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Education Unions Accuse Government Of "Wall Of Silence" On Pay Negotiations

Multiple teaching unions have already staged strikes this year (Alamy)

5 min read

The leaders of major education unions have accused the government of ignoring their calls to re-enter negotiations over teachers’ pay and conditions.

The NASUWT education union opened a ballot on Monday of around 150,000 school teachers and headteachers for strike action, and other unions have also recently opened ballots for thousands more.

NASUWT General Secretary Patrick Roach said he believed there is a “very real prospect” that 98 per cent of the teaching profession could vote in support of industrial action to take place in the autumn with “very serious consequences”, but that despite this risk, his union was being met with a “wall of silence” by Education Secretary Gillian Keegan.

“We’ve tried to reach out on umpteen occasions, umpteen items of correspondence, there have been calls to her office, press releases urging the secretary of state to get in touch with us,” Roach told PoliticsHome

“The message was time and time again to pick up that phone and get back into negotiations, but we've been met with a wall of silence. We've had no direct response from the education secretary.”

In late March, the Department for Education (DfE) offered teachers a one-off payment of £1,000 and an average pay rise of 4.5 per cent in the next financial year. Roach claimed Keegan asked his union to consult their members on the offer, of whom 87 per cent then rejected the proposals in early April.

“Since then, the secretary of state seems to willfully refuse to have any engagement at all, no dialogue, no commitment to enter into further negotiations,” Roach said.

“That's not a way of resolving any disputes. She should demonstrate the integrity of being willing to take on board what teachers have said and to get back around the table and to find a deal which can count on the support of the teaching profession.”

Roach said that he wrote to the Prime Minister on Monday, urging him to intervene. While Rishi Sunak had called on unions to avoid industrial action, Roach said his union had done “everything possible” to avoid strikes but could not go further in negotiations while being “ignored” by Keegan.

“If the education secretary isn't willing or able to enter into negotiations and find a resolution to this dispute, then the Prime Minister needs to intervene because frankly, the clock is ticking,” he continued.

“[The education secretary] said on the record that she's committed to listening and talking to the profession. Well, she needs to demonstrate that.

“She knows that there's a real risk [of strike action], and that's why it's unfathomable that there is that window of opportunity and she's not taking it.”

The NASUWT general secretary said he anticipated a “very strong level” of support in the current ballot for industrial action. 

Other unions are also dissatisfied with the offers tabled by the government so far, and the DfE’s reluctance to rejoin further negotiations.

Education unions have made the case that teachers have seen real terms pay decline of 25 per cent since 2010, which the government pay offer does not match. 

School leaders are also concerned by how the government might pay for teacher pay rises without eating into school budgets, and therefore want any pay offer to be fully and transparently funded.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said his union had been “immensely frustrated” by the government’s “lack of willingness to enter into fresh, meaningful talks” – despite NAHT appealing for them to get back around the table. 

“So far, we have had no further meaningful talks, and instead the government has dropped its offer of a £1,000 cost of living payment as an apparent punishment for not accepting its deal,” Whiteman said.

“We have been left with no other choice but to seek this mandate for industrial action.

“Nobody working in education wants to have to go on strike, but it seems this is the only way to open the government’s eyes to the mess our education system is in, and the recruitment and retention crisis fuelled by years of real-terms pay and funding cuts, unsustainable workload and high-stakes inspections which harm staff wellbeing.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), also described strike action as a “last resort”, as since they rejected the government deal in March, the government has not engaged further.

“Since then we have tried everything we can to reopen formal pay talks, but the government has been unwilling to do so,” he said. 

Barton called on the government to publish the School Teachers' Review Body report, which was leaked to the Sunday Times and recommended that teachers be given a 6.5 per cent wage rise this year – higher than any offers proposed by the government so far.

The ASCL boss reiterated the importance of any pay award being “fully funded” for every school.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “As part of the normal process, the independent School Teachers’ Review Body has submitted its recommendations to government on teacher pay for 2023/24 and we will publish our response in the usual way.

“Thousands of schools have received significant additional funding as part of the extra £2bn of investment we are providing both this year and next.

“As a result, school funding will be at its highest level in history next year, as measured by the IFS.”

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