UK education secretary Gillian Keegan said on Tuesday that teachers “don’t need to strike” to get ministers’ attention after the largest education union declared a week of walkouts.
The comments came ahead of talks to avert industrial action on Wednesday, when leaders of the four main education unions are due to meet Keegan to discuss pay, after the National Education Union announced that its members would walk out in February and March.
The strikes, lasting seven days, will affect the majority of primary and secondary schools in England and Wales and are part of a wave of industrial action that is hitting the public sector as the cost of living crisis takes its toll.
Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Keegan said she had “very much engaged with unions” since becoming education secretary in October. Teachers “don’t need to strike to get my attention”.
She said that pay progression meant some teachers would receive an annual salary uplift of 15.9 per cent, adding that November’s Autumn Statement included a £2bn-a-year funding boost for schools in England for the next two years.
However, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said the union had been forced to strike by more than a decade of real-terms cuts to pay, which had made it difficult to recruit and retain teachers. The 15.9 per cent pay award would apply to only a small minority of teachers, he added.
“She [Keegan] isn’t engaging with the reality of the situation . . . We’re only having serious discussions because of the threat of industrial action,” Courtney said.
“To avoid the action on February 1 [the government] would need to say that they would put fresh money on the table [and] that will be used for teacher pay.”
About 263,000 NEU members were balloted for action, and walkouts will affect the vast majority of schools, though no single school will be affected for more than four days.
All NEU teacher members in England and Wales will walk out on February 1, March 15 and March 16, and members in Wales only will strike on February 14.
This will be followed by one day of strike action in different regions of England: in the north on February 28, the Midlands on March 1 and London and the south on March 2.
The union is demanding an above-inflation pay rise, after most teachers were given an annual uplift of 5 per cent this academic year. Inflation stood at 10.7 per cent in November.
In guidance issued on Monday, the Department for Education told headteachers to keep schools open “for as many pupils as possible”. If classes were restricted, it said leaders should prioritise vulnerable children, those of “critical key workers” and pupils due to take exams.
Members of the National Association of Head Teachers, which represents education leaders, and NASUWT, the teachers’ union, have also balloted their members over strike action.
While both unions failed to reach the 50 per cent turnout threshold legally required to mandate action, they confirmed that they remained in a formal dispute with the government.
“The government really needs to respond and talk to us about finding solutions,” Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said.