Rishi Sunak promises fresh talks after strike chaos hits majority of schools
Rishi Sunak has promised fresh talks with unions after a series of coordinated strikes saw schools close and rail services grind to a halt on Wednesday.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said that the Government had already held some “constructive” talks with union officials but that there was a need to “balance” their demands with “the need to be fair to taxpayers”.
His comments came as strikes by members of the National Education Union (NEU) saw more than half (54 per cent) of schools in England close either partially or completely, according to Department for Education (DfE) data.
Around half a million public sector workers took strike action on the most significant day of industrial action in a decade.
Based on data submitted to the DfE by 77 per cent, of state schools in England, 45.9 per cent were estimated to be fully open, 44.7 per cent were open but restricting attendance, and 9.3 per cent were closed during the teacher strikes.
The walkout came after talks with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan on Monday failed to find a resolution in a dispute over pay. The NEU have demanded a pay rise above inflation, claiming that years of real terms pay cuts and underinvestment have left the industry struggling to retain teachers and provide quality teaching.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said that he believes “more than 200,000” members staged walkouts on Wednesday, adding that the strike has been “really effective”.
Reacting to the strikes, Downing Street said: “As we've seen from the IMF just this week, inflation is one of the biggest risks to people's pay packets and the Government will continue to take responsible action to ensure public sector workers are paid fairly but that it's also affordable for the taxpayer.”
Some schools closed their doors to all pupils because of strike action while others opened for vulnerable students and children of critical workers.
Many schools partially opened to pupils, with exam year groups prioritised.
A separate Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) poll, of 948 heads and principals in England and Wales – mostly in secondary schools, found that 97 per cent said teachers were on strike in their workplace.
Among the 920 schools and sixth-form colleges polled where teachers were on strike, 80 per cent said they were partially open with some students on site and 9 per cent said they were completely shut during strikes.
Ms Keegan said on Wednesday: “One school closure is too many and it remains deeply disappointing that the NEU proceeded with this disruptive action – but many teachers, head teachers and support staff have shown that children’s education and wellbeing must always come first.
“Conversations with unions are ongoing and I will be continuing discussions around pay, workload, recruitment and retention, and more.”
Meanwhile, separate industrial action by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) and Aslef saw the cancellation of most train services throughout Wednesday. A further strike will be held on Friday.
Network Rail (NR) said it had made a “newly revised” offer to the RMT, which the union said it would consider over the coming days.
NR said new elements of the offer included an increase in London allowances for those who are currently on, or move onto, different contracts.
Bus services in London were also hit by strike action as around 1,900 members of Unite walked out, with strikes also set to take place on Thursday and Friday.
The TUC also held a series of protests against the Government’s controversial plans for a new law on minimum levels of service during strikes. Thousands marched to Downing Street and gathered for rallies in other towns and cities to protest what unions have called the “anti-strike” bill. It would require minimum levels of service from ambulance staff, firefighters and railway workers during strikes.
Elsewhere, up to 100,000 members of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) staged strike action across government departments, Border Force, museums and other government agencies.