Skip to main content

Teachers’ Strike

Volume 773: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I would like to repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question given in the other place by the Minister of State for Schools earlier in relation to the NUT strike today. The Statement is as follows.

“There is absolutely no justification for this strike. The NUT asked for talks, and we are having talks. Since May, the Department for Education has been engaged in a new programme of talks with the major teaching unions, including the NUT, focused on all the concerns raised during this strike. Even before then we were engaged in round-table discussions with the trade unions and both the Secretary of State and I meet the trade union leaders regularly to discuss their concerns. This strike is politically motivated and has nothing to do with raising standards in education. In the words of Deborah Lawson, the general secretary of the non-striking teacher union, Voice, today’s strike is a,

‘futile and politically motivated gesture’.

Kevin Courtney, the acting general secretary of the NUT, in his letter to the Secretary of State on 28 June made it clear that the strike was about school funding and teacher pay and conditions. Yet this year’s school budget is greater than in any previous year, at £40 billion, some £4 billion higher than in 2011-12. At a time when other areas of public spending have been significantly reduced, the Government have shown their commitment to education by protecting school funding.

We want to work with the profession and with the teacher unions, as we have been doing successfully in our joint endeavour to reduce unnecessary teacher workload. With 15,000 more teachers in the profession than in 2010, teaching remains one of the most popular and attractive professions in which to work.

This industrial action by the NUT is pointless, but it is far from inconsequential. It disrupts children’s education, inconveniences parents and damages the profession’s reputation in the eyes of the public. But because of the dedication of the vast majority of teachers and head teachers, our analysis shows that seven out of eight schools are refusing to close.

Our school workforce is, and must remain, a respected profession suitable for the 21st century, but this action is seeking to take the profession back, in public perception, to the tired and dated disputes of the 20th century. But most importantly, this strike does not have a democratic mandate from a majority even of NUT members. It is based on a ballot for which the turnout was just 24.5%, representing fewer than 10% of the total teacher workforce.

Our ground-breaking education reforms are improving pupil outcomes, challenging low expectations and poor pupil behaviour in schools and increasing the prestige of the teaching profession. This anachronistic and unnecessary strike is a march back into a past that nobody wants our schools to revisit”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement in which it was said that today’s strike was politically motivated. Frankly, that is beyond irony from a Government who in March launched a White Paper that was driven first and foremost by political ideology aimed at forcing children into an educational straitjacket while excluding parents, governors and local authorities from the process, so I do not think that we need any lessons on our political motivation.

An hour ago outside Parliament, I met some of the teachers, who feel that they had no alternative but to take strike action because they are faced with a Government who will not acknowledge their concerns, such as teaching posts being cut or not filled when staff leave, growing class sizes and an ever-increasing workload that is contributing to major problems with staff retention. The Secretary of State herself said that there will be no real-terms cuts in school budgets, yet the Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that there will, in fact, be an 8% cut per pupil in the year ahead. When will the Minister address these existential issues that are threatening the quality of the education that is so essential to our children’s future?

I note that the noble Lord met with some of the 9.4% of teachers who have called this strike. I am personally saddened by the strike. We would like to promote teaching as a profession, but there is no doubt that the reputation of teachers is harmed by this strike—or at least the reputation of the 90.6% who did not vote for the strike is affected by the 9.4% who did.

On funding, we have protected the schools budget and the pupil premium. We have substantial resources available through the Education Funding Agency financial toolkits and benchmarking information. A great deal of advice is on offer to help schools with the challenges facing a lot of people resulting from higher pension costs, national insurance et cetera. Multi-academy trusts are particularly well placed to do this and many of them are very effective in this regard. Outwood Grange, one of our most highly performing multi-academy trusts, has a system called curriculum-led financial planning, which uses sophisticated, bottom-up modelling to make sure that resources are focused on the front line. They make this available free to other MATs and schools and it is proving particularly effective in improving resources for teachers.

My Lords, it is a sad day for education when teachers feel that they need to strike. It must not be ignored that those hit hardest by this strike will be the pupils and students, who miss out on part of their education, and low-income parents, who do not have the disposable income to pay for childcare on a whim. The Minister has said that these strikes are unnecessary, as the schools budget is the highest that it has ever been. However, by doing this he is steadfastly refusing to acknowledge the dire financial situation that many schools now face.

The noble Lord, Lord Nash, stated in a Written Answer to me on 9 May that the on-costs of teachers’ salaries have risen by 25.4%. On 25 May, he proceeded to reiterate the Government’s promise from the spending review that they would protect the core schools budget in real terms during this Parliament. Why is it then that the Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts that school spending per pupil is going to fall by 8% in real terms by 2020? Does the Minister deny that figure? Whether he agrees with the figure or not, the Government need to recognise that, with on-costs and other factors, schools are facing real cuts to spending. Will the Minister therefore explain how he intends to keep the promise made in the spending review?

I entirely recognise the figure. As I have said, many schools and organisations are facing this kind of increasing on-cost—everybody is. We live in a climate of scarce resources. However, as I have attempted to explain, there are many resources available to schools to improve their budgeting. Schools are facing pressures on their budgets that, for many of them, are far greater than they have ever faced. Most school leaders have been brought up in a climate of ever-increasing income and they have never really had to go back to a bottom-up modelling of their schools. When they do that, they find significant savings and it results in money actually being spent where they want it—rather than what is often happening in a lot of schools where sometimes the budgets have grown like Topsy. We are finding much more effective financial modelling in schools now and this is resulting in a much greater focus of resources into the classroom.

The Minister was complaining that the teachers had a democratic mandate of just 9.4%. Will he tell the House what his democratic mandate is?

It is a lot higher than that. A turnout of 50%—as required by our new legislation—would be needed before this could be taken seriously.