Teachers could launch the biggest strikes in a decade from September as part of a “united front” by all four education unions in England, the next head of the biggest union has warned.
In his first interview since being elected general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), Daniel Kebede predicted that Rishi Sunak’s threats to overrule the results of an independent pay review body would spark outrage among teachers and further strikes.
All four education unions are balloting their members over further strike action in the autumn, while NEU members are striking on Wednesday and Friday in the long-running pay dispute.
“What strike action looks like very much depends on the government,” said Kebede, who takes over as general secretary in August. “But it’s not just going to be our union with a strike ballot, there will also be the headteachers’ unions and the prospect of the NASUWT taking action on strike ballots in thousands of schools up and down the country.
“This government could be faced with the very real prospect of a united front demanding a change of course.”
Kebede said Sunak and the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, could have averted further strike action by publishing the report of the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB), which is said to recommend a 6.5% pay increase for teachers.
But Sunak and other ministers are considering overruling public sector pay reviews if they deem them to be “unaffordable” and inflationary, according to reports.
“We have the prime minister now advising that he’s going to amend the pay review body awards of two and a half million workers – not just teachers but also soldiers, prison officers and other public servants – and amend them down,” said Kedebe, a former primary school teacher in Durham.
“That’s a big problem for us, as union and as a profession, because pay is a key issue in the recruitment and retention crisis. The fact is that we can’t recruit and retain teachers, and pay is one reason why that is happening. We are in a fight to save comprehensive education.
“Rishi Sunak might think education is expensive but we don’t have to try the cost of ignorance, do we?”
Negotiations between the Department for Education and the unions ended in March, with the NEU, NASUWT, National Association of Head Teachers and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) all decisively rejecting the government’s offer of a 4.3% pay rise and £1,000 one-off payment.
Since then the government has refused to reopen talks, with Keegan saying ministers would wait for the STRB’s recommendations before making a further pay offer for the 2023-24 school year. Keegan is said to have received the report last month.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Any strike action is hugely damaging. We have made a fair and reasonable pay offer to teachers, recognising their incredible work and commitment.
“Thousands of schools received significant additional funding as part of the extra £2bn of investment we are providing both this year and next. As a result, school funding will be at its highest level in history next year, as measured by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.”
This week’s strikes by the NEU mean some schools in England will have been closed for a total of eight days this year. But Kebede defended the strikes late in the summer term as necessary to stop the outflow of teachers.
“The fact of the matter is that we had nearly 10% of the profession leave teaching last year. If that happened in a private sector company, it would grind to a halt,” Kebede said.
“A million children are being taught in classes of over 31 pupils or more, OECD data is showing that the pupil to teacher ratio in British primary schools are the fourth highest after Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. There is a real crisis, and the fact that strikes are happening at this time of year shows just how strongly our profession is feeling.”
The ASCL headteachers’ union is balloting its members on national strike action for the first time in its 150-year history, with results to be published at the end of July.
Geoff Barton, the ASCL general secretary, said: “This week’s strikes are a problem of the government’s making through its neglect of education and refusal to resume formal negotiations with unions. Unless the government changes its approach then there will likely be further strikes in the autumn term.”