The NHS and NEU Strike is ‘unforgivable’ and ‘irresponsible’ in the wake of the disruption COVID-19 has caused to children’s learning, the education secretary has said.
Nadhim Zahawi’s comments came after the National Education Union (NEU) said it would consult its members in the autumn, “strongly encouraging them” to back industrial action if the government does not respond to its concerns over high workloads pay in the next few months.
Teachers going on strike would be a “huge setback” for pupils who have already missed out on so much schooling this year, Mr Zahawi told Sky News.
“I think it would be unforgivable and irresponsible of the NEU to even think about striking in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.
“We have asked teachers to do so much; they rise to that challenge magnificently.”
The Department for Education (DfE) has been in talks with the unions over its plans to reopen schools in England in September, with the NEU raising several concerns.
These include the lack of clarity over how social distancing will work in classrooms, insufficient numbers of staff to cover for those self-isolating and the need for more PPE.
But Mr Zahawi said the government had already taken “decisive action” to address these issues, including appointing a “strike tsar” to deal with the unions’ concerns.
“We have put in place everything that they have asked for,” he said.
“We have listened, we have acted, and I think it would be irresponsible of them to strike now.”
In response, the NEU said it was “disappointed” by Mr Zahawi’s comments.
“The education secretary is well aware of why we are consulting members on industrial action,” said joint general secretary Kevin Courtney.
“We have been in talks with his department for many weeks, but those talks have failed to address the central issues of pay, workload and safety.”
He added that the union would be “calling on the government to get back around the table and negotiate seriously” in the coming weeks.
According to an interview from The Daily Telegraph, the minister wrote: “Young people have suffered more disruption than any generation that’s gone before them and to compound that now, as recovery is in full swing and families are thinking about their next big step following school or college, would be unforgivable and unfair.”
The union has criticised the government’s proposal of a 3% pay increase for most teachers in England, which it said would mean a “huge” pay cut based on Wednesday’s inflation figures of 9.1% and 11.7% for RPI.
In addition, the NEU said, the government has failed to address concerns over heavy workloads, which it believes is one of the main reasons teachers leave the profession.
“The education secretary’s comments show a real lack of understanding of the pressures teachers are under,” said Ms Sweeney.
“They are working longer hours than ever before, and many are finding it difficult to make ends meet.”
She added that the union would ” consult members in the coming weeks on what action to take”.
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