Keegan: ‘I fully understand teacher and leader workload is too high’

The education secretary told schools in a letter she is 'disappointed' the NEU won't pause strikes, but vowed to tackle workloads and staff shortages

The education secretary told schools in a letter she is 'disappointed' the NEU won't pause strikes, but vowed to tackle workloads and staff shortages

24 Feb 2023, 16:28

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Education secretary Gillian Keegan has written to schools nationwide to say she is “disappointed” by the National Education Union’s refusal to suspend looming strikes.

However she admitted she did “understand teacher and leader workload is too high”, and recognised “challenges getting the staff in schools we need”.

She said ministers were “resolute” about addressing those issues, and added: “Having made an offer to start serious talks on pay and other issues, I am disappointed that the NEU’s leadership is not yet prepared to pause strikes and join these talks.”

“Ahead of its National Executive Committee meeting tomorrow, I have urged the NEU to suspend its planned action and get round the table so we can put an end to this uncertainty and disruption for children and families.”

The Department for Education accused NEU leaders of an “extremely disappointing” refusal to pause strikes and enter formal negotiations on all issues, as offered by ministers earlier this week.

DfE: talks conditional on pausing strikes

A DfE spokesperson said its offer to “move into formal talks on pay and covering all the areas in dispute” still stood, on the “clear and reasonably condition” upcoming regional walkouts were suspended.

The DfE said the offer mirrors the government’s approach in its negotiations with the Royal College of Nursing in their own separate dispute. Nurses agreed to pause strikes for talks.

The NEU had said earlier this week it was prepared to recommend pausing looming walkouts, but only if “substantial progress” could be made.

But the union told Schools Week that without sufficient progress, it is not planning to put it to a vote this weekend.

NEU: DfE claims are ‘disingenuous’

NEU joint general secretaries Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney called the government’s suggestion they would not enter talks “completely disingenuous”.

“We are absolutely ready to come to talks. What we cannot accept are pre-conditions which require us to pause strike action before we have made any progress through negotiations to resolve this dispute.  

“Let us be clear. The only reason Gillian Keegan has come to the table at all is because of the NEU’s successful ballot result. We want to resolve this dispute in the interests of teachers and children’s education.

“Such a resolution will not come, however, without goodwill on both sides. Inaccurate claims by the Department for Education do nothing to achieve this aim.” 

Wider industrial unrest

The NEU is one of three unions in a formal dispute with the government over this year’s pay deal, worth 5 per cent for most teachers and leaders. Its members across England walked out for the first time earlier this month.

Multiple meetings between the government and unions have so far resulted in no resolution to the dispute over pay and school funding,

It comes after the Department for Education published its evidence to the school teachers’ review body ahead of next year’s pay award. It has recommended a 3 per cent rise for most teachers and leaders, and an increase in starting salaries to £30,000 from September.

The Financial Times reported this week the prime minister was considering improved pay offers of up to 5 per cent and a backdated payment to end widespread public sector industrial disputes. It follows better-than-expected government borrowing figures.

It comes a day after councils offered school support staff pay rises of between 3.9 per cent and 9.4 per cent in separate union negotiations – but warned jobs were at risk without additional funding for it.

Schools have already sounded the alarm further pay increases without more funding will result in cuts. But government said its recent £2 billion uplift was enough to cover the proposed pay rises for teachers from September.

Gillian Keegan’s school letter on strikes in full

I am sorry to write to you on a Friday afternoon, however, there have been some significant changes in our trade disputes with unions this week and I wanted to update you on what we are doing to make progress and bring the disputes to a resolution.

On Tuesday, I wrote to the NEU, NASUWT, ASCL and NAHT offering to move into formal talks on pay, conditions and reform that will address all areas in dispute. This offer, which still stands, was made on the condition that the NEU pauses its strike action next week to ensure talks can take place in good faith and without the disruption of ongoing action.

The Government made the same request of the Royal College of Nursing who, having accepted, has now entered intense discussions with ministers to resolve their own pay disputes.

These formal talks have been offered to build on the constructive discussions we’ve had with unions to date that have been largely focused on workload, recruitment and retention, and our submission to the pay review body.

I have heard the union leaders when they requested that Government needs to come to the table and make a real offer to discuss pay to avert strikes. We have now done that and I hope we can find a fair and reasonable settlement that recognises the vital role you play as our teachers and school leaders.

Whether you have chosen to strike or not, I know each one of you takes your job incredibly seriously and makes sure that children and young people are at the centre of everything you do.  

Having made an offer to start serious talks on pay and other issues, I am disappointed that the NEU’s leadership is not yet prepared to pause strikes and join these talks – particularly as strikes have a significant impact on children’s education, and especially following the disruption of the past two years.

Ahead of its National Executive Committee meeting tomorrow, I have urged the NEU to suspend its planned action and get round the table so we can put an end to this uncertainty and disruption for children and families.

The rising cost of living has impacted everyone, and I understand concerns about your pay and how your school budgets can support your pupils. Embedding inflation into our economy doesn’t solve the problem, as it impacts every household.

That said, I have been clear with the unions that I am willing to sit around the table and have a meaningful discussion with them on pay.

Last week, we also published the Department’s evidence to the School Teachers’ Review Body.

This written evidence presents an assessment of what award is currently affordable for schools on average and sets out that changing conditions, including reducing inflation levels and energy prices, might allow schools to accommodate a higher award. This is the starting point for our formal talks.

I know that there has been a lot of concern around school funding. I want to reassure you that the additional £2 billion going into schools in both 2023-24 and the following year means that by 2024-25 schools will be funded at their highest levels in history.

Each school has flexibility over how this money is used – for example, it could be spent on staffing, classroom materials, or other running costs.  

I fully understand teacher and leader workload is too high and recognise that there are challenges getting the staff in schools we need. Previous work in this area, led by Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools, did start to see a positive shift in getting this down before the pandemic.

Both he and I are resolute in our ambition to get this work back on track and see what more we can do to speed things along and give you more time to do what you do best – teach.

Looking ahead to next week, I have urged the NEU to pause strike action and come to the table with the other trade unions to resolve the issues that matter to you most.  

It’s in all of our best interests, but most of all in children’s interests, to resolve this dispute to make sure strike action does not have a real and direct impact on children and young people’s education and wellbeing.

Thank you, again, for everything you do.

Best wishes,
The Rt Hon Gillian Keegan MP
Secretary of State for Education

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  1. I’m not clear on this – do all schoolteachers (for young people, under 16) receive their pay from the federal government? Or is by council? Or county?

    Really interested in knowing more about this and hope more people will comment. My mother was a schoolteacher in a different country and made a lot of money – a ridiculous amount compared to the average national salary.

    It would be interesting to see the data regarding pay, hours worked, etc.