Schools could face teacher strikes in autumn term over pay, union leader warns

3 April 2024, 17:34

National Education Union (NEU) annual conference
National Education Union (NEU) annual conference. Picture: PA

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union, has not ruled out the possibility of walkouts over teachers’ pay and funding.

School strikes over teachers’ pay and funding are not off the table and could be staged as early as September, the leader of a teaching union has warned.

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), the largest education union in the UK, said there is “more and more frustration” developing amongst the teaching profession.

Teachers at the NEU’s annual conference in Bournemouth will vote on Thursday on whether the union should “build capacity” to deliver national industrial action over pay and funding.

It comes after an overwhelming majority of NEU teacher members in England and Wales who took part in the preliminary ballot said they would strike to secure a fully funded, above-inflation pay rise and improved funding.

Speaking to the media at the union’s annual conference, Mr Kebede suggested strike action in the autumn term was a possibility and he did not rule out the union launching a formal ballot on walkouts.

When asked when strike action could take place, he said: “My view is if there is a decision to go for a formal ballot, we should conduct that over a fairly significant period of time, looking to take action in September.”

The NEU leader called on Education Secretary Gillian Keegan to be ready to open up “serious talks” to avoid a “collision course” with the union.

Mr Kebede said: “The preliminary ballot result is exceptionally significant.

“We’ve had nearly 150,000 teachers vote for strike action.

“She has to take that seriously.

“She has to start engaging in a meaningful way.”

He added that the last meeting he had with the Education Secretary was “absolutely abysmal” with “no agenda” and he said it was “wishy-washy”.

The union consulted 300,000 of its teacher members in state schools and sixth forms across England and Wales as part of its preliminary ballot.

In England, where 50.3% of members turned out to vote, 90.3% of those who took part in the survey said they would vote yes to strike action for a fully funded, above-inflation pay rise and improved funding.

In Wales, where 54.1% of teacher members turned out to vote, 87.2% said they would vote yes to strike action over pay and funding.

An emergency motion, due to be debated at the conference on Thursday morning, calls on the union’s executive to “review, and learn from, the indicative ballot to build capacity to deliver local and national industrial action”.

It suggests members are “prepared to act industrially” if Rishi Sunak or Sir Keir Starmer “fail to deliver” on teachers’ pay and school funding.

Mr Kebede said conference delegates could decide to bring forward an amendment to the motion calling for a formal ballot to be held on strike action.

Speaking ahead of the debate, he said: “I think that we have to absolutely consider the amount of work it would take to get through this government’s antidemocratic strike thresholds in the context of a formal ballot.

“I don’t think, however, the mood is declining.

“I think if anything there is becoming more and more frustration developing amongst the profession as they’re essentially realising that this Government is burning down the house as they leave government.”

Last year, members of the NEU staged eight days of strike action in state schools in England in a pay dispute, but members accepted a 6.5% pay rise for teachers in England and voted to end strikes in July.

Speaking on Wednesday, Mr Kebede said: “The priority is that we win on the issue of pay and funding.

“The campaign will remain and industrial action will remain a tactic that could be deployed to win on the issue.”

He added: “Any decision by this union to take strike action will not be a decision taken lightly.

“It’s certainly not gesture politics.

“Education is in a polycrisis at the moment, whether it is recruitment and retention, school estate, crisis in funding, early years, Send (special educational needs and disabilities).”

His comments came after delegates at the annual conference of another teaching union, the NASUWT, passed a motion on Saturday in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, which called for political campaigning to “take priority over industrial action” ahead of the general election.

Overall, 78% of NASUWT teacher members in England who took part in the union’s consultative ballot voted against holding a formal ballot for industrial action over pay and working conditions.

Last month, the Department for Education (DfE) said in evidence to the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) that teachers’ pay awards should “return to a more sustainable level” after “two unprecedented years”.

In July last year, the Government agreed to implement the STRB’s recommendation of a 6.5% increase for teachers in England, and co-ordinated strike action by four education unions was called off.

A DfE spokesperson said:  “The independent STRB is currently considering evidence for this year’s pay award, unions should engage with this process instead of striking before they even know what the pay recommendations are.”

She said: “Further strike action would cause more disruption to pupils who have already lost over 25 million school days due to last year’s industrial action.

“Overall school funding is rising to over £60 billion in 2024/25, its highest ever level in real terms per pupil and teachers have already benefited from two historic pay awards totalling over 12% in just two years.”

By Press Association