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Education unions in six-hour talks with Government officials to avert strikes

Education unions are meeting Government officials for a marathon six-hour round of talks in a bid to avert teacher walkouts in the coming weeks.

Friday’s meeting comes after union leaders said there had been “no progress” after discussions with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan on Wednesday.

The National Education Union (NEU) plans seven days of strike action in England and Wales in a dispute over pay – with the first on February 1 coinciding with walkouts by staff at universities, on the rail network and in Whitehall.

The union has said strike action could affect more than 23,000 schools.

The planned length of Friday’s meeting was described as a “step forward” by Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

ASCL is not part of strike action, but Mr Barton, who said he will be at the talks, said there is anger among his members over a range of issues, including education funding and problems with recruitment and retention as well as pay.

He told Sky News: “In particular, we want to see teaching become a more high profile, high status profession.

“Pay and conditions are part of that. I’m hoping that what we get from today is a sense of talking about those real and genuine issues rather than skirting around them, and not thinking that this is purely a post-Covid thing.

“This has been a decade in the making.”

Of Friday’s talks, he said: “It’s good in one sense that we’ve got six hours of talks.

“That’s a long time, I have to say, six hours of talks where pay is the number one issue on the agenda. That feels to me like it is a step forward.”

He said there has been a reluctance in England to talk about pay compared with Wales, where there is a Labour government in power.

He said: “I think what we got with the Education Secretary was someone who I think tribally sees unions as part of the problem and was reluctant to talk about what we think is the key issue, which is pay – how do you recruit great graduates to choose this profession?

“And what we saw, I think, in Wales, with the cabinet secretary, was somebody who opened by saying ‘this is the beginning of a negotiation around pay’.

“It was much more direct because of the social partnership between the Government there.”

Schools minister Nick Gibb said the Government understands the pressures facing teachers and is willing to negotiate, but warned against “inflation-busting pay settlements”.

He told BBC Breakfast: “Officials in the department today are spending six hours with the four unions discussing the issues that we discussed on Wednesday, and the secretary of state said they could start discussing issues like pay but also other issues such as workload and the conditions of teachers in schools.

“So you know, we do understand the pressures that teachers are under.”

He  said the Government does not want to give “inflation-busting pay settlements that mean that we end up embedding inflation into our economy for the longer term which has a hugely damaging effect”.

He added: “We are negotiating with teachers and all the public service unions across Whitehall, across the economy, to discuss issues like pay, to discuss issues such as workload.

“There is an independent pay review body in place to determine pay levels for teachers.”

Updated guidance from the Department for Education suggests agency staff and volunteers could be used to cover classes on strike days, with schools expected to remain open where possible, although remote learning is an option and the most vulnerable pupils are to be given priority.

But the guidance has been called “at best naive” by the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, who said schools could have to shut during walkouts if “staffing numbers are dangerously low”.