The next National Education Union strike action is currently planned for February 28 across the North of England. Kevin Courtney calls on the education secretary to ‘own’ the situation and find a solution to the dispute


One of the benefits of SecEd coming to you online rather than in print, is that this article can strive to be topical and relevant. But I'm hoping that on this occasion, in the three days between writing and publishing, positive change will have been made.

As you know, the National Education Union (NEU) is in the middle of an important campaign fighting for a fully funded, above inflation pay rise.

Our members have broken through the high threshold for ballots, bravely taken strike action, and their numbers have swelled by 47,000 since the result of our ballot was announced.

This is testament to the strength of feeling throughout the profession that enough is enough.

At the end of our first strike day on February 1, which affected 85% of schools in England and Wales, we served notice to education secretary Gillian Keegan.

My colleague, Dr Mary Bousted, and I gave the education secretary until our next strike day in England – on Tuesday, February 28 – to come up with a serious offer for our members. One that may avert further action and bring this dispute to a conclusion.

We have met with Ms Keegan on several occasions this year, in the company of other education union leaders. Talk is always good, but these meetings have not been shifting the dial. The education secretary hears but does not listen.

The government’s failure to address the many issues facing the education profession, including pay, has resulted in a recruitment and retention crisis. It is now commonplace for children to be taught by teachers who are working outside their subject areas. Larger class sizes are reducing one-to-one attention, which is also of concern to parents.

We know and regret the disruption industrial action has on the education of pupils – but the disruption to their education is not just happening on strike days.

This is central to our argument whenever we meet with Ms Keegan, but in these talks we have got to get beyond the government simply restating its existing position. The education secretary must own the situation and start addressing these critical issues.

Any rational government would start to question its own policies when they result in teacher training targets being missed year-on-year, not to mention a completely unnecessary and wasteful haemorrhaging of talent.

A third of teachers leave within five years of qualifying. And the secondary school teachers training target this year was missed by 41%.

The numbers are stark, and the argument is hard to refute – so why the intransigence? This government seems to be in the habit of digging in its heels, but this only serves to make them look out of touch.

We know that parents understand the challenges facing their child's school, and it is written on the faces of the school leaders, teachers and support staff they meet. This is not a sustainable situation and the government holds all the tools with which to fix the problem.

We hope that the prospect of three days of strike action in regions of England from February 28 to March 2 will concentrate minds in Whitehall.

The willingness of the Welsh government to engage in talks with the NEU about pay is in stark contrast to the position taken by Westminster. Those talks have been constructive and meaningful. As a result, we postponed our planned strike action on February 14 because of a new offer of an additional consolidated award of 1.5% this year, plus a non-consolidated lump sum of 1.5%.

However, our workplace reps in Wales concluded this new offer was not good enough and fails to address the cost pressures of spiralling inflation and damage done to pay since 2010.

We have thanked the minister for being prepared to negotiate and we remain committed to seeking a resolution. We want to see movement on the pay offer for this year, to ensure that is not undermined by a low offer next year and it is vital we see some movement on support staff as well.

Above all, our members in Wales want to be convinced that the offers are fully funded.

We want to see progress for England's teachers as well. Gillian Keegan has until our next strike in England on February 28 to do better – children and young people's education is in her hands.