UK education unions agreed to begin “intensive talks” with the government just a day after a deal to raise health service pay, raising hopes of an end to waves of industrial action across multiple sectors that have gripped the country for months.
(Bloomberg) — UK education unions agreed to begin “intensive talks” with the government just a day after a deal to raise health service pay, raising hopes of an end to waves of industrial action across multiple sectors that have gripped the country for months.
No further school strike dates will be announced for two weeks while the discussions take place, four unions and the Department for Education said Friday in a joint statement.
The move increases optimism that strikes in schools across England won’t resume, and adds to evidence that the government is seeking to draw a line under a series of long-running public sector pay disputes.
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The education talks will focus on teacher pay, conditions and workload reduction, according to the statement. They follow strikes in England on Wednesday and Thursday by the National Education Union that led to about half of schools restricting attendance.
The NEU, NASUWT, Association of School and College Leaders, and National Association of Head Teachers will participate in the discussions with government ministers and officials.
Education unions are demanding a fully-funded, above-inflation pay rise for teachers and support staff. They will be watching developments in England’s health service after the government offered a 5% pay rise to over a million workers for 2023-24 — plus a one-time bonus worth 2% of salary for 2022-23 and an “NHS backlog bonus.”
That offer needs to be put to health union members, but it raises the prospect of an end in sight to wider industrial action that has caused chaos across Britain for months. This week alone has seen walkouts by teachers, junior doctors, civil servants and London Underground workers.
It was also announced on Friday that more than 1,000 passport office workers will go on strike for five weeks ahead of the summer travel season.
Action to bring an end to strikes would boost Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government ahead of a general election expected next year. His Conservative Party has trailed the Labour opposition in polls by a double-digit margin for months, though recent surveys have begun to show a narrowing of the gap.
Amid the optimism, however, there were questions about where the money to pay for the National Health Service pay awards would come from.
Sunak’s spokesperson Jamie Davies told reporters on Friday that the one-time payments for 2022-23 would cost an extra £2.7 billion ($3.3 billion), while fulfilling the 5% pay offer would require £1.3 billion more than allocated in the current departmental budget.
An original offer of 3.5% was factored into “existing budgets,” Davies said. The Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care will now work together to “resolve” the new funding requirements, he added.
Davies insisted the extra money would not come from “patient-facing services.” But the lack of clarity raised fears that the under-pressure health service would face a fresh squeeze on its finances. That was emphasized on Friday when Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told BBC TV that the money would come from the NHS budget.
The health department said last month that a pay award next year above 3.5% “would require trade-offs for public service delivery.”
Julian Hartley, chief executive officer of NHS Providers, which represents the health service’s trusts, told BBC radio that “it’s important that this pay deal is fully funded and that the NHS is not being expected to dip into its coffers, which are already stretched.”
–With assistance from Ellen Milligan.
(Updates with government details of funding starting in 11th paragraph.)
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