Headteachers across England and Wales will be balloted on industrial action over pay and funding, and could vote to strike.
School leaders in the National Association of Head Teachers union (NAHT), which also includes assistant and deputy heads and business managers, will be asked if they wish to strike or take action short of strike.
Speaking at the Trade Union Congress (TUC) Conference in Brighton, general secretary Paul Whiteman said his 34,000 members are in “anger and despair” as they “cannot continue to run their schools in the current circumstances”.
He added that there is “no choice but to move to a formal industrial action ballot” and the “future of education is on the line.”
Meanwhile in Northern Ireland on Tuesday (18 October) five teaching unions are taking "unprecedented" joint industrial action over pay.
Who is taking part in the ballot?
Following a national consultation with the union’s members, school leaders across England and Wales will be proceeding with a formal ballot on industrial action.
NAHT members are anyone with leadership responsibilities in schools, including head teachers, deputy and assistant heads, and those leading in specialist areas such as special educational needs co-ordinators, subject leads, and school business managers. The majority of members are head teachers of primary schools.
The union mainly represents primary schools, but also some secondary and special needs schools, with 64% of its membership responding to a survey between 27 September and 14 October. Of the respondents, 84% indicated they wanted to be balloted on taking action short of strike, should a suitable agreement on pay and funding not be reached, while 55% of respondents said they wanted to be balloted on taking strike action.
School leaders in Wales have also indicated their depth of concern in a survey held concurrently by NAHT Cymru. A total of 84% of members responded, with 91% saying wanted to be balloted on action short of strike, and 64% saying they wanted to be balloted on industrial action including strike - if an agreement cannot be found.
Why are school leaders balloting on taking strike action?
Mr Whiteman explained how school leaders across the country are telling him that they cannot continue to run their schools in the current circumstances.
He said: “The neglect of pay in education and the funding to support it is now eroding the quality of education that our members can provide. Schools are caught in a vicious spiral. Insufficient pay has contributed to a recruitment and retention crisis. And the failure to fund even the insufficient award this year means that heart-breaking cuts to services will have to be made. Less people and fewer services will lead to an erosion of educational quality.”
He added: “Education funding is due to be 3% less in real terms in 2024/2025 than it was in 2010. Spiralling energy bills, inflationary costs, and lack of funding for teachers’ pay this year means thousands of schools are predicting going into deficit. Consequently, school leaders are being forced to make cuts that ultimately cannot help but negatively impact on the education and wellbeing of children.”
What is the issue of pay?
Mr Whiteman said teachers’ salaries have lost about a quarter of their value since 2010, and they are unable to provide high levels of education and support to pupils.
He said: “Based on current projections, even with this year’s pay award, school leaders’ salaries will have lost about a quarter (24%)of their value since 2010. They are feeling demoralised and undervalued.
“Worse than that, they are finding themselves unable to provide the level of education and support for pupils that they know is needed, due to the massive cost pressures that keep piling on to school budgets and the government’s continued under-funding of education.”
He added: “This is not a situation the dedicated and caring professionals I represent can put up with any longer. Their primary concern is the education and wellbeing of the pupils and staff in their schools.
“They are telling me very clearly that they feel unable to continue to operate under these circumstances. It is almost unprecedented for the relentlessly reasonable professionals I know our members to be, but we have no choice but to move to a formal industrial action ballot to establish what next steps they would like to take.”
What does NHAT hope the government will do?
Mr Whiteman said that “the future of education is on the line” and he has written to the Secretary of State for Education to inform him that “we are now officially in dispute”.
He said: “I can only urge him and the government to listen and take urgent action. School leaders will do everything in their power to avoid disruption to pupils. But they are clear that to do nothing will only ensure that nothing changes. My appeal to the government is to engage with us and find a solution that serves the needs of the profession and in turn the ambition of young people.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is incredibly disappointing that some unions are threatening industrial action in schools. Strike action will damage children’s education and disrupt parents’ lives. Given the impact of the pandemic on children, it’s more important than ever that strike action is avoided.
“We have confirmed the highest pay awards for teachers in a generation – 8.9 percent for new teachers and five percent for experienced teachers and leaders - recognising their dedication and hard work.”