Head teachers refuse to make contingency plans to cope during teacher strikes – warning schools may have to close completely when three-quarters of staff walk out

  • The Government has told head teachers they should strive to keep schools open
  • Guidance informed schools to remain open by using volunteers if necessary
  • But head teachers have accused Department for Education of being naïve
  • Many will ignore instructions because they are sympathetic to the pay demands

Head teachers are refusing to make contingency plans during strike action amid fears that schools will have to close completely during planned staff walkouts.

The Department for Education yesterday told school leaders they should strive to stay open and prioritise vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers by using volunteers if necessary.

But head teachers have accused the Government of being naïve, with many refusing to consider the instructions because they are sympathetic to striking teachers’ pay demands.

It comes after leaders of the National Education Union (NEU), the country’s largest teaching union, announced on Monday they will be launching strike action after balloting its 300,000 members.

Some head teachers have said that they will struggle to keep their schools open during the walkouts

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan (pictured attending a cabinet meeting in Downing Street) has already admitted that there are no guarantees that in-person learning will go ahead during the strike days 

The NEU has said that teachers members in sixth form colleges in England, who have already been balloted and taken strike action in recent months, will also strike on these days in a separate but linked dispute with the Secretary of State.

The full list of strike days are:

– Wednesday, February 1: All eligible members in England and Wales. 

– Tuesday, February 14: All eligible members in Wales.

– Tuesday, February 28: All eligible members in Northern, North West, Yorkshire & The Humber regions.

– Wednesday, March 1: All eligible members in East Midlands, West Midlands, Eastern regions.

– Thursday, March 2: All eligible members in London, South East, South West regions.

Wednesday, March 15: All eligible members in England and Wales.

Thursday, March 16: All eligible members in England and Wales. 

Some head teachers told The Times that up to two thirds of their staff are members of the union, meaning they will struggle to remain open during the walkouts.

The first day of strikes will be on February 1, with more than 23,000 schools in England and Wales are expected to be affected. Further industrial action will take place on February 14, March 15 and March 16. Teachers in a number of regions will also walkout on February 28 and March 1 and 2.

It comes amid fears that February 1 will become a general strike in all but name, with train drivers, civil servants and university staff set to take industrial action the same day. 

Some schools began writing to parents yesterday to warn of entire year groups having to be sent home during the strikes.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has already admitted that there are no guarantees that in-person learning will go ahead during the strike days.

With fresh disruption on the horizon parents, experts and charities have raised fears that pupils’ education could slip further behind since the pandemic.

Schools were yesterday told to prioritise opening for groups of vulnerable pupils, key workers’ children and those due to take exams and formal assessments on days where industrial action will take place.

Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain if she can assure parents that schools will open and children will be able to go to classes on strike days, the Education Secretary said: ‘I can’t guarantee that but we’ll be working with headteachers to make sure as many schools are open for as many children as possible.

‘What I don’t know at the moment is for that one union that is taking industrial action, where those teachers are and how it impacts various schools. So that’s something we’ll be working through with heads.’

The Co-Op Academy Southfield, a special school in Bradford, wrote to parents today to warn that the walkouts ‘may mean that some children will need to remain at home’, The Telegraph reports.

Members of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) held a rally, as teachers take strike action, outside the Corn Exchange in Haddington on Monday

Schools were yesterday told to prioritise opening for groups of vulnerable pupils, key workers’ children and those due to take exams and formal assessments on days where industrial action will take place

When and why are teachers in England and Wales going on strike? All your questions answered


A source close to several academy trusts told the newspaper that school leaders ‘fear being labelled strike breakers if they bring in support staff’.

It comes after Government  guidance calling on headteachers to ‘take all reasonable steps to keep the school open for as many pupils as possible’, with those most vulnerable given priority.

 It also advised that ‘schools or groups of schools may wish to consider building up a bank of cover supervisors’.

