Teachers strike sets ‘good example’ to pupils, union head says ahead of largest walkout in 30 years

The mass closure of schools expected across England and Wales due to teacher strikes next week will be a “good example” to pupils, the head of the UK’s largest teaching union has said.

Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), told The Independent it was important that children witnessed teachers standing up for what they believed in and said most secondary school students supported the strike.

But his comments risk inflaming a row with the government which has warned of the impact Wednesday’s walkout will have on children’s education.

Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, warned unions against the action, saying the stakes have never been higher for pupils who had already lost months of classroom time because of Covid.

Mr Courtney predicted the 1 February walkout would be the biggest teaching strike in the UK in three decades, with most schools affected and some preparing to close because they can’t guarantee in advance they will have enough staff to open.

But an exclusive poll for The Independent suggests public support is weaker for striking teachers than for other professions.

The Savanta ComRes survey found 40 per cent of people opposed the strikes, while just 54 per cent supported them – a smaller percentage than for striking nurses who had the backing of two-thirds of voters.

Mr Courtney insisted the walkout would be an “important lesson” to pupils. For children to witness “that if you see something that is unjust, that you make a stand about it, I think that's an important lesson in life,” he said.

“That you should stand and challenge things that you think are wrong. And people might disagree about whether it is wrong. They might disagree about how you challenge it. But it's important to say to young people ‘if something's going wrong to challenge it’.

“I think this is showing a good example to pupils, people standing up (for their beliefs)”.

Walkouts could be biggest in 30 years, union says (PA)
Walkouts could be biggest in 30 years, union says (PA)

He also suggested that older children support the strikes, adding: “I think secondary (school) pupils will, by and large, back their teachers about it”.

Last-ditch talks will be held on Monday in a bid to resolve a teachers’ pay dispute which threatens widespread disruption to schools. Union leaders agreed to meet Ms Keegan after previous talks failed to break the deadlock, but there is little optimism Wedneday’s strike can be avoided.

Mr Courtney also hit back at Ms Keegan’s rhetoric over Covid, pointing out that the government-appointed Covid recovery tsar suggested putting millions of pounds more than the government eventually did into helping pupils catch up on their schooling.

He added: “Covid has been really disruptive to children’s education, but that disruption is just carrying on … because we're having temporary teacher after temporary teacher in primary classrooms, because one in eight math lessons are taught by somebody who doesn't have a degree or a PGCE in maths.

“Education is disrupted because some schools have stopped teaching some subjects because they can’t get teachers for them. So disruption is happening all the time because of the government’s lack of investment in our schools.

“On the other hand, we’re talking about one day of strike action. So we don’t accept that. We are the people who are challenging that disruption. Just as the nurses are standing up for our NHS and challenging the government's lack of funding which means the NHS is not performing on non-strike days.”

Schools and headteachers have warned that sites might close on Wednesday even if they have enough staff to keep them open.

Tom Campbell, chief executive of the E-ACT schools trust, said: “We are aiming to be open for as many pupils as possible right across our schools. However, given the large numbers of teachers who have become NEU members since the original ballot, there remains significant uncertainty as to how many staff will be on strike.

“We are working hard to give our parents as much certainty as possible but there may be closures on the day as we get a clearer picture of numbers of staff.”

Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Community Learning trust of 52 academy schools, said: “We don’t know what’s going on at other schools, so we don’t how many teachers will have to be off to look after their own children. It makes the whole situation really quite chaotic.”

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the headteachers union, NAHT, said there was still no compulsion for staff to say if they plan to strike, as school leaders decided whether to shut on Wednesday.

“If headteachers can’t be sure they’ll have sufficient staff they should inform parents about closure,” he told The Independent. “We’re seeing schools have announced closure if they can’t know staffing levels. It’s the sensible thing to do.”

Mr Whiteman also said it would be “naive” to rely on volunteers who do not know school procedures, and warned that using supply staff would be seen as “provocative” strike-breaking action.

“It’s incendiary to use supply staff and volunteers to break a strike,” the union leader said. “School leaders have to be careful of unintended consequences. Things that could be seen a strike-breaking might mean harmony takes a long time to recover.”

A source close to the education secretary said she will use Monday’s meeting to reiterate her call from the weekend for teachers to inform schools if they plan to strike. The source also said the government will “continue to be open and collaborative”.