School teachers in England and Wales, members of the National Education Union (NEU), have voted to take industrial action over pay. Meanwhile, the NEU reports 10,000 new members have joined in less than a week.
Strikes, both national and regional, are set to affect 23,000 schools, with action scheduled between 1 February and 16 March.
Teachers want an above inflation award, which is not a pay rise, says the union, but an attempt to make up for the serious decline in relative pay over a decade. And any rise must be fully funded, they say, not deducted from school budgets.
Of the 300,000 NEU members more than 53 per cent voted in favour. Such a turnout is a significant achievement by the union, given its size and having to conduct the ballot during postal strikes, but teachers are angry.
The threshold for taking action set by government is that at least 50 per cent of all members must take part in the ballot, which must be postal. The NEU ballot of school support staff narrowly failed to meet this threshold.
The other major school teachers’ union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), failed to meet the requirement, but may re-ballot.
The same is true for the National Association of Head Teachers. Its general secretary, Paul Whiteman, told the Daily Telegraph that 22 per cent of ballot papers sent to members had to be re-issued by the independent scrutineer – an indication of the effect of the postal strikes.
The Department for Education immediately responded to the NEU ballot result by advising school leaders to keep schools open at all costs, if necessary doubling up on classes and employing agency or unqualified teachers or even volunteers.
The reaction has not been positive. Paul Whiteman, widely quoted in the press, mocked the guidance as “naïve”. National walkouts on this scale couldn’t be dealt with in this way, he said, and non-striking staff can’t be ordered to cover for colleagues.
“It is unlikely that heads will easily gain the cooperation of teams that are so frustrated with how they are treated by government and are party to the same dispute as their NEU colleagues”, he pointed out.
“The education of young people is disrupted every day by staff shortages due to the recruitment and retention crisis that the government has allowed to develop for over a decade. The point of the disputes is to find a long-term solution to the erosion of education provision, not a short-term solution to action that was entirely avoidable.”
• In fact teachers are seeing widespread action across the whole school sector, state and private. Last year union members in 23 private schools in the Girls’ Day School Trust took action over its attempts to abandon the teachers’ pension scheme. Now NEU teachers at Rishi Sunak’s famous old public school, Winchester College, are fighting over the same pensions issue as well as a below inflation pay offer.
A consultative vote at Winchester last year saw a turnout of 83 per cent, with 89 per cent voting to strike. Now the teachers are in the middle of a formal ballot which could see them taking industrial action in February.
Winchester could well be the first major public school to have joined the nationwide action. It is one of the most expensive public schools in Britain, with boarders charged nearly £46,000 a year. Sunak was head boy.
Radley College, another leading public boarding school, could also see teacher industrial action after seeking union recognition.
The NASUWT has said that 125 private schools in England and seven independent schools in Wales have voted for action. Ballots in private schools are carried out in each institution separately.