This includes identifying ‘other new volunteers who could support existing staff or volunteers for whom relevant checks have been carried out’.

The department stated that a repeal of a regulation in July – under the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses (Amendment) Regulations 2022 – means employers are now able to ‘engage with agency staff to replace the work of those taking official strike action’.

It also stated that statutory guidance arrangements allow schools to use existing members of the school volunteer workforce to provide supervision on strike days so long as they have relevant Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks.

While the decision to open, restrict attendance or close academy schools lies with the academy trust, the DfE said it is usually delegated to the principal, and the decision for maintained schools rests with the headteacher.

The latest guidance added: ‘It is best practice for headteachers to consult governors, parents and the local authority, academy trust or diocesan representative (where appropriate) before deciding whether to close.’

Headteachers are also entitled to ask staff whether they intend to strike, the DfE stated.

Although the DfE guidance stated that continued attendance is ‘important for all pupils’, it said it recognised schools affected by strike action might ‘need to temporarily prioritise places’ due to low staff numbers.

Mary Bousted and Kervin Courtney, joint NEU general secretaries, pictured leaving the Department for Education in Westminster last week

Train drivers will bring rail network to a halt again with strikes on February 1 and 3 – despite earning an average salary of £60k 

In such cases, schools are advised to ‘apply the principles set out in the emergency planning and response guidance by giving priority to vulnerable children and young people and children of critical workers’.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘School leaders have huge sympathy with their classroom teacher colleagues and are just as frustrated that the Government has failed to address this appalling situation.’

It comes as industry leaders warned any return to remote learning could set back children’s education further after a series of tumultuous years impacted by the pandemic.

Britons appear to be bitterly divided over the prospect of fresh teaching strikes, as a YouGov poll revealed half of the public (51%) back striking teachers, while two in five (41%) were opposed.

More of those polled appeared to agree with walkouts by nurses, as almost two thirds (63%) supported such a move.

In England, 90 per cent of NEU teacher members who voted in the ballot backed strikes, with a turnout of 53 per cent. In Wales, 92 per cent of NEU teacher members who voted in the ballot backed strikes, with a turnout of 58 per cent.

But the Children’s Commissioner has warned that a walkout would hurt vulnerable pupils still recovering from the impact of the pandemic.

Dame Rachel de Souza said children ‘cannot afford’ to have yet more class time distributed, just as they were getting back into school following Covid closures.

Education experts also fear a protracted industrial dispute between the government and teachers could severely impact pupils’ long-term learning.

Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute, said that both sides must ‘prioritise avoiding any further disruption to young people’. 

Overall, 300,000 teachers and support staff in England and Wales were asked to vote in the NEU ballot.

Support staff in schools in Wales are also set to go on strike in the dispute over pay after 88 per cent of balloted members backed action, with a turnout of 51 per cent.

But the NEU’s ballot of support staff in schools and sixth-form colleges in England did not achieve the 50 per cent ballot turnout required by law for action.

It comes after a ballot of members of the NASUWT teachers’ union last week failed to reach the 50 per cent turnout threshold, while the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) is also due to announce its ballot result for strikes on Monday.

 Members of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) are pictured at a rally as striking teachers gathered outside the Corn Exchange in Haddington, East Lothianon on Monday

The Department for Education (DfE) has offered a five per cent pay rise to most teachers for the current school year, but the NEU is demanding a fully-funded above inflation pay rise for teachers.

Mary Bousted and Kervin Courtney, joint NEU general secretaries, said: ‘We have continually raised our concerns with successive education secretaries about teacher and support staff pay, and its funding in schools and colleges, but instead of seeking to resolve the issue they have sat on their hands.

‘It is disappointing that the Government prefers to talk about yet more draconian anti-strike legislation, rather than work with us to address the causes of strike action.’

They added that historic real-terms pay cuts for teachers had created an ‘unsustainable situation’ in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, adding that staff were leaving the profession ‘in droves’.

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