers also benefit from a 23.6 per cent employer contributory pension.
As I said before, I will be meeting union leaders again on Monday to continue the constructive discussions we have been having over recent weeks, including over the pay awards for next year and important issues like workload. I remain optimistic we are heading towards finding common ground.
There is nothing more important than protecting our children’s education and wellbeing. The Government, and I as Education Secretary, will do everything in our power to do just that. I urge our unions to do the same.