Where next for the schools pay fight in England? rs21 teachers argue for escalation as well as united action to win. 

NEU Save Our Schools demo March 2023 – photo by Steve Eason

Last week’s strikes have shown that the exams pause has not broken the momentum of the school strikes. Teachers and support staff know that we have to fight to win a fair and fully funded pay deal. At the same time, the level of support from the public is still incredibly strong, meaning that the Tories can’t rely on anti-strike sentiment to help them.

The July days should be the last time the NEU is fighting alone in schools. The NEU’s reballot of teachers looks likely to cross the 50% threshold, meaning that school strikes will be happening in the autumn term. On a similar timetable, the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT), the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) and Association of School and College Leaders are all balloting their members. It looks likely that the NAHT will cross the ballot threshold nationally and that the NASUWT will do so in many key schools. When schools reopen in September, the Government will face an unprecedented united challenge calling for fair pay and funding. 

An autumn of united action is an exciting prospect but we also need to be thinking about what sort of strategy can actually win this dispute. There are sections of our union leadership that think our best hope is to wait for a Starmer government. Equally, some activists, and some of the NEU leadership, are too nervous to go beyond our current strategy of intermittent one and two day strikes. Neither of these approaches can secure a real victory: Starmer’s Labour has refused to commit to even the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) recommendation and there is nothing in his programme that comes close to long term pay restoration (as the BMA have just won in Scotland).

The pattern of one and two day strikes are also unlikely to bring the Government to the table – not only can the government cope with the disruption, they create an impression of a ‘forever strike’ where neither side attempts to defeat the other, gradually softening members belief that a real victory is possible.

Escalate to win

What we need is a serious strategy based on escalating to win. A real stepping up of strike action. If we don’t believe we can win the membership to an indefinite strike, then we need to pitch out the rationale for a week long – 5 day – strike. Imagine a situation where schools are shut for an entire week in October, where teachers, support staff, railway workers and doctors are all out together leading a mass demonstration outside of the Tory Conference in Manchester. The Tories know they have lost the next election – we must now show them that the long term electoral consequence of continuing to destroy our public services. 

A week of strike action would also have a huge economic impact. Already, our February strike days contributed to a collapse in economic growth for that month. A week of strike action in October could have an exponentially larger impact, bringing huge amounts of pressure to bear on the Tories.

The NEU Executive will meet on Thursday 13 July to discuss the autumn strike pattern. When they meet, they must weigh the factors above. We need an escalation strategy that aims to win this dispute by Christmas, a strategy that makes it clear who makes schools work and that demonstrates a commitment to winning. That means we need to have confidence in our members that, when they are properly politically prepared, they will be willing to take the strike action needed to win.

Eyes on the prize

Part of that political preparation is a focus on our goals. We need to focus less on the STRB recommendation of 6.5% for next year, which is nowhere near enough, either for schools staff or for the future of schools. Instead, we need to talk about the crises facing schools and we need to discuss pay restoration for teachers – just like the BMA does for doctors. If we want to stop the rot in schools and give ourselves a chance of reclaiming education, we need to be clear we won’t accept another pay cut and that we won’t get caught in the Tory trap of defending the STRB.

At the same time, the NEU cannot be allowed to slow down our action to suit the other unions. We should seek to work with them for the maximum possible unity but the NEU will be the key to winning this dispute and we should be setting our own strike patterns. For example, if the NAHT and NASUWT don’t want to strike for a week, they could come out for two or three days in our week of strike action – but we should still do our week.

As revolutionaries, educators and school activists, we recognise that there will be political arguments that need to be won if we are to carry the type of strategy that can win in autumn. The strategy behind an escalation will need to be won with members in schools and districts across the country. But not winning it, and not attempting to win it, will lead to a situation where we take a few more strike days to win a slightly smaller pay cut for 2023-24. That will do nothing to shift power in education away from the Government and back to schools. 

We need everyone in our union, from the Executive to school reps to individual teachers and support staff members, to articulate a vision of where we want to be and a strategy that can win: a strategy based on escalation in the autumn.

Want to discus some more? Join us and many other activists in Manchester on 29 July for the Troublemakers Conference 2023

‘We are calling on all ‘troublemakers at work’ to join us for this important one-day event.

We need to bring together workers who have won improvements at work, taken strike action, and transformed weak unions into a strong voice for workers. Our event has a rank-and-file orientation: the labour movement is built and owned by the workers in it, not the paid officials or leaderships of unions. Join this event if you want to: win a pay rise, change something about your work, start a union at work, or kickstart an existing union at work!’

Visit https://troublemakersat.work/ to register your interest, propose a session, get involved, and get updates about the conference.’

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