Thousands of schools across England were fully or partially closed on Wednesday as teachers vowed to continue taking strike action until the government resumed talks over pay and working conditions.
The national strike by members of the National Education Union, the largest teachers’ union in England, was the fourth since February, with a fifth national strike scheduled for next Tuesday.
Only pupils taking GCSEs, A-levels or equivalent qualifications were exempted from the strike action after the union allowed headteachers to make local agreements to keep classes open for those taking exams next month.
There was palpable anger among the hundreds of NEU members who attended the union’s rally at Oxford town hall, amid complaints of pay being eroded by inflation, as well as high workload and crumbling school facilities due to budget cuts.
Natalie, a modern foreign languages secondary school teacher, said: “Why am I angry? It’s because my payslip doesn’t compensate me for the dedication, effort and sheer number of hours I put into my work.”
She added: “If all else fails we can all just move to Scotland and earn £10,000 a year more,” referring to the recent agreement whereby teachers in Scotland receive an average pay rise of more than 14% by January 2024.
Joe Wilson, an NEU delegate and primary school teacher, said: “We currently have raw sewage coming out in our school … Can we afford to fix it? No.”
Instead, Wilson said, the school’s headteacher had to clean up the sewage. “We should ask the prime minister to come to our school and sweep it up,” he said.
In England the government offered teachers a £1,000 one-off payment alongside an average 4.5% pay rise next year after talks with the teaching unions. But members of all four unions, the NEU, the NASUWT teaching union, the National Association of Head Teachers and the Association of School and College Leaders have all rejected the pay offer by substantial margins.
Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, has refused to reopen talks with the unions, saying she will wait until she receives recommendations from the independent school teachers’ review body for the 2023-24 pay award.
Mary Bousted told the Oxford rally that teachers were leaving the profession because of pay, and were unable to be replaced because the government continued to miss its own targets on graduate recruitment.
The NEU’s joint general secretary said: “With this government I’m not going to say it’s a question of fairness. I’m going to say, Gillian, it’s a question of supply and demand, and as a Tory you should know all about supply and demand.
“There’s no supply. We are running out of teachers.”
Bousted said she was told by a parent that her son was taking GCSE chemistry this year but had not had a teacher for two years, and had instead been learning from worksheets.
“This is disastrous and that’s why we are on strike today,” Bousted said.
The Department for Education’s latest targets include a 26% increase in the number of secondary teachers it hopes to recruit, to make up for years of under-recruitment. The National Foundation for Educational Research said this month’s recruitment figures suggested the government was likely to meet less than half of its 26,000 secondary teachers target.
A spokesperson for the DfE said bursaries and scholarships had been extended to boost recruitment in specialist subjects, with the department recognising that “there are significant challenges to recruit teachers especially in high-demand subjects”.