Unions and the government appear as far apart as ever after widespread strike action closed or partly closed more than half of schools across England and Wales.
Striking workers from participating unions held rallies in cities including Bristol, Brighton, Birmingham and London on Wednesday as teachers, university staff, rail workers and civil servants stopped work to demand better pay.
When Rishi Sunak was asked whether he would negotiate with public sector workers, the prime minister instead called on Labour to condemn the teachers’ strikes as “wrong”, and he told MPs that children “deserve to be in school today, being taught”.
A survey of 948 schools by the Association of School and College Leaders found that 920 were affected by the industrial action. In 35% of schools, more than half of teachers were on strike.
The Department for Education was eager to stress that 90% of state schools in England remained open, based on its figures – though less than half – 45.9% – were “fully open”. The DfE defined a school as being “fully open” if 90% of its pupils were either present, absent for unauthorised reasons or ill.
If more than 10% of pupils were registered as out of school for strike-related reasons, including those asked to work from home, the school was counted as “open but restricting attendance”. Only if no pupils at all were present was a school defined as closed.
The education secretary, Gillian Keegan, said: “One school closure is too many, and it remains deeply disappointing that the NEU proceeded with this disruptive action – but many teachers, headteachers and support staff have shown that children’s education and wellbeing must always come first.”
Polling by Savanta suggested 58% of parents supported the teachers’ strike, despite having to cope with school closures. Across the population as a whole, 50% backed the teachers.
Chris Hopkins, Savanta’s political research director, said: “The government’s strategy on the strikes has very much been to hope that the greater the disruption, the higher the opposition, but so far that hasn’t been the case.”
The leaders of the National Education Union (NEU), Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, described Wednesday’s strike as “a huge statement from a determined membership who smashed through the government’s thresholds that were only ever designed to prevent strike action happening at all”.
They urged Keegan to “step up with concrete and meaningful proposals” in time to halt their next planned strike action, on 28 February.
Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), which represents civil servants, said he was also waiting for a serious offer from ministers. “There is no substance, nothing remotely looking like it,” he said.
Many PCS members have been awarded a 2% pay increase, and 100,000 members across public services from museums to border posts were striking on Wednesday.
After visiting picket lines around London and addressing a rally, Serwotka described striking members as “very young, very vibrant, very diverse. Lots of first-time strikers, and a real sense from many of them that they felt quite empowered.”
Hailing continued public support for their cause, he said: “Unless anything shifts, there’s an inevitability that this is bound to grow.”
The focus will swing back to the NHS next week with four days of industrial action, kicking off with simultaneous strikes by nurses and ambulance workers on Monday.
Health unions are deeply frustrated by what they see as the unwillingness of ministers to enter into serious discussions.
A government source sought to blame the unions for the standoff, saying “they need to come to the table with something that is realistic”, and insisting ministers and officials were ready to talk.
But the health unions say it is the government that needs to make a fresh offer – specifically, on pay – and that no meetings are scheduled.
Sunak struck a tough line on the school strikes at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday. “When it comes to teachers, we’ve actually given teachers the highest pay rise in 30 years, that includes a 9% pay rise for newly qualified teachers and record investment in their training and development,” he said. “I am clear that our children’s education is precious, and they deserve to be in school today being taught.”
Responding to a question from the City of Durham MP, Mary Kelly Foy, he said Labour “would do well to say that the strikes are wrong and we should be backing our schoolchildren”.
The RMT and Aslef rail unions held the first of two days of strike action on Wednesday, causing widespread disruption to train travel. The RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, told a rally in London: “We are the working class, and we are back. We are here, we are demanding change, we refuse to be bought, and we are going to win for our people on our terms.”
The RMT said on Wednesday that it had received a new pay offer from Network Rail, which its national executive committee would now consider. “No decision has been made on the proposals nor any of the elements within them,” the union said.
The dispute with Network Rail is separate from the long-running standoff with train operating companies.
Downing Street’s public stance remained unchanged by Wednesday’s strikes, with Sunak’s official spokesperson offering no new initiatives to unblock a process that some in Westminster fear is at an impasse.
“We want to have further talks with the unions,” the spokesperson said. “Some of these discussions have been constructive. We have to balance that against the need to be fair to all taxpayers, the majority of whom don’t work for the public sector.”