Schools will revert to pandemic-era emergency measures to remain open to vulnerable children if teachers’ unions go on strike in the coming months, The Telegraph understands.
Members of NASUWT, the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Education Union are voting to take strike action in England and Wales, with all voting to be completed by January 13.
Meanwhile, the Association of School and University Leaders held a “consultative vote” in December and is deciding on the next steps.
Ministers warned that the strikes would amount to a “proto-lockdown”, exacerbating the educational losses suffered by children during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Of particular concern is the impact of potential industrial action on vulnerable children. During the pandemic, the Commissioner for Children in England said that vulnerable out-of-school pupils were exposed to a “cocktail of secondary risks”, including lack of food, neglect, bullying and criminal exploitation.
Keeping schools open
Given these risks, The Telegraph understands that principals will reactivate emergency measures used during the pandemic to keep schools open at least for vulnerable children if teachers vote to go on strike.
While class teachers at NEU and NASUWT are likely to go on strike if strike action is approved, school leaders are not expected to go that far. NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman has already said he “can’t imagine circumstances” where members will be called upon to close schools.
A source from the school leaders union told The Telegraph they “would be very surprised to see schools shut down completely”, with schools “at least and worst” remaining open for vulnerable pupils who might otherwise be at risk.
They added: “I think knowing what they are like in normal times and what they did during the pandemic [school leaders] it would be a very difficult scenario for them to leave schools open, especially for the most vulnerable, despite the global pandemic, and yet due to strike action, they would not do so.
“Honestly, I didn’t see that happen.”
A government source told The Telegraph that ministers were “planning for every eventuality” and work was underway across Whitehall to develop contingency plans for various scenarios of industrial action affecting schools.
They added: “It would be very prudent to prioritize those who would suffer the most if they were not in educational settings.”
In England, schools are run by the Academic Trust and Local Authority, which means that ministers will not be able to force schools to take concrete action to combat strikes.
Instead, in the event of industrial action, the government would have to rely on advising schools and negotiating with trade unions.
The situation is similar to that in the healthcare sector, where the Royal College of Nursing has identified specific services that are exempt from strikes as part of a commitment to maintain a “life-saving care model” during the current industrial action.
The unions decided to vote their members after the government accepted the recommendation of the independent pay review body that experienced teachers and school principals should receive a 5% increase and new teachers an 8.9% increase.
“The highest salary awards in a generation”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “There are no great schools without great teachers, which is why we’re awarding the highest salaries in a generation – 5 per cent for experienced teachers and more for those at the beginning of their careers, including an 8.9 per cent boost to the starting salary.
“We are also investing an extra £2bn in schools next year and £2bn next year, taking school funding to an all-time high.
“After two years of interrupted education for young people, a strike is simply not a responsible solution.”
Mark Lehain, a former state school principal who is now director of education at the Center for Policy Studies, said the strikes would hurt the standing of the teaching profession.
“I urge everyone working in schools to think twice before voting for a strike. It has never achieved anything in the past, and now the most important thing for young people in this country is to be in a school where they are safe and able to learn,” he said.
“A strike would undermine all the good work that teachers have done over the past few years in sticking together during the pandemic.”