Why a national strike is the only option left

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary 

This isn’t an easy column to write. 

The formal ballot on strike action that ASCL’s Executive Committee voted for this week is an exercise in democracy. It is now up to our eligible members (those whose employment is covered by the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions document) to tell us either yes or no. 

That, of course, is in keeping with a membership organisation: we represent your wishes. 

But - and here’s the difficult bit – we’ve got to balloting on strike action because it now seems the only route that remains open in resolving the current dispute. 

We have well and truly exhausted every other avenue. We have talked endlessly to the government. We have told them time and again about the funding pressures on schools, about the impact of pay erosion, unsustainable workloads, and the dearth of teachers to put in front of classes. We have provided reams of evidence, and sat for hours in sterile Whitehall rooms patiently explaining that these problems are causing damage every day to the school system that we care so passionately about, and upon which children rely.

We had hoped for some sense of empathy and understanding, that ministers would want to work with us to identify a settlement that might at least show some sign that they care about the workforce and educational provision. 

We hoped ministers’ own ambitions might extend beyond a few poorly thought-out policies on distractions like a minimum school week, maths to 18, and the wrecking ball currently being taken to post-16 qualifications. 

We hoped they would recognise that sufficient funding and staffing are the essential resources upon which every other aspiration and plan relies and that they are in desperately short supply.

In truth, we hoped that – the clue being in the name – they would act as the Department FOR Education. 

But – and at the risk of being blunt – they either don’t or won’t comprehend the seriousness of the recruitment and retention crisis we are facing. Take your pick. 

The current pay offer made by the government in March, following a series of exhaustive and exhausting talks, was the thinnest of thin gruel. A paltry improvement to pay without enough funding for schools to be able to afford even this meagre award. It didn’t come close to addressing the pressure on the system and on school staff. In fact, the proposal for a pay settlement of 4.5% next year without the funding for schools to be able to afford that cost would have made matters worse.

The government’s response to this offer being rejected by ASCL and the other education unions involved in the talks – NAHT, NEU and NASUWT – has not been to get back round the table and thrash out a better deal as you might expect if ministers were determined to find a solution.

Instead, on Monday, we had the Prime Minister insisting that the “door is always open” while Education Secretary Gillian Keegan was saying at the same time that the pay process would now revert to the School Teachers’ Review Body. 

So, which is it?

You can sense from all of this that there are no options left, and that the only lever which remains is industrial action. 

I say that with great sorrow, and with a heavy heart. Our proud leadership organisation, ASCL, has never taken national strike action before, and we have tried every possible means to avoid reaching this stage.

But, frankly, we cannot go on like this.

And let’s be clear: I am talking here about strike action, not action short of a strike. 

We have looked at the options for the latter over and over again, and have come to the conclusion that withdrawing cooperation from a few administrative tasks is unlikely to have any impact whatsoever, and, if anything, is going to be more of a nuisance for school leaders than for anyone else. 

This is why we will ballot on strike action only. There is no point in us suggesting to you an alternative which would be virtually impossible to implement in practice and dilute your feeling of frustration and dismay.

In saying all this, I recognise that this is going to be a very difficult issue for many ASCL members and that there will be a range of views. I completely respect that. This is a matter for you, and it is your decision. 

But it is also my responsibility to be completely honest with you, and the truth of the matter is that industrial action is the only route that is now available to us in seeking a resolution to this dispute.

I never dreamt that I would ever be saying this to you. But then again, I doubt you ever dreamt you would be in this position either. Or that the pressures on the education system, and the neglect and complacency of the government, would bring us to this dismal, squalid state of affairs.

So here we are, at an intensely sad moment for all those in those in the education community, and for the country as a whole given the importance of education to our future. 

But, in the end, it is a problem of the government’s making – not of a battered and demoralised school workforce, not of the trade unions – and it is a problem that only the government can solve. 

This is not an unrealistic pipe dream. It certainly requires investment and a sense of a coherent strategy. But that is surely the least we should expect of any competent government. A solution is perfectly achievable, but it requires an act of political will.

And ultimately, if we – public servants who came into a once great profession on behalf of children and young people - aren’t standing up and fighting for education, who is? 

Certainly, it seems, no one in the current government.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary.
Posted: 21/04/2023 09:52:02