The Education Secretary has called on the National Education Union (NEU) to enter formal talks on teachers’ pay this week rather than staging strikes.
On the eve of teacher strikes across England, Gillian Keegan has written to unions representing teachers and school leaders to invite them to formal talks on Wednesday and Thursday if they suspend walkouts.
Ms Keegan warned the NEU’s position to “strike rather than talk” could “miss an opportunity” to discuss reforms and “risk a narrower settlement”.
Hundreds of thousands of members of the NEU are expected to take part in two consecutive days of strike action across England from Wednesday in a long-running dispute over pay.
In an open letter to parents on Tuesday, Ms Keegan said: “The single best thing the NEU could do for both its members and for children and young people would be to sit down and talk about pay.
She told parents that the NEU “seems focused on strikes and all the needless disruption that brings”.
But the joint leaders of the NEU, the largest education union in the UK, have told Ms Keegan the strikes were “wholly avoidable” if the Education Secretary had not insisted on a “spurious precondition” which cannot be met.
Pupils in England face disruption to their lessons on Wednesday and Thursday as the latest wave of teacher walkouts are expected to force many schools to restrict access to certain year groups or to fully close.
Ms Keegan first invited the NEU to formal talks on teachers’ pay three weeks ago on the condition that the union’s planned strikes were cancelled.
But the NEU has refused to suspend strike action in England until Ms Keegan makes a pay offer that could end the dispute.
In a letter to the NEU’s general secretaries on Tuesday, Ms Keegan said: “The NEU’s current position to strike rather than talk, if it continues, will mean waiting for the STRB [School Teachers’ Review Body] process to conclude, which will prolong uncertainty for teachers, miss an opportunity to discuss reforms to teacher conditions and risk a narrower settlement.”
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “The NEU regrets the inconvenience caused to parents, children and young people by strike action. The responsibility for this lies squarely with the Education Secretary.
“The NEU has said time and again we will meet for talks. As in Wales and Scotland, strike action was paused when a serious offer was made, and members were consulted on it. No preconditions were thought necessary by Scotland or Wales and as a result progress has been made.
“Gillian Keegan’s digging in of heels, and refusal to engage through Acas, has meant that England yet again lags behind other countries.”
On Friday, the NEU called off planned strike action by teachers in Wales after the Welsh Government proposed a revised pay offer. The NEU is now consulting its members in Wales on the offer.
Dr Bousted added: “Parents see daily the effect that the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, alongside woeful school funding, is having on their children’s education.
“While we sincerely apologise for the disruption on Wednesday and Thursday, we believe that parents recognise the need for change.”
In her letter to parents on Tuesday, Ms Keegan said: “This industrial action will mean more disruption to children’s education and to your lives too – whether that’s work, arranging childcare, or changing other plans.
“I am extremely disappointed that many young people will once again miss invaluable time learning with their teachers and friends, particularly after their education was significantly disrupted during the pandemic.
“It is made worse by the fact that this strike action is completely unnecessary. As I said to the NEU three weeks ago, I want to get around the table and engage in serious talks on teachers’ pay and other issues to resolve disputes.
“My only condition was that strike action is paused so those discussions can take place in good faith and without disruption.”
Ms Keegan held separate meetings with the NASUWT teaching union and headteachers’ union NAHT on Monday, and met with the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) on Tuesday.
The Government has not met the NEU this week ahead of the strikes, and Dr Bousted accused Ms Keegan of “playing politics”.
In a letter to Ms Keegan, Dr Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint general secretaries of the NEU, said: “The Department for Education’s attitude towards talks is not only unusual but counterproductive.
“You have therefore set a whole new precedent, which is nothing more than a stumbling block with which to play politics.
“If the Prime Minister and Chancellor really have invested you with the ability to enter serious negotiations and make new offers on pay for both this year and next, then there should be no need for such a stumbling block.”
Following a meeting with the Education Secretary on Tuesday, Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, said: “Today’s discussion was helpful and the Secretary of State has listened to our view that progress will only be made by finding a way to reconvene talks with all the education unions collectively.
“It is vital that any further talks are accompanied by a meaningful offer on pay and conditions which ends industrial action and addresses the underlying teacher recruitment and retention crisis.”