Ballots for strikes by hundreds of thousands of school staff will close this week, with crunch talks between ministers and education unions taking place today.
Three unions are balloting their members for industrial action over the pay award for this year, which is worth 5 per cent to most teachers.
Here’s what you need to know…
Which unions are balloting?
The National Education Union, which represents around 450,000 teachers, support staff and leaders, has balloted members in England’s schools.
The NASUWT teaching union, which has just over 300,000 members, has also balloted its members, as has the NAHT school leaders’ union, which has around 45,000 members.
It’s worth pointing out that not all these members will be based in England, and not all of them will be eligible to take part (for example, some will be retired or not currently working).
To put this into perspective, government data shows there were 465,500 full-time equivalent teachers as of November 2021, making up about 48 per cent of the total school workforce.
When could strikes happen?
All three ballots close this week. NASUWT’s closes today, NAHT’s on Wednesday and the NEU’s on Friday. It is then likely to take a day or two after each one closes for the result to be calculated.
Ballots have to meet a 50 per cent turnout threshold, with 40 per cent of eligible members voting “yes” in order to be lawful.
If they meet these thresholds, it will then be up to each individual union to decide what action to take, and when, depending on the outcome of their ballot.
They may decide to coordinate strikes, or hold them separately. It is understood no decision has been taken on this so far, however.
The NEU has said walkouts could take place as soon as the last week in January, while the other two unions have not set dates.
If won, the ballots will give the unions mandates for action for six months.
Why are ballots taking place?
The ballots were all announced in response to the pay award unveiled by government last summer.
Although the award did see starting salaries rise by 8.9 per cent, most teachers will get around 5 per cent, which is far below the rates of inflation seen over the past six months.
Pay has also been eroded over the past 12 years because it has not kept up with inflation.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed last year that the pay deal represented a 14 per cent real-terms cut for experienced teachers between 2010 and 2023. Leaders say their pay has decreased even further – by 24 per cent in real terms.
However, the dispute is not just over pay. All of the unions are demanding adequate funding to cover the rises they are asking for.
What are the unions asking for?
The NEU is demanding a fully-funded, above-inflation pay rise, while NASUWT has asked for a 12 per cent rise.
The NAHT is seeking a fully-funded pay award at the rate of inflation last September, when it was 10.1 per cent, plus 5 per cent.
This means ministers would have to raise pay this academic year by as much as 10 per cent to meet the demands, though in reality they are more likely to meet the unions somewhere in the middle if they do capitulate.
How will schools respond?
It is down to headteachers and academy trusts to decide what to do in response to a strike. Schools Week revealed last week that the government plans to update its non-statutory guidance on school strikes, which is now six years old.
Current guidance states that the DfE “expects the headteacher to take all reasonable steps to keep the school open for as many pupils as possible”.
Some trusts have said they are planning to use Covid-style measures to prioritise those most in need, while others pointed to remote learning.
Following a law change last year, schools can also now use agency workers to replace striking staff. However, agencies reported last week they had not yet seen an uptick in requests relating to the ballots.
What will leaders do?
One of the big uncertainties is over what NAHT will do, given a pay strike by its members is unprecedented.
The union is balloting for full strike action and action short of a strike, but general secretary Paul Whiteman has told heads he “cannot envisage circumstances where we instigate action that will call on you to close your school”.
Action short of a strike could include heads refusing to tell government which of their staff go on strike, restrictions on responding to calls or emails before 9am or after 3pm, and refusing to engage with Ofsted beyond their statutory requirements.
ASCL, the other school leaders’ union, is currently considering its next steps after an indicative ballot revealed support for moving to a formal vote, albeit with margins that would not approve industrial action if repeated in a legal ballot.
What is the government doing?
Education secretary Gillian Keegan will meet with education unions today, though ministers are said to be focused on gathering evidence for pay rises from September this year, while the unions want this year’s pay award improved.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, told Radio 4’s Today programme this morning the meeting invitation was “welcome”, but said the focus on next year’s pay award “doesn’t meet our issues”.
“Obviously we would be happy to talk about next year, but what the government has to make clear…is that there is more money on the table for this year.”
Asked about whether unions would accept a one-off payment, which has been mooted for health staff, Bousted said it would be a “difficult thing to deal with because it gives teachers and support staff some money now, but it doesn’t increase their wages into the future”.
The DfE said union leaders had been invited to have “honest conversations about what is responsible and what is affordable for our country when it comes to pay”.