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Volume 53 Number 21, July 15, 2023 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Workers' Forum

Teachers' Steadfast Strikes Force Concessions from the Government


Photo: Getty Images

In response to last week's further strike action by NEU members on July 5 and 7, the government finally conceded to publishing the report of the School Teachers' Review Body (STRB) and has accepted its recommendation of a pay rise for teachers of 6.5%. However, it will only provide the required additional funding for 3%, less than half of that rise. The four education unions involved in the dispute (ASCL, NAHT, NASUWT and NEU, together with General Secretary Elect of NEU, Daniel Kebede) have said in a joint statement [1] with the government that they will advise members to "accept the STRB recommendation", bringing an end to the strikes.

The action last week, in which teachers in England struck work on Wednesday and Friday, was in furtherance of the demand for a fully-funded pay increase to counter rising inflation and ten years of real-term pay cuts, and came on top of five previous strike days held this year. These cuts are affecting recruitment and retention, causing significant damage to education, says the National Education Union (NEU), which had been re-balloting its members for further strike action in the autumn.

Members of the teachers' union NASUWT and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) had joined the strikes for the first time. This marks the first strike action by NAHT members in its 125-year history. NEU members from sixth-form colleges additionally took part. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) had also been balloting members on national strike action in England for the first time in its history.

Members of the NASUWT teaching union in England have also voted in favour of industrial action over pay, workload and working time. [2]

Elsewhere, teachers in the north of Ireland have been taking action short of a strike since October 2022, refusing lunchtime supervision or attending meetings out of normal working hours. Meanwhile, teachers in Scotland have agreed to a 7% increase for 2022-23, a 5% increase in April 2023, and a 2% increase in January 2024, ending their dispute. In Wales, NEU members accepted an 8% increase for 2022-23 and 5% for 2023-24, but this offer was rejected by members of the NAHT.

Immediately following the latest days of action, the NEU Joint General Secretaries Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney called on the government to publish the STRB report and restart discussions with the unions, which, they pointed out, the government has frozen since early April.

"We believe that the STRB has recommended a 6.5% across the board pay rise, and if such a rise were properly funded implementing such a rise could bring this dispute to a close," they said. "The holes that are appearing in our education system after 13 years of neglect by his Government can no longer be plastered over. The Prime Minister needs to understand that the education profession and the education system is at breaking point. Years of real-term pay cuts, a chronic lack of school and college funding, enormous recruitment and retention challenges, escalating workload and working hours, and an inspection system that is doing more harm than good have all taken their toll on the profession and our children and young people's education," they added, concluding: "We urge this Government to recognise the scale of the problem and start negotiating." [3]

The joint statement states: "This deal will allow teachers and school leaders to call off strike action and resume normal relations with government." The question remains, however, as to what these "normal relations" are. The teachers' strike action have been another example of the challenges faced by workers in organising to defend themselves, when the new normal of those in positions of power is to impose decisions and conditions, and to refuse to negotiate. To be effective, workers are having to speak for themselves and organise for control over matters that affect their lives, operating instead in the court of public opinion rather than within the confines of a defunct civil society.


Photo: Schools Week

In such a situation, the teachers are to be commended in forcing movement from the government, who, despite the disruption from school closures, were clearly losing the battle over the public consciousness. The teachers successfully held the line, staying true to the call that "Enough is Enough!" despite attempts to dissipate their resistance. A victory for one is a victory for all.

Nevertheless, over half of the pay rise (3.5%) will come from schools' own budgets [4]. The Department for Education has asserted that this is "affordable" given last year's announcement of £2.3 billion additional funding. The reality on the ground remains to be seen. Regardless of such claims, however, the issue is certain not to go away as long as the economy is not directed to fully funding and continually expanding and developing vital social programmes like education, instead being directed to the aims of war and paying the rich.

The very fact that the government proudly announced a "hardship fund" of up to £40 million to "support those schools facing the greatest financial challenges" certainly indicates that the fundamental issues remain - no school should be in such "hardship" in the first place. The teachers' struggle further raised the issue of what kind of education is needed. The frontline stand in the workers' movement taken by teachers will not vanish as the result of this deal, and they will certainly continue to hold the line to safeguard the future of education.


Notes
1. Joint Statement on Teachers' Pay, July 13, 2023
https://www.gov.uk/government/news/joint-statement-on-teachers-pay-13-july-2023
2. F. Whittaker, "Teacher pay: 6.5% rise approved, but DfE will only fund 3%", Schools Week, July 13, 2023
https://schoolsweek.co.uk/strb-report-6-5-teacher-pay-rise-but-dfe-will-only-fund-3/
According to Schools Week, the NASUWT said it intends to issue notice of "a programme of continuous action short of strike action" commencing in September. Details will be announced shortly. The union will also consider dates for autumn term strike action "co-ordinated with other education unions where possible". In total, 88.5 per cent of eligible members voted to support strike action and 94.3 per cent voted in support of action short of strike action, based on an overall turnout of 51.9 per cent. As well as meeting the 50 per cent turnout threshold, this also passes the threshold requiring 40 per cent of all eligible members to vote 'yes'. The vote equates to 46 per cent of all members voting to strike, and 49 per cent in support of action short of a strike.
Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT general secretary, said members have secured the union's "largest mandate" for industrial action in over a decade. "Our members' goodwill has been taken for granted for far too long. Excessive workload demands have become so debilitating that we have seen record numbers of teachers and headteachers leaving the profession, or reporting anxiety, work-related stress and self-harm because of the pressures of the job."
3. "NEU strike action", NEU Press Release, July 7, 2023
https://neu.org.uk/latest/press-releases/neu-strike-action-0
4. Schools Week, op. cit.


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