Parents are left facing last-minute chaos as headteachers pass the buck and tell millions of pupils to stay at home during national strikes that are set to affect tens of thousands of schools next month
Parents across the UK are facing strike chaos as millions of pupils are to be told to stay at home as teachers walk out across seven days from next month.
Last-ditch talks lasting six hours to avert the strikes between government and the National Education Union (NEU) failed on Friday after the union said the government was refusing to negotiate on pay.
It is thought up to 23,000 schools in England and Wales will be affected by strikes from February 1, but headteachers have claimed it will be impossible to know whether there are enough staff to keep schools open until the strike itself.
It comes amid fears of a general strike on February the 1, with action also being taken by train drivers, civil servants and university staff.
Next month’s strike action in England and Wales follows walkouts by teachers across Scotland represented by the EIS union (pictured) late last year
Some schools are already warning parents they expect to close and to keep children at home
Current strike laws mean employees do not have to inform their employers in advance if they intend to walkout – leaving some schools with no option but to close, the i reports.
But some have accused headteachers of passing the buck and failing to make contingency plans, with government issuing new guidance in an effort to keep schools open this week.
Guidance from the Department of Education states it expects all headteachers to ‘take all reasonable steps to keep the school open for as many pupils as possible’.
It tells schools to seek alternative staff from external agencies or DBS-checked volunteers.
But headteacher Lawrence Smith of Wrexham School in Slough told the i the advice was flawed: ‘I need to stress that the availability of agency teaching supply staff is scarce at the best of times and I would imagine near impossible to obtain on strike days.’
It follows walkouts by teachers across Scotland represented by the EIS union late last year and early this month.
Government guidance states that although staff are not obligated to inform their employer of their intention to strike, headteachers can ask their workforce to volunteer the information.
Some headteachers say they simply do not know if there will be enough staff to keep the school open, and now face having to close for at least the first day of action.
Last-minute talks with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan are said to have made no tangible progress on Friday.
Teaching unions are asking for pay rises of 12 percent to account for inflation, but the government is sticking to its current offer of 5 percent.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said after the talks concluded: ‘The meeting was perfectly constructive – we discussed workloads, recruitment and retention and flexible working but the gaping hole was what is needed to settle the dispute: more pay for this year as well as a long-term settlement.
Striking school teachers gather outside the Glasgow City Chambers for a rally following picketing outside schools on January 16
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, held talks with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan on Friday but they ended in failure
‘I don’t think anything we said today was a surprise to the officials. They know what our views are.’
Ms Bousted said it was clear the Government did not understand unions and did not like talking to them but was being forced to engage because of the growing number of workers going on strike.
After February 1, further industrial action will take place on February 14, March 15 and March 16. Teachers in a number of regions will also walkout on February 28 and March 1 and 2.
Some schools have already written to parents informing them that whole year groups, or even the entire school, will be asked to remain at home during the action.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘School leaders have huge sympathy with their classroom teacher colleagues and are just as frustrated that the Government has failed to address this appalling situation.’
Schools have been told to prioritise opening for groups of vulnerable pupils, key workers’ children and those due to take exams and formal assessments on days where industrial action will take place.
The government also advised that ‘schools or groups of schools may wish to consider building up a bank of cover supervisors’.
This includes identifying ‘other new volunteers who could support existing staff or volunteers for whom relevant checks have been carried out’.
The department stated that a repeal of a regulation in July – under the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022 – means employers are now able to ‘engage with agency staff to replace the work of those taking official strike action’.
It also stated that statutory guidance arrangements allow schools to use existing members of the school volunteer workforce to provide supervision on strike days so long as they have relevant Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks.
While the decision to open, restrict attendance or close academy schools lies with the academy trust, the DfE said it is usually delegated to the principal, and the decision for maintained schools rests with the headteacher.
The latest guidance added: ‘It is best practice for headteachers to consult governors, parents and the local authority, academy trust or diocesan representative (where appropriate) before deciding whether to close.’
In England, 90 per cent of NEU teacher members who voted in the ballot backed strikes, with a turnout of 53 per cent. In Wales, 92 per cent of NEU teacher members who voted in the ballot backed strikes, with a turnout of 58 per cent.
But the Children’s Commissioner has warned that a walkout would hurt vulnerable pupils still recovering from the impact of the pandemic.
Dame Rachel de Souza said children ‘cannot afford’ to have yet more class time distributed, just as they were getting back into school following Covid closures.
Education experts also fear a protracted industrial dispute between the government and teachers could severely impact pupils’ long-term learning.
Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute, said that both sides must ‘prioritise avoiding any further disruption to young people’.
Overall, 300,000 teachers and support staff in England and Wales were asked to vote in the NEU ballot.