The Department of Education is at an impasse with striking teachers as it continues to refuse to hold “substantive” talks over pay unless unions suspend strike action.
DfE permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood said the department has “made repeated offers to the unions for substantive serious talks on pay” on the same basis as negotiations with nurses and other health unions.
The National Education Union currently has walkouts planned on 15 and 16 March in England and Wales.
“The one thing we've asked is that strikes be suspended to allow those talks to take place and unfortunately up until this point, they have not been willing to suspend strikes in order to come to the table. So that's the barrier at the moment,” Acland-Hood told the Public Accounts Committee today.
The Royal College of Nursing called off strikes a fortnight ago to hold “intensive” pay negotiations with the government, while GMB, Unison and Unite paused ambulance walkouts last week after the Department of Health and Social Care offered to discuss the 2022-23 pay deal and, according to the unions, “additional cash for both years above existing budgets”. DHSC has not confirmed it has put any extra money on the table, however.
Education secretary Gillian Keegan also made an offer in the same week for “formal talks” on pay, conditions and reform in exchange for strikes being called off. This was rejected by the NEU, which said it would only call off strikes if the DfE agreed to talk about pay rises for this year and offered to fund pay rises with fresh money.
Acland-Hood confirmed to PAC that the department is now willing to renegotiate this year’s 5.4% pay increase – which was funded from existing school budgets – having previously only offered talks on the 2023-24 pay deal during meetings with unions in January and February.
In contrast, the government has refused renegotiate its 2-3% average pay offer to civil servants for 2022-23.
Explaining the department’s U-turn, Acland-Hood said: “We've been meeting extensively through January and February. And the challenge then was that the key matters we were discussing were non-pay and pay for future years.
“And at that stage, because we've made a quite significant pay offer in the current year, we weren't talking about current year pay and we were talking about next year's pay, principally in the context of the [School Teachers' Review Body, which makes recommendations on teachers' pay].
“That's changed now and there's an offer to talk about pay in all the years and to have really substantive conversations... the one precondition is that strike should be suspended to allow those talks to take place.”
Acland-Hood did not mention any intention to put more money on the table but said the department is offering “exactly the same setup that’s being offered to RCN, to GMB, to Unison, and Unite”.
PAC chair Meg Hillier suggested the situation resembled the “chicken and egg” dilemma and that the department is “cutting off the nose to spite its face” by choosing not to “get on with those discussions without a precondition”.
In response, Acland-Hood said: “The government's ready to get around the table. I'll leave this meeting and go and have the talks now if the unions are willing to come to the table and have those talks.”
In an attempt to break the deadlock, teachers’ unions wrote to Keegan earlier this week, asking for a day of conciliation talks with the DfE, to be run by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. But in a letter to the unions, seen by Schools Week, Keegan refused, saying “ACAS can sometimes play an important role in moving negotiations forward but I do not think it is the right step in our current situation”.
Keegan pointed to other unions’ decisions to suspend strikes as a reason for her refusal.
“The GMB, Unison, Unite and the RCN have all paused strike action. I am clearly of the view, therefore, that working with ACAS whilst strikes are planned for 15 and 16 March will not allow for productive discussions,” she said.
“The government has been clear. I am ready to open talks on a range of issues, including pay – but contingent on the NEU pausing their planned strike action.”
Department ‘seeking more cash from the Treasury’
Senior DfE officials also confirmed that the department would be speaking to the Treasury about getting more funding, highlighting two programmes where the DfE might need a budget boost.
Andrew McCully, director general for schools at DfE, said the department is on track to meet its target of rolling out mental-health support teams and designated senior leaders for mental health in 35% of schools and had enough funding to do this.
The National Audit Office has called for all schools to be funded by 2028. McCully said the remaining 65% will be dependent on the funding the department gets in the next spending review.
“Going beyond [35%] requires more investment and that will need to be subject to the next spending review. But the success of the work so far will be a strong point of evidence and is of encouragement for future decisions.”
Acland-Hood said the department would also be talking with its “friends in the Treasury” about the “significant drop” in the tutoring subsidy from 60% to 25% this year. She said the department will model the impact of the drop and discuss this with the Treasury.