Teachers from the National Education Union (NEU) have voted to strike in industrial action which will force most state schools across England and Wales to close for several days.
The first mass walkout will take place on 1 February, to coincide with the Trades Union Congress’s national “protect the right to strike” day of action, followed by a series of regional strikes later in the month. Further nationwide industrial action is scheduled for 15 and 16 March.
The country’s biggest teaching union, which has about 450,000 members, previously rejected a 5% pay rise offered by the government. It is pursuing its claim for a fully funded, above-inflation pay rise.
NEU joint general secretary Kevin Courtney previously warned that the majority of schools will be forced to shut due to staff shortages. He said: “We will call on members in all schools in England and Wales to strike – [and] many would have to close.”
According to Department for Education guidance, headteachers are expected to “take all reasonable steps” to keep schools open for as many students as possible during a strike. Education Secretary Gillian Keegan confirmed to BBC that she will be meeting union leaders in the coming days.
It marks the latest in a wave of strikes currently sweeping the UK in disputes over pay, jobs and conditions. Other teachers unions, such as the NAHT, are also balloting for strikes - but the NASUWT announced on 12 January that it had not reached the threshold needed for industrial action. Nine out of ten members in England and Wales voted for strikes over pay, but the turnout was only 42% - below the legal threshold.
Concerns have been raised about the impacts the strikes will have on children’s education, which has already been so severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. But union leaders have argued that the current state of schools is already affecting education standards - warning of unqualified teachers and rapid turnover rates.
So, when are teachers striking, why are they doing so, and when will schools close? Here’s everything we know so far.
When will teacher strikes take place?
Teachers from the NEU are set to strike on the following dates:
1 February - all eligible members in England and Wales
14 February - all eligible members in Wales
28 February - all eligible members in Northern, North West, Yorkshire, and the Humber regions
1 March - all eligible members in East Midlands, West Midlands, Eastern regions
2 March - all eligible members in London, South East, South West regions
15 March - all eligible members in England and Wales
16 March - all eligible members in England and Wales
Why are teachers voting to strike?
The NEU is asking for a 12% pay rise rather than the 5% offered so far by the government. Union leaders claim that teachers have lost a quarter of their pay to inflation since 2010, while support staff have lost 27% in the same period.
A key factor of the dispute is how much of any salary increase would have to be met from existing, and already stretched, school budgets. According to The Guardian, the union would be willing to talk about an offer close to 9% if this were to be fully funded by the government - but ministers are currently refusing to offer any extra funding to cover pay awards.
Teachers, many of whom have spoken about staff burnout, are also voting for strikes due to conditions in schools at present. Mary Bousted, NEU joint general secretary, said: “Children are being harmed every day by the crisis and the catastrophe of the workforce shortages in our schools”.
Mr Courtney added: “I think parents are starting to pick up on the day-to-day situation in schools – that their child’s maths teacher might never have acquired a maths qualification, that there is such a rapid turnover of teachers all the time, that there is a lot of disruption.”
What has the government said?
The Education Secretary has confirmed she will meet with unions in the coming days, after the government’s attempts to prevent strike action proved unsucessful.
The government previously met with teaching unions on 9 January to discuss pay and conditions, with a spokesperson commenting: “There are no great schools without great teachers which is why we are making the highest pay awards in a generation – 5% for experienced teachers and more for those early in their careers, including an 8.9% increase to starting salary.
“After two years of disrupted education for young people, strike action is simply not a reasonable solution. Union leaders have been invited to meet with ministers to have honest conversations about what is responsible and what is affordable for our country when it comes to pay.”
But NEU joint general secretary Ms Bousted said that if the government wants to be “serious”, ministers have to put more money on the table and commit to proper negotiations. She explained: “A one-off payment may sound superficially attractive but that brings all sorts of problems with it. We want a pay rise which is incorporated into pay in a proper way.
“This is not just a crisis about the cost of living, although that is a crisis. This is a crisis which has been building for 12 years, as we have seen teachers leave our schools and children left without the specialist teachers they need in order to fulfil their potential. If we take strike action it’s a last resort to say this cannot continue.”
Will schools in England and Wales close?
The NEU alone has 450,000 members across the UK, which will cause a big enough shortage for schools to close. It will be the biggest shutdown of schools for many years, affecting millions of working parents and likely placing further pressure on an already-struggling childcare sector.
The Department for Education will soon publish updated guidance for schools and teachers on what to do in the event of industrial action. The NEU has said it is aware it does not want to “alienate” parents, and so will be circulating “information” on social media and distributing “leaflets” at schools to rally support and offer advice.
What about Scotland?
Teachers in Scotland are striking this week after rejecting a pay offer of 6.85%. The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), which is the sister union of the NEU, the NASUWT and SSTA organisations also walked out last week - on Tuesday (10 January) and Wednesday (11 January). They previously took industrial action in December.
Shirley-Anne Somerville, Scotland’s Education Secretary, urged members to “reconsider their plans for industrial action while talks are ongoing”, but Dan Morris, union salaries convener, said they remain “committed to reaching a fair, negotiated pay settlement for Scotland’s teaching professionals”.
Here is a full list of dates and locations for teacher strikes in Scotland:
- Monday 16 January – Glasgow and East Lothian
- Tuesday 17 January – Perth and Kinross and North Ayrshire
- Wednesday 18 January – Orkney and Fife
- Thursday 19 January – Moray and North Lanarkshire
- Friday 20 January – Angus and East Dunbartonshire
- Monday 23 January – East Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway
- Tuesday 24 January – Stirling and East Renfrewshire
- Wednesday 25 January – South Ayrshire and Edinburgh
- Thursday 26 January – Midlothian and West Dunbartonshire
- Friday 27 January – Renfrewshire and Falkirk
- Monday 30 January – Aberdeenshire and Scottish Borders
- Tuesday 31 January – Highlands and West Lothian
- Wednesday 1 February – Clackmannanshire and Aberdeen
- Thursday 2 February – Dundee and Argyll and Bute
- Friday 3 February – South Lanarkshire and Western Isles
- Monday 6 February – Inverclyde and Shetland
All government departments previously invited unions in their sectors to meetings on 9 January to discuss pay in an attempt to mitigate disruption.
Writing on the ConservativeHome website, Sunak said: “Today, ministers from across government will be meeting with the unions to set out how we can resolve these disputes in a responsible and reasonable way. I accept the freedom of individuals to strike, but this must be balanced with the rights of everyone else to safely go about their lives. That’s why we introduced new laws – in common with countries such as France, Italy and Spain – to ensure we have minimum levels of safety in critical areas like our ambulance and fire services.”
He added: “I think people also recognise that when it comes to pay we do need to be talking about things that are affordable ultimately for the country, that are responsible when it comes to tacking inflation which, ultimately, is the root cause of the challenges people are seeing.”
But the attempts were clearly unsuccessful, as teachers are going ahead with strikes - and many other public sector workers are continuing industrial action too.