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Teachers could strike again in September, says NEU leader

The National Education Union should ballot teachers over a “fairly significant” period and look to strike in September if its conference green-lights a formal vote this week, its general secretary has said.

But Daniel Kebede suggested industrial action would remain an option even if delegates don’t specifically call for a postal vote. The union’s executive does not need a motion in favour of a formal ballot in order to call one.

My view is if there is a decision to go for a formal ballot, we should conduct that over a fairly significant period of time, looking to take action in September

The union’s executive has tabled an emergency motion on pay to the NEU’s conference in Bournemouth this week. It comes after just over 90 per cent of voting members backed strike action in an indicative online ballot, which closed last week. Turnout was 50.3 per cent.

However, the motion does not explicitly call for a formal ballot of members, instead stating that the “strongest use of the ballot at this moment is to serve notice on Rishi Sunak, and Keir Starmer, that members are prepared to act industrially if they fail to deliver”.

‘Industrial action will remain a tactic’

Speaking to journalists ahead of the debate, which will be conducted in private session tomorrow morning amid internal divisions over the right course of action, Kebede said there “could well be amendments” specifying a formal vote.

“The priority is that we win on the issue of pay and funding. The campaign will remain, and industrial action will remain a tactic that could be deployed to win on the issue. I wouldn’t be looking at the emergency motion as if it’s a step away at all.”

Schools Week understands one of the internal divisions is over when a ballot should be conducted, and when any resulting action would take place. The government’s final decision on pay for 2024-25 is likely to come at the end of the summer term.

“My view is if there is a decision to go for a formal ballot, we should conduct that over a fairly significant period of time, looking to take action in September,” Kebede said.

But he added that industrial action was “one tactic” in an “overarching strategy to win an above inflation pay award that is properly funded to take steps to avert the crisis in recruitment and retention”.

Executive can call ballot without a motion

“Even though that motion doesn’t specify a ballot or a ballot timetable, we will [have] regular executive meetings that will determine when things launch, when things happen. Just because there is not an explicit wording for a ballot in that motion. I would certainly not see that as a retreat.”

Dr Patrick Roach

It comes after an indicative ballot by the NASUWT teaching union found 78 per cent of voting members were against moving to a formal vote on industrial action.

Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT’s leader, said at his conference in Harrogate at the weekend it was “not the time for gesture politics and token action”.

He later told journalists “a day or two strike action here or there doesn’t change anything”, and said his union had focused on winning disputes in individual schools.

Responding to his comments, Kebede said “any decision by this union to take strike action will not be a decision taken lightly. It’s certainly not gesture politics.

Action is ‘not gesture politics’

“Education is in poly-crisis at the moment, whether it is recruitment and retention, the school estate, the crisis in funding, early years, SEND.

“Should our members wish to take action on the issue of pay and funding in the context of a general election year, no, that certainly wouldn’t be gesture politics at all.”

The NEU’s indicative ballot’s turnout of 50.3 per cent is only just above the 50 per cent threshold that would have to be passed in a formal ballot for industrial action to be legal. A formal vote would be conducted by post, whereas the indicative ballot was held online.

Kebede acknowledged “we have to absolutely consider the amount of work it will take to get through this government’s anti democratic strike thresholds in the context of a formal ballot”.

“I don’t think however, the mood is declining. I think if anything, there is becoming more and more frustration developing amongst the profession. They are essentially realising this government is burning down the house as they leave government.”

Emergency motion: The full wording

Conference congratulates

Officers, reps and members in achieving a strong result in our indicative ballot on pay and funding. 

Conference believes

The strongest use of the ballot at this moment is to serve notice on Rishi Sunak, and Keir Starmer, that members are prepared to act industrially if they fail to deliver.  

Conference notes that the NEU has

  • Won £14.6 billion for education during the 2019 general election. 
  • Saved lives by forcing government to change policy during the pandemic 
  • Campaigned alongside the London Mayor to implement free schools meals in primary schools 
  • Built support for alternatives to current assessment and accountability regimes. 
  • Won £3 billion for education and a 6.5% pay rise for teachers in 2023. 

Conference understands

Labour will likely form the next government. 

Whilst we will be able to work with a Labour government on some policy areas, we will need to campaign against them on others. 

No matter who is in government, the bedrock of our power is collective organisation and action at the workplace. 

Conference instructs the Executive to: 

  1. Review, and learn from, the indicative ballot to build capacity to deliver local and national industrial action.  
  2. Deliver the best possible result in our support staff indicative ballot to demonstrate our union has a key role to play in future victories for these workers.  
  3. Continue to campaign for a fully funded above inflation pay rise for 2023/24, and a Houghton style commission as a means of achieving a longer-term pay correction. (Editor’s note – we understand this is supposed to say 2024-25).
  4. Continue fighting for increased funding to improve levels of pay, staffing and resources under the next government. 
  5. Run an election campaign foregrounding school and college funding, to influence policy commitments across parties. 
  6. Rebuild the School Cuts coalition and, as well as national activities, provide localised materials for members and allies to use in schools and communities. 
  7. Seek pledges of support from Prospective Parliamentary Candidates and hold signatories to account if elected.  
  8. Campaign, whatever the government, to break the stranglehold of neo-liberal policy on assessment, curriculum, and accountability. 
  9. Campaign to revoke minimum balloting legislation that hinders the democratic freedom of trade unions to take industrial action. 

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