Headteachers say they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to this week’s strikes, with their consciences torn between supporting children’s right to education and their teachers’ right to protest.
And while parents have mostly so far been behind the protests, there is concern the two consecutive days of strikes planned for later this month could test their support.
We spoke to leaders about how their schools are managing disruption, and shifting perceptions in their communities.
Online learning is “no substitute”
Glyn Potts, head of Newman Roman Catholic College in Oldham, spent strike day on Tuesday – when his school was only open for vulnerable and looked-after pupils – at Windsor Castle, collecting his MBE for services to education and the Army Cadet Force.
Of his 100 teachers, 63 were striking National Education Union (NEU) members, leaving him with 12 to 15 teachers for his 1,500-pupil school after taking into account maternity and other absences.
He says he felt “disappointed” he was unable to manage the situation better, although he was glad to be collecting his medal on a day his school was closed.
“Online learning is no substitute for [classroom teaching] and not good enough for this community I serve,” he says. “But I’m trying to navigate being responsible to my students alongside not getting myself in hot water with the unions. I want much more, but I can’t have it without those teachers.”
Potts is also angry over the government’s lack of support for teachers.
Colleagues, he says, feel “wholly disempowered by government. They’ve taken away all the tools I might use and all the pride and ambition I have for my students, and replaced it with a cliff edge of accountability and performance measures. You have to wait for whichever paddle is going to hit you next.”
More than half (45) of the teachers at Framwellgate School in Durham, walked out on Tuesday. The school opened for years 11, 12 and 13, with matters made “slightly easier”, says head Andy Byers, by mock exams for year 11. Other years were set work from home by senior leaders.
Byers, who planned to teach himself during the strike, said there was an “onus on senior staff to supervise students. We haven’t tried to overstretch ourselves, we’ve made sure we have enough people to supervise students who are in.”
There has been some backlash on Twitter for leaders “breaking the strike” by covering for teachers. The leaders’ union NAHT and the NEU even sent out a joint letter calling for unity during last month’s strikes.
Byers says he sensed “disappointment” among members of other unions that they were not striking, and four of his staff “changed unions to be part of the action”. The NEU said this week it had 50,000 new members since announcing action.
Many students are also “very supportive” of striking teachers, with some sixth-formers previously providing staff on picket lines with hot drinks.
“But we’re trying not to talk about the politics of it all with them.”
Head gives “full support” to strikers
Two of the 30 teachers at Yew Tree Primary School in Walsall took action on Tuesday, with head Jamie Barry using agency staff to cover classes.
He says he “debated long and hard whether it was the right thing”. “It’s hard to balance support for my colleagues and the cause, which I don’t disagree with, with the fact my children need to be in school. Every day missed is so much opportunity missed.”
“Schools have become much more for communities since Covid. Now we have food vouchers, food banks and mental health teams working more closely with us.”
Some families are also“really worried about childcare costs” if the school closes. “It’s not as black and white as some would paint on Twitter of ‘we’re striking to cause disruption’.”
More than half (16) of Barry’s teaching staff are NEU members. He says he was aware those declaring they would not strike could “suddenly change their minds and not turn up”. But he told parents he would give full support to staff who changed their minds at the last minute.
He also believes sentiment is shifting, with some asking ‘why strike when you’ve got a secretary of state willing to sit around the table?’”
The NEU last week refused Gillian Keegan’s call to end strike action in exchange for “proper” pay talks.
“I don’t claim to have done it right”
Most staff at Home Farm Primary School in Colchester chose not to strike on Wednesday, telling head Richard Potter they wanted to wait until later in the year when “other unions would probably strike” to “make a bigger difference”.
“Most staff are younger and worried about the possibility of losing pay, and…loss of planning, preparation and assessment time.”
Potter is publicly supportive of the strike, but has also told staff that children come first.
Where he has enough staff whose contracts stipulate “cover teaching”, he covers strikers – and “will not name nor shame” those who take action. Where he has no cover, he is closing year groups and moving to online.
He is accepting staff children whose own schools closed, so “those children can continue their learning and my staff can continue to earn money”.
“I don’t claim to have done it right. But my staff feel supported and are with me in the actions I’ve taken.”
Potter believes the next two days of strikes could be “more popular”, making it “harder to avoid class or year group closures”.
Alison Kriel, director of education platform Above & Beyond Education, believes heads are generally supportive of strikers because their “biggest fear” is the “domino effect” of staff leaving for better paid private sector roles.
She also believes heads are “reluctant to speak out” over strikes because of “fear of backlash and being singled out. It’s a conservative profession, and heads don’t want to be seen as troublemakers.”
“Galvanising resolve” of action
Dan Morrow, the chief executive of Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust in Devon, was striking alongside teachers on Thursday. His 19 schools took “risk assessed” actions, ranging from full closures to “almost business as usual”.
Morrow’s heads, he says, are “mindful not to breach protocols” and avoid asking any colleagues to cover. He senses a “galvanising of resolve across all stakeholders…even given the salary sacrifice of striking”.
“Though it is clear some colleagues are already struggling financially…the NEU has been really proactive in signposting to support available as needed.”
Morrow would like a “full sector response” from heads, but accepts that life is more “nuanced”.
Newcastle University physics PGCE tutor Miles Hudson, who has six trainees on placements, believes strike action gives them a “good learning experience to understand the importance of unions”.
Their £26,000 bursaries mean the pay issue “doesn’t hit home”, but they are finding the course workload tough. “They’re getting the message that workload is as much what these strikes are about as pay.”
No increased demand for agencies
A recent law change allows staffing gaps caused by strikes to be plugged by agency workers, but Niall Bradley, the chair of The National Supply Network, has not picked up any increased demand this week.
Similarly, Athona Recruitment says there was no increased demand with most of the schools it works with closing and setting remote learning.
Some heads, including Byers, chose not use supply because “that’s not in the spirit of supporting” strikers.
Potts tried to get cover but none was available. Barry did use cover, including supply teachers from schools that shut, but says he made it clear they would be covering a striking teacher. “Some people morally would choose not to do that.”
Daniel Dawkins, a director of Aspire People, noticed more demand for supply during last month’s strike.
Figures obtained by Schools Week show half of northern schools, which went on strike on Tuesday, had to close or restrict attendance.
But secondaries were far more likely (77 per cent) than primaries (47 per cent) to close to some pupils.
Dawkins thinks this is because older children can stay home alone working with laptops given to them during Covid, with less disruption to parents.
But primary closures cause “more anger” from parents scrambling for childcare.
Most parents support strikes
A new poll by Ipsos Mori shows 60 per cent of parents support teacher strikes, but about two in five are worried about their children catching up on school work and exam results being affected.
Mumsnet, the website for parents, says there has been a “lot less discussion” during this week’s strikes.
But Potts is picking up some “resentment … commentary about the NEU not joining the table to talk about pay … is being repeated by parents who don’t understand that teachers are often in different unions and constrained by what they can respond to.
“Parents are saying, ‘why can school x [open] and school y can’t’?. They’re critical of us for having to make a decision they can’t really understand.”
The “visceral” anger between unions and the government has not helped.
Byers received one supportive email from parents and two critical, which he says were “unsigned and fairly abusive”.
He believes, however, that most of his parents are “understanding” because they also work for public sector organisations and are “in the same boat”.
“But they want it to be resolved as quickly as possible so pupils can be back in lessons.”