Thousands of schools in England and Wales are set to close in February after teachers voted to strike, union leaders have announced, as nurses also prepare to take further industrial action.
Strike action by members of the National Education Union will begin with a mass walkout on 1 February, to coincide with the TUC’s national “protect the right to strike” day of action, followed by six days of regional action.
Nurses in England and Wales will strike for the fifth and sixth time next month on 6 and 7 February in an escalation of their pay dispute with ministers.
The NEU, which is the biggest education union, is striking in pursuit of its claim for a fully funded, above-inflation pay rise, after the government announced last summer that most teachers would receive a pay rise of about 5%, while starting salaries would go up by 8.9%.
Overall, nine out of 10 teacher members in the NEU voted in favour of strike action with a turnout of 53% in England, exceeding the legal threshold for industrial action. In Wales the result was stronger, with a 92% majority in favour of action and a 58% turnout.
Under strike law, for a strike vote to be valid, unions have to reach a turnout threshold of 50%, and at least 40% of those entitled to vote must vote in favour. Recent ballots by the NASUWT teachers’ union and the NAHT union for school leaders failed to meet the threshold, but both are now considering reballoting their members amid concerns recent postal strikes may have compromised the process.
The NEU, which balloted 300,000 of its members, says although it is planning seven days of strike action, any individual school will only be affected by four days. The first day of action on February 1 will affect 23,400 schools in England and Wales.
In Scotland, meanwhile, teachers launched a fresh wave of strike action with union leaders warning of no end in sight to their pay dispute. Members of the Educational Institute of Scotland began 16 days of rolling strike action on Monday, with teachers in two of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas walking out each day until 6 February.
The education secretary, Gillian Keegan, said the vote was deeply disappointing, adding: “Talks with union leaders are ongoing and any strike action from one union will have a damaging impact on pupils’ education and wellbeing, particularly following the disruption experienced over the past two years.”
The NEU also held strike ballots among school support staff. In England, although eight out of 10 members were in favour of strike action, turnout fell short of the required threshold at 46.46%. In Wales, however, strike action among support staff will go ahead after the NEU secured a turnout of more than 51%, with 88% of those who voted in favour.
As the biggest education union in the country, industrial action by NEU members is likely to cause widespread disruption. Depending on the number of NEU members in a school, many will be forced to close because of safety requirements while those with fewer members will be able to remain open, though not to all pupils.
Announcing the result of the ballot, Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint general secretaries of the NEU, said they regretted having to take strike action but added: “This is not about a pay rise but correcting historic real-terms pay cuts.
“Teachers have lost 23% in real-terms since 2010, and support staff 27% over the same period. The average 5% pay rise for teachers this year is some 7% behind inflation. In the midst of a cost of living crisis, that is an unsustainable situation.
“We regret having to take strike action, and are willing to enter into negotiations at any time, any place, but this situation cannot go on.”
Unions are due to meet with the education secretary later this week but there is little optimism that there will be a breakthrough.
In updated guidance, the Department for Education said headteachers would be expected to take all reasonable steps to keep schools open for as many pupils as possible, prioritising vulnerable pupils, children of critical care workers and those due to sit public examinations. Schools should also consider, where possible, providing remote education if attendance is restricted.
Jo Coton, chief executive officer of NET Academies Trust, a group of six primary schools in Essex, said her team would do everything possible to keep schools open.
“We are determined that it will be business as usual across our six schools. All our team worked extremely hard to keep vulnerable and key worker children in school during the pandemic and this is no different.”
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) will stage stoppages on 6 and 7 February in England and Wales. It will again increase the number of NHS trusts in England at which it calls out members. It did so at 44 trusts during their first walkouts in December, will increase that to 55 when nurses walk out this Wednesday and Thursday and will expand that again to 73 trusts next month.
Blaming Rishi Sunak for the nurses’ action, the RCN general secretary, Pat Cullen, said: “We are doing this in a desperate bid to get him and ministers to rescue the NHS.”
Cullen again repeated the RCN’s willingness to compromise on its demand for a payrise for 2022/23 that is 5% above inflation. “My olive branch to government – asking them to meet me halfway and begin negotiations – is still there. They should grab it.”
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “Health leaders fear that their warnings of a prolonged war of attrition between the government and the unions are coming true and they worry about the impact this will have on their patients and staff long term.” He urged Sunak to “find a solution” to the pay disputes involving a growing number of different NHS staff groups.
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