Families face disruption on Wednesday as striking teachers force up to 4.5 million pupils to stay away from school on the biggest day of industrial action for a decade.
Teachers seeking above-inflation pay rises will walk out with up to half a million other workers in protests that have been likened to a general strike.
On the same day there will be strikes by train drivers, civil servants, university lecturers, bus drivers and security guards from seven trade unions.
Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, will meet leaders from the National Education Union (NEU) and other teaching unions in a last-ditch attempt to avoid strike action.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “This is the last chance to avoid the strike on Wednesday. We hope the secretary of state will bring forward concrete proposals to end this dispute and avert the strike action.”
He insisted that it would be “absurd” if teachers signing up to the union now were not allowed to strike, saying: “If they had been members during the ballot, the majority and turnout would clearly have been even higher.” He also said that the Department for Education had failed to meet a Friday deadline for submitting its evidence over teacher pay levels for next year to the independent pay review body.
Mary Bousted, the other joint general secretary of the union, said there was nothing the government could do to stop the strikes going ahead. She said: “The government has just failed to engage with unions representing teachers. We’ve had no negotiations; [Keegan] has not come to the table with any more money for teachers this year.
“[Teachers] are doing this because they are desperate. They have seen pay decline virtually more than any other profession over the last ten years … this strike is awful for parents and pupils because they’ll miss a day’s schooling, but what’s happening every day in schools is awful, because we do not have enough teachers.”
Teachers have been joining the NEU at a rate of about 2,500 a day since the walkout was announced two weeks ago, making them eligible to strike too. Since the industrial action was declared on January 16 some 32,000 teachers have signed up.
It is expected to affect more than 23,000 schools, with up to 4.5 million pupils forced to stay at home. Those numbers could increase further if teachers continue signing up to the NEU between now and Wednesday.
The union is seeking a “fully funded, above-inflation pay rise” after last year’s award of 5 per cent. The walkout comes after 90 per cent voted for strike action, on a ballot turnout of 53 per cent among 300,000 members. The action does not involve the NASUWT and NAHT teaching unions, as their ballots fell below the turnout threshold.
Staff have no obligation to tell schools of their intention to strike. Many schools are opting to close completely on Wednesday rather than keeping open classes whose teachers are not members of the NEU, because it would not be possible to operate the school safely. Others are partially opening for priority pupils, including vulnerable children, exam-year pupils and children of key workers.
Katharine Birbalsingh, a head teacher and former government social mobility tsar, said it was not the right time to strike after pupils had missed so much education during the pandemic.
One parent affected is Michael Gove, whose son is studying for A-levels. In reference to the disruption the levelling-up secretary told the BBC show Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg: “I don’t want to apportion blame or responsibility to any particular individual or organisation. There are several things at work here.
“The first thing is there are lots of people in the public sector who are understandably concerned because the rate of inflation means that their pay has fallen behind. That is true for everyone in the country.”
The Department for Education said that ministers would continue to offer “support for school leaders to do everything they can to keep as many children in school as possible”.
Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, told Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that she did not want strikes to go ahead, saying: “Like all parents, I’m concerned about the disruption that will cause, but the only reason these strikes are happening is because government ministers haven’t been serious about negotiating.”
Challenged by Kuenssberg to clarify whether she was saying, as Sir Keir Starmer did in 2021, that teachers should not go on strike, Phillipson said: “If I were education secretary, I would be round the table trying to sort it out.”
This week’s action is the first of seven days of strikes planned by the NEU in England and Wales in February and March. Picket lines will be mounted outside schools, train stations, universities and government departments on Wednesday and rallies will be held across the country for the largest day of industrial action since 2011, when three million public sector workers went on strike over pensions.
Protests will also be held across the country on the same day against the government’s plans for a new law on minimum service levels to be maintained during strikes. Unions have labelled it the “anti-strike bill”, saying that it could lead to workers who vote legally to strike being sacked. Thousands of people are expected to join a march through central London to Westminster, where a rally will be addressed by union leaders.