Teacher strikes

Strikes: Sunak’s ‘door always open’, but Keegan says no to fresh talks

Unions demand clarity after PM and education secretary issue conflicting statements on pay dispute

Unions demand clarity after PM and education secretary issue conflicting statements on pay dispute

Rishi Sunak

Unions have demanded clarity on the government’s position on teacher strikes after the prime minister said his “door is always open”, but his education secretary rejected calls for fresh pay talks.

Ministers and unions are once again locked in a stalemate over pay, after all four unions representing teachers and leaders rejected an offer of a £1,000 one-off payment this year and 4.3 per cent rise for most teachers in 2023-24.

The government had warned its pay offer was final, and that it would revert to the School Teachers’ Review Body process as normal if it was rejected.

Gillian Keegan
Gillian Keegan

Rishi Sunak appeared to strike a more conciliatory note as he took questions at a school in north London this morning. “Our door is always open, and we continue to hope that we can find a way through,” he said.

“I think people can see actually over the past month or two that we can sit down and have reasonable and constructive conversations,” he added.

But just hours earlier, his education secretary Gillian Keegan rejected calls for fresh talks, saying discussions about pay would “now happen via the independent pay review body”.

“The independent pay review body is the right place to do it, and we actually said that’s what would happen if they rejected this offer,” she told the Today Programme. “We think that’s the right way to do it.”

‘We urge the government to reopen negotiations’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, said: “The prime minister has said that the door is always open, but the education secretary has said on the same day that the pay process will now return to the STRB. Which is it?

Geoff Barton
Geoff Barton

“We strongly urge the government to reopen negotiations with a view to providing an improved settlement that will put an end to the industrial dispute and address teacher shortages.”

ASCL revealed over the Easter break that 87 per cent of voting members had rejected the pay offer, on a turnout of 56 per cent. Its executive committee will meet this week “to decide next steps, including whether to move to a formal ballot”, Barton said.

The NAHT leaders’ union also rejected the offer, by 90 per cent on a turnout of 64 per cent. Its executive will meet on April 27 to discuss a potential re-ballot of members for industrial action.

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said Sunak’s comments “fly in the face of the education secretary’s insistence that a new offer on pay will now have to wait for the recommendation of the independent review body”.

“Gillian Keegan previously said school leaders and teachers didn’t need to strike to talk to her, but her latest comments appear to demonstrate that the reverse is true.

Education ‘left in limbo’ amid government ‘chaos’

“Amid this chaos at the heart of government, what we can’t lose sight of is that we have an education profession left in limbo and feeling demoralised and unappreciated following a decade of massive real-terms cuts to their pay and school funding, increasing workload, and a broken, high-stakes Ofsted inspection regime.”

The National Education Union announced earlier this month that its members will walk out again on April 27 and May 2 after 98 per cent of voting members rejected the offer, on a turnout of 66 per cent.

Delegates at its conference also voted to timetable three further strikes after the exam period this summer, and to ballot for another six-month strike mandate from July.

Dr Mary Bousted, the NEU’s joint general secretary, said she was “heartened to hear the PM saying that ‘his door is always open’ and that he hopes to find a way through to a resolution of the NEU’s pay dispute”. 

“It would be helpful if Mr Sunak conveyed this message to Gillian Keegan, who said today that no new negotiations were planned with the teacher and leader unions, and that she was devolving responsibility for teacher pay to the school teacher review body.”

‘We stand ready to walk through the door’

She added that the NEU had “always been clear that it wishes to negotiate a resolution to the dispute”. 

“For this to happen, the government has to come up with a credible offer which addresses not only the current cost of living crisis, but also the long term decline in the relative value of teacher pay. We stand ready to walk through the door to the DfE and to recommence negotiations.”

Dr Patrick Roach
Dr Patrick Roach

The NASUWT teaching union confirmed earlier this month that it will re-ballot members for industrial action after they voted to reject the pay deal.

Its previous ballot did not meet the 50 per cent turnout threshold required. A survey of members on the offer reached a turnout of 52.4 per cent, with 87 per cent of voting members rejecting the offer.

Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT’s general secretary, said they had “asked the secretary of state to meet again to discuss the outcome of our member consultation.

“Disappointingly, we are still waiting to receive a response from her. The best way to avert the prospect of industrial action is by reaching a negotiated settlement to our dispute and we remain willing to meet any time, any place anywhere.”

Strikes in run-up to exams not ‘right’

This morning, Keegan criticised the NEU for the timing of its next planned strike action.

Proposed walkouts on April 27 and May 2 will take place around two weeks before GCSE and A-level tests begin, though the NEU said it would ask districts to make local arrangements for year 11 and 13 students so they could continue to go to school during strike days.

Any further strikes announced by the union would take place in late June at the earliest.

“They do not need to call strikes and they should not be calling strikes in this period up to the exam cohorts are taking exams for the first time,” Keegan said today.

“They need their teachers there to revise, they need to make sure they can get all that catch-up if they need it, but all that security they get in that term leading up to exams.

“These are really big important exams and it really isn’t right that they are threatening to strike or calling strikes for those days.”

The DfE has also added to its guidance on how schools should handle strikes to encourage leaders to “consider prioritising pupils due to take public examinations and
other formal assessments” if restricting attendance during strikes.

“This includes children in KS2 who are due to take National Curriculum Assessments, or pupils due to take their GCSEs or vocational qualifications,” the DfE said.

Schools are “encouraged to consider what action they could take to ensure pupils due to
take their GCSEs or vocational qualifications are supported and prepared for their
exams”.

“This could involve offering catch-up lessons or arranging additional revision
sessions.”

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One comment

  1. Hysterical that she refuses to do her job and criticises teachers strikes that she could avert! Its like standing there with a fire extinguisher complaining about the flames! I am becoming more convinced that she has been given the post specifically to prove to everyone that Michael Gove wasn’t the worst possible choice for education secretary! She seems hell bent on driving state education into the ground, presumably so more public buildings wind up in the hands of private donors fore them to sell off and make vast profits.