Civil servants set to strike, whilst ballots close for teaching staff
On 1 February, 100,000 civil servants are set to strike, including staff from the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted. Members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are calling for a 10 percent pay rise, better pensions, job security, and no cuts to redundancy terms. It is not yet known how many staff will walk out however, in both the DfE and Ofsted, 88 percent of those who voted were in favour of strike action.
Meanwhile, teachers’ unions met with the government earlier this week to try to avoid industrial action. However, union leaders have said that no progress was made and concerns ‘remain unresolved.’ Further talks are expected, but joint general secretaries of the National Education Union (NEU), Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, warn that ‘if the government wants to avoid industrial action then there is only a small window of opportunity before the NEU declares its ballot results and its plan for action.’
Ballots held by the NEU, which represents around 450,000 teachers, leaders and support staff, closed on Friday this week. Similarly, ballots held by NASUWT, representing 300,000 teachers, and the NAHT school leaders’ union, representing 45,000 members, also recently closed. It has since been announced that NASUWT failed to meet the turnout threshold, so even though 88.5 percent voted in favour of strike action, strikes cannot go ahead.
Results from ballots held by other teaching unions are expected to be announced in the coming days. If members do vote in favour of strike action, the NEU has said walkouts could take place as soon as the last week in January.
In the event of strike action, current guidance from the DfE expects ‘the headteacher to take all reasonable steps to keep the school open for as many pupils as possible.’ Some schools and trusts are considering putting Covid-style measures in place to prioritise the most vulnerable pupils, whilst pointing others towards remote learning. It is unclear what NAHT members will do if they vote in favour to strike, but general secretary Paul Whiteman reassures that he ‘cannot envisage circumstances where we instigate action that will call on you to close your school.’
A new Energy Bill Support Scheme for schools
The Energy Bill Relief Scheme is set to come to an end in March 2023, however the government has announced that a new Energy Bill Support Scheme will continue to support schools and other non-domestic customers from April 2023 to April 2024. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has said that whilst wholesale energy prices are falling, the new scheme will ‘provide reassurance against the risk of prices rising again […] giving businesses the certainty they need to plan ahead.’
Whilst this is welcome news for many, fewer schools will be eligible for support. Currently, schools can receive support if they are paying more than £75 per megawatt for gas or £211/MWh for electricity. But under the new scheme, only those paying more than £107/MWh for gas and £302/MWh for electricity will receive help.
This means that less than 20 percent of schools surveyed by the Department for Education last year will be considered eligible if they still remain on the same tariffs. In particular, leaders are concerned about the impact on special schools, which have higher energy usage due to the provision of hydrotherapy pools and other specialist facilities. Steve Rollet, deputy chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) concedes that the new scheme offers more certainty, however ‘the bottom line is that costs remain high and school leaders remain deeply anxious about the impact of cost pressures – which are not limited to energy costs – on children’s education.’
Education Committee launches inquiry into persistent absence
The Parliamentary Education Committee has launched a new inquiry to investigate the causes and possible solutions to the growing problem of children’s absence from school. MPs recognise that Covid-19 has likely had a negative impact on school attendance, as 23.5 percent of pupils were persistently absent in autumn 2021, compared to just 10.9 percent in the 2018/19 academic year. Recently published data shows that absences continued to rise in the last weeks of term last year, primarily driven by seasonal flu and other respiratory illnesses.
However, the inquiry will also examine other factors linked with pupil absence, including economic disadvantage, special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and ethnic background. National statistics show that disadvantaged pupils are more likely to miss school. In autumn 2021, 33.6 percent of pupils eligible for free school meals were persistently absent, compared to 20 percent of their peers.
Similarly, 30.6 percent of pupils identified with SEND were persistently absent, compared to 21.5 percent of children without SEND. Pupils from Gypsy Roma and Irish Traveller backgrounds had the highest rates of persistent absence at 55.7 and 63.3 percent respectively. Black African and Chinese pupils had the lowest rates of persistent absence at 10.8 and 9.9 percent.
Robin Walker, the Education Committee Chair, said that they will also look at examples of targeted support to find out ‘what works both within and beyond the school system to create a positive culture of attendance.’ These methods include breakfast clubs, free meals, and after-school or holiday activities. The Committee invites written submissions addressing the issue of pupil absence and how families and schools could be better supported to improve attendance.
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