School strikes: results and prospects

After the vote to accept the government’s latest pay offer in schools, rs21 teachers and support staff analyse the strikes and their results, and lay out a plan for the months ahead.

Save Our Schools march and rally, central London 15th March 2023. Credit: Steve Eason/Flickr.

Voting has now closed in the NEU’s e-ballots on the 6.5 percent pay award. The result was an 86 percent vote to accept among teachers and 85 percent among support staff, on a turnout of 60 percent. This will bring the strike campaign for 2023 to an end, despite a 95 percent vote to authorise further strike action in the postal re-ballot.

In this article, we aim to contribute to the initial discussions about the strikes. This is the start of an analytical process that all activists should engage with – what did we win? Why did the strikes stop now? What do we need to do in September? We hope comrades from across the union (and beyond) will join us in coming to an understanding about these strikes.

What we’ve won

The headline on what we have won is okay: an across the board increase of 6.5 percent (an increase of 3 percent on the government’s starting position) is not to be sniffed at. It is also much more than the government wanted to give us. For teachers, the money lost by taking strike action this year will be earned back every nine months for the rest of our careers.

We forced the government to give schools extra money for the additional 3 percent. While this offer isn’t fully funded, funding the new pay offer should not have a significant effect on most school budgets. That was one of the key demands on the picket lines and represents significant progress in the face of government opposition.

We have also won an equivalent amount for colleges from government. This is a good riposte to members who feared that sixth form issues would be overlooked by taking joint action with schools. (However, this has yet to translate to an improved pay offer from the Sixth Form Colleges Association, so the dispute remains live.)

More significantly, we have taken a massive step forwards in our organisational strength. There are schools, members and workplace reps for whom this was their first significant action. In many districts, entirely new leaderships have developed out of picket lines and protests. Not only have many more members become more active, many members and reps have developed a deeper political understanding of how to lead in struggle. If we are able to engage and develop these new workplace leaders, the dispute will have shifted the balance of power between us and the government in our favour.

Why we didn’t win more

There is no escaping the fact that accepting this offer is a missed opportunity. For all that we have won so far, educators in rs21 argued that we should reject the offer. As part of ‘Educators Say No!’ we campaigned in the union for the biggest possible reject vote: 6.5 percent, while significant progress, is still a further pay cut. It is also below the average private sector rise, meaning it will intensify, not solve, the recruitment and retention crisis. The offer is also not fully funded. While we have won more money, this offer (and the support staff offer) will still increase pressure on school budgets, leading to cuts in a significant number of schools.

While the offer is not perfect, the real tragedy of ending the dispute now is squandering the momentum and resolve we have built. Where we have reps and district leaders organising activities for the strikes, members have been actively involved in the strikes and want to push forward. It is true that the July strikes were the most widely observed strike days, with more schools shut than ever before. Much of that momentum will be dissipated by the manner in which the accept vote was argued for and won. We could have used that momentum in autumn to deliver the sort of action needed to win a longer term settlement for education: a settlement focused on pay restoration, improving real terms funding and classroom power. Instead, the joint general secretaries are asking for us to ‘carry on the campaign in a different way’ – that is, to return to making propaganda points that the government can safely ignore.

So why didn’t we win more? And, if the arguments above are so obvious, why didn’t we win a reject vote? There are two big reasons for this: Kevin and Mary’s record in office and the relative weakness of independent rank and file leadership.

We’ll start with Kevin and Mary. They argued hard to secure a large majority for accepting the offer, and their word carried real weight with members. Throughout this dispute, and through the Covid-19 pandemic, Kevin and Mary have built reputations for clarity, trustworthiness and sensible leadership. They were able to use their reputations to sell the deal to members and many responded positively.

Why did a left leadership sell a bad deal?

Kevin and Mary are amongst the best trade union leaders in this country. However, they are still shaped by the position they hold as full time national officers of the union – even the best national officials have different material experiences and priorities to their members. Their daily experience is talks with other top officials and government – while ours is the reality of school in 2023 and discussions with our workmates. While our priority is changing our immediate circumstances, theirs is negotiating a settlement and protecting the union machine.

The calls from Kevin to ‘bank’ our gains reflect how their position made them risk averse and pessimistic about the potential of further action. Something we saw from our leadership throughout the dispute. They were consistently buoyed up and confident in the days following a strike, before becoming increasingly pessimistic about the potential of the next round. At no point did either Kevin or Mary have the confidence to outline a longer term strategy to win, instead our leadership grasped at a series of short term arguments to carry members through each set of strike days. With the government applying significant pressure just before the summer break they convinced themselves that this was the best they could negotiate now and were paralysed by the idea that pushing for more action next term could risk damaging the Union’s structures.

So when union national officials sell you short (as can often happen) what is the answer?

The key is rank and file confidence to push for more action. Over the last two weeks, many of the union’s best activists and most active strike groups have been campaigning for a vote to reject. Where there has been a record of active participation in the dispute and a political leadership able to articulate the bigger picture, winning a reject vote has been relatively easy. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t discussion and some reticence about stepping up the action, but that those objections can be overcome by political argument.

The problem we have faced is that these circumstances have been far from universal. In too many schools and districts, strike activity has been patchy and uneven. In some places, there hasn’t been much activity and in others, activity has been held back by local district officers. In even more places, new activists have looked to develop activity based solely on the union’s official line, meaning the accept recommendation was a disorientating experience for them. All of this shows the difference that political leadership in schools and districts make in terms of building rank and file confidence. Our task moving forward is to generalise from the best school groups and win a model of organising power in as many schools as possible.

What we need to do now

The end of the dispute and the resulting score draw has left us with some dangers and some opportunities in terms of the way forward. We need to guard against a feeling that the action has been pointless – it hasn’t and our action has won concessions, as well as leaving us in a more organised position – but we also need to acknowledge that more victories will be needed and more organisation will be needed to win them.

Going forward we need to have a focus on school organising – what a good workplace organiser looks like, what victories and campaigns we can win in the meantime and, crucially, generalising those experiences from individual schools. That will take work from and with the layer of new activists that the strike (and the reject campaign) has cemented. The first step in this is September meetings that discuss the outcomes of the strikes with members.

We also need to take the opportunity now to remove some district leaderships that have blocked activity during the strike. One of the most conservative layers of the union is the lay bureaucracy of district and branch secretaries. While many are excellent leaders committed to building our union, there is a minority that have come to see their privileged, facility time heavy positions as the most important thing to protect – they often hold back activity and organisation as a way of ensuring this position.

Another factor encouraging conservatism during the dispute was the management of district strike hardship funds, with many local treasurers and officers becoming frantic about declining local reserves. Rather than encourage a strategy for seeking solidarity donations, they pushed the line that members weren’t able to sustain more action, which weakened the resolve of some reps. We can’t go into the next period of campaigning and cyclical disputes with the most pessimistic of these officers still able to block activity.

Lastly, we need a more organised left inside the NEU. The currently existing NEU Left has not been able to provide a leadership in this dispute – split as it is between centrists and those arguing for more organised action. Alongside a split leadership caucus, there are still various left groups that prioritise building their organisations above joint working. These old ways of doing things have to end. We do have a new campaign in the mix with the Educators Say No! group: we need to discuss how we will cohere this group into something more long term and democratic so that we have a rank and file oriented tool for future campaigns.

There are a number of ways you can join the discussions on how we move forward:


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