Teaching unions are warning they will be forced to reballot their members over strike action in the coming months if ministers continue to resist a “sensible solution” to the crisis in teacher recruitment and retention.
Three unions had been threatening walkouts over pay, which they say has led to teachers and teaching assistants making the “heartbreaking” decision to leave the profession. Last week it was revealed that despite about 90% of NASUWT members voting in favour of industrial action, the turnout, 42%, was below the required 50% threshold. Two more unions, the NEU and NAHT, will announce the results of their ballots on 16 January.
While hopes within the unions remain high that the strike action will be approved, some unions are warning that the strong support already demonstrated for strike action means they will feel obliged to launch a new attempt for walkouts should pay talks fail to progress.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, told the Observer that heads and teachers would expect their unions to keep fighting.
“I think it’s fair to say that just because a technical threshold hasn’t been met, the disputes don’t go away,” he said. “Members will still be expecting their union to find a solution with the employer. If a sensible solution isn’t reached, there’s always the possibility that members will vote in a second ballot, with those thresholds being met. If there is any relief the government might be feeling, they should think again.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the union NAHT. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/Alamy
Unions are already concerned that ballot papers may not have reached all members, and the effects of postal disruption will also be examined if the 50% turnout threshold is not met.
Whiteman warned that the erosion of pay over a decade was now putting huge pressure on teaching staff’’s vocational drive, with “heartbroken” teaching assistants now regularly being offered major pay increases to move into retail jobs.
“We’ve got this stupid situation at the moment in which highly skilled, very well-trained teaching assistants can garner more money working in a supermarket than they can looking after vulnerable children. Headteachers tell me that teaching assistants or support staff often bring them their resignation letter in tears. They have to leave the job they love and the children they love to support and are heavily invested in, because they can’t make ends meet. And supermarkets are able to pay them significantly more.
The teaching crisis isn’t so apparent because people don’t die in school. But they don’t get educated either
“At the moment there are huge numbers of children who don’t have a subject specialist teaching them. We don’t have enough maths teachers, we don’t have enough physics teachers, and we are finding it difficult to replace headteachers.
“The same crisis that you see in health is happening in education. The reason it isn’t so apparent or so dramatic is because people don’t die in school. But they don’t get educated either. If we don’t invest in that education, it has a very long-term impact on our country’s ability to be a major player on the world stage.”
More talks are expected between teaching unions and the Department for Education this week, despite a lack of progress so far. Some hope ministers will use discussions over the coming year’s pay deal to resolve the ongoing dispute over last year’s settlement. Most state school teachers in England and Wales had a below-inflation 5% pay rise in 2022.
The Observer has been told that most state schools in England and Wales will have to close completely on several days in February and March if the country’s biggest teaching union, the NEU, votes for industrial action. The NAHT’s ballot over pay is the first in its 125-year history.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “After two years of disrupted education for children and young people, families will be relieved that teachers from NASUWT did not choose to strike. The education secretary has arranged further meetings with union leaders to avoid harmful strike action. We have already met the unions’ request for a further £2bn for schools both next year and the year after in the autumn statement, and given teachers their highest pay award in 30 years.”
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