The education secretary said she was willing to talk to teachers about money but stopped short of promising to review pay, after teachers in England and Wales announced seven days of strike action over February and March.
Gillian Keegan, who will meet teaching unions on Tuesday, said she was “extremely disappointed” in the decision to strike but said the government was prepared to talk to teachers about the challenges faced by the profession.
After Rishi Sunak’s minimum service levels bill that would restrict strikes passed its first stage in the Commons overnight, Keegan suggested that legislation would not be used to keep all schools open during stoppages.
She said the focus on minimum service levels was initially designed for “health and transport” but suggested it could be used in future disputes “to keep schools open for vulnerable children, in particular. That is something we very much learned during the pandemic,” she told LBC. “So yes, we are part of the bill, but at the moment, the focus initially will be on health and rail and then when we get to that stage, obviously, we’ll consider what is reasonable.”
Action by members of the National Education Union will begin with a mass strike on 1 February, to coincide with the Trades Union Congress’s national “protect the right to strike” day of action, followed by six days of regional strikes.
The NEU, which is the biggest education union, has asked for a fully funded, above-inflation pay rise, after the government announced last summer that most teachers would receive a pay rise of about 5%, while starting salaries would go up by 8.9%.
Keegan said she was willing to talk about money but backed pay being set by the national independent body. “We did talk about money,” she told Sky News.
“We didn’t negotiate the pay, that’s not what we’re there to do. We didn’t negotiate pay but what we did do was talk about some of the challenges, workload challenges, as well, we talked about.”
Asked on LBC whether pay for teachers was enough, Keegan said: “We do still attract a lot of teachers. Where we struggle a little bit more is with maths and science and computer science. So what we’ve done there is we’ve put additional payments in place for those and we’ve also offered bursaries of £27,000 and scholarships as well so that you get a lot of money towards your fees.
“So we specifically focused that on maths, science and computer science because they’re the ones that you struggle more to recruit. But it is still an attractive profession. We didn’t meet our recruitment targets just after we came out of the pandemic, but before the pandemic, we were pretty much mostly in our recruitment targets.”
NEU strike dates
1 February England and Wales
14 February Wales
28 February Northern, north-west, Yorkshire and Humber regions of England
1 March East Midlands, West Midlands and eastern regions
2 March London, south-east and south-west regions
15 and 16 March All eligible members in England and Wales