Teacher strikes: parents in limbo as unions keep schools in the dark

Schools are struggling to plan for the strike on Wednesday this week after unions told members to keep their head teachers in the dark about whether or not they would take part.

The government has urged the largest teaching union, the National Education Union (NEU), to “keep head teachers informed of their intentions” before the walkout, but advice on the union’s website stresses that members do not have to tell their employer whether they intend to strike.

More than 20,000 schools are expected to be affected, disrupting the learning of millions of pupils.

Up to half of all schools in England and Wales may close to some or all pupils, polling by the education app TeacherTapp suggests, equalling 11,000 schools. In a survey of more than 8,000 teachers, 14 per cent said their schools would not open. Another 53 per cent of secondary school teachers and 35 per cent of primary teachers said their school would be closed to some pupils. Nine per cent of teachers did not know whether their school would be open.

This suggests that more than 3,000 schools will close entirely in England and Wales, and at least 1,900 secondary schools and 6,300 primary schools will close partially. London has the highest proportion of shut schools, at 23 per cent, compared with fewer than 10 per cent in the Midlands.

Most schools are trying to keep vulnerable children and pupils with exams approaching in class. But many head teachers are understood to be unsure after the advice from the NEU how many of their teachers will actually be on strike.

The NEU is notifying each school of how many members are on staff, but individual teachers are not obliged to tell their schools in advance whether they will choose to join the strike.

Additionally, thousands of teachers have been joining the NEU every day from other unions since the strike was announced on January 16. This means that some of the membership figures supplied to schools may not be up to date. Advice to members on the union’s website says: “Individual NEU members do not have to tell their employer whether they personally intend to take part in strike action. If your head teacher or principal asks you to tell them or sign a form, you DO NOT have to do so. The law does not require you to do so, no matter what you are told.”

One head teacher said on Twitter: “Most of my teachers seem to be exercising their right not to tell me. It’s absolutely their right, but it’s so stressful.”

The advice not to reveal whether they will strike or not was given because of fears that teachers would be pressured into not striking, especially in schools where they are in the minority as NEU members.

Yesterday the prime minister’s spokesman urged unions to keep heads informed to help keep as many children in the classroom as possible, especially as pupils had experienced so much disruption during the pandemic.

“To have the ability to get into classrooms taken away from them again is particularly difficult. Obviously it has a knock-on impact on parents who will have to scramble to get childcare. So, it is very disappointing,” the spokesman said.

“We do hope the unions will take the last few days [before the strike] to keep head teachers informed of their intentions so we can properly prepare and make sure children are safe and looked after in their classrooms.”

More than 34,000 school staff joined the NEU in the first 11 days after the strike was announced, and the figure is likely to have kept growing.

Additionally, teachers who are not in any union are allowed to strike, making it even harder for head teachers to predict how many staff they will be missing.

Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis academy group, which runs more than 50 schools across the country, said that all of its schools would be open to some degree but that their initial intention to plan for strike days based on how many staff would be on strike was no longer possible.

He said: “The plan to find out exactly who we have and don’t have has gone awry. And it’s gone awry because the NEU insisted that their members — and they’ve got lots of new members — don’t tell the schools they work in whether they’re going to strike or not.”

Oasis’s priority would always be to keep children learning and in class, he added. “We will be able to say that all [Oasis academy] schools are open if a child wants to come in because they’ve got nowhere to go, because their parents are not around and so on,” he said.

Oasis also runs community centres, housing projects and youth work in addition to its schools, so it is drafting in staff from other areas to help keep schools open, he said.

Oasis also runs community centres, housing projects and youth work in addition to its schools, so it is drafting in staff from other areas to help keep schools open, he said.

Teachers on strike were “my friends and colleagues,” he added, saying: “If dedicated teachers like that have been driven to the point of withholding their labour, it’s because something is seriously wrong.”

Hopes have been raised of a deal to avert a second wave of strikes, despite the failure of last-minute talks to stop this week’s action.

After a meeting with Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said there was still time to call off the next strike, which is planned for February 28 in England.

He said: “There was just a hint at the end of the discussions today that they might come back with something that was more like an offer . . . and so we’re hoping for further meetings, and we’re hoping for serious engagement because the issues we’re raising with them are very pertinent and very real.”

However, he added: “There’s no offer from the secretary of state trying to bridge the gap between us.”

Keegan said the strike was “hugely disappointing” and would create uncertainty for parents and children. She said: “With talks ongoing on a range of issues, including around future pay, workload, behaviour and recruitment and retention, it is clear that strikes are not being used as a last resort. I have been clear today that unions do not need to strike to meet with me.”

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