NEU strikers at NewVIc earlier this year, photo James Ivens
NEU strikers at NewVIc earlier this year, photo James Ivens

Socialist Party members in the NEU

Wednesday 1 February will see around a quarter of a million members of the National Education Union (NEU) taking national strike action across England and Wales. The union reports 22,000 new members joined in the week after the announcement was made.

Joint rallies and demonstrations will be organised in many towns and cities, with the strike coinciding with national action taken by the civil servants’ union PCS, the UCU in universities, and train drivers in Aslef and the RMT.

In the NEU Cymru/Wales ballot, both teachers and support staff achieved the required turnout of over 50% to take official strike action. Members of the headteachers’ union NAHT also beat that legal threshold in Wales, and will be starting ‘action short of strike action’.

53% of NEU teachers in England – 120,000 people spread over tens of thousands of workplaces – returned their postal ballots, breaking through the Tory threshold and voting for action with a huge 90.4% majority.

Unfortunately, the ballot of support staff narrowly missed the legal turnout threshold in England, with a 46% turnout. Members of the second biggest teaching union, the NASUWT, also voted 9 to 1 in favour of action, but were unable to get over the threshold imposed by anti-trade union legislation.

With the biggest unions organising support staff, GMB and Unison, having mistakenly agreed to accept an unfunded below-inflation deal, it was always going to be harder to persuade NEU support staff to vote for action, even though these lowest-paid members are most at threat of job cuts when school budgets are cut further by unfunded pay awards.

However, with so many NEU teachers taking action, many schools will still be closed to most or all classes by strike action, particularly where other staff have made clear that they do not want to cross NEU picket lines. Boosted by where the NEU has succeeded, reballots of those sections who failed to reach the 50% threshold this time could see strike numbers growing further in future action.

Role of reps

The ballot results have again confirmed the crucial role played by individual workplace reps, backed up by their local branch and district officers.

Many busy school staff will have initially ignored the vital envelope containing their voting paper, not realising that the anti-union thresholds are designed to make sure that unreturned votes effectively count as ‘no’ votes. Some had moved home and then had to order replacement ballots to be sent to their correct address.

That’s why this ballot result required so much hard work from reps and activists, boldly explaining why a big ’yes’ vote was so vital, then meticulously chasing up every member in a workplace to return their vote.

Pay cut

The need for a fully funded above-inflation pay rise for school staff is unarguable. Years of below-inflation pay awards have cut incomes in real terms by 20% or more since 2010. No wonder many leave and look for work that can pay better, certainly without the unremitting workload that faces staff in the ‘exam factory’ conditions imposed on our underfunded schools.

Of course, as in any dispute, some members will have had doubts about whether to vote for action. After all, the government has continued to peddle the line that “the country can’t afford to pay workers more”.

What the Tories really mean is that their backers among the super-rich want to keep hold of their enormous wealth at the expense of the workers, in both the private and public sector, who actually generate that wealth and provide the services society needs.

Those doubts can be answered by giving trade unionists confidence that a determined struggle, with different unions striking together to bring maximum pressure on the weak and divided Tories, can force them to use some of that accumulated wealth to fund pay rises and school and college budgets.

Full funding

In fact, just as nurses and ambulance workers are also recognising, without strike action budgets will continue to be cut, pushing schools and hospitals into deeper and deeper crisis. That’s why the NEU has been absolutely correct in stressing that the dispute isn’t just about pay but also about demanding school budgets are increased to fund pay rises.

The ballot results have vindicated all of those NEU activists, not least Socialist Party members, who had argued that if the union called a national ballot for strike action it could be won.

Long before a ballot timetable was eventually agreed in the autumn, the five Socialist Party members on the NEU executive had been consistently arguing for that to happen. However, it took the lead shown by the RMT and CWU, in winning national ballots, to convince the ‘NEU Left’ group majority on the executive that it could be done.

We will help build for the biggest participation possible on 1 February, and for a programme of action that can make sure our demands are won.

The plan that has been agreed for now is to follow up the 1 February strike with four days of rolling regional action, followed by a two-day national strike in mid-March, including Budget Day, Wednesday 15 March.

Correctly, NEU districts have been asked to put aside funds to assist members in the greatest hardship through prolonged action – although a wider appeal to the movement could help boost that further.


Socialist Party members argued for a quicker escalation to two- and three-day national action, so that we can show both the government and our members that we’re serious about winning. There is a risk of momentum being lost if action is too drawn out.

Unions with live ballots striking together, in what could amount to a partial 24-hour general strike, coordinating independently of the TUC if they refuse to lead on this, would also escalate the pressure on Sunak and the Tories to find the funding needed.

We need a strong, fighting leadership

At the same time as NEU members are striking, important elections will be taking place.  Voting for the new NEU national executive takes place in April but, first of all, in February and March, an election is being held to elect a new NEU general secretary.

It’s vital that NEU members vote for a leadership that can build the strength of the membership below, whilst leading and motivating from the top.

General secretary

When it comes to general secretary, there is a clear choice to be made between two candidates: Niamh Sweeney, the current deputy general secretary, and the left candidate Daniel Kebede, who has most rank-and-file backing, winning over 100 nominations.

Socialist Party members will be backing Daniel as the candidate who wants to organise a strong union, that has the strength to take the action needed to win on pay, workload and funding.  However, his campaign slogan, “for a strong, united union” raises a question about whether Daniel realises what he will be up against if he is elected.

Of course, “unity is strength”. But it has to be unity around a programme to organise to win. That means boldly challenging, rather than meekly compromising with, those elements within the NEU, from both the former NUT and ATL unions (education unions which merged to form NEU), who are not up for the fight.

A victory for Niamh Sweeney would strengthen the hand of those who simply hope that they can persuade a future Starmer government to ‘do the right thing’, instead of recognising the necessity of building a fighting union at every level.


If Daniel Kebede is elected NEU general secretary, as we hope, then he will come under enormous pressure as the capitalist backers of both the main political parties seek to cut public spending even further and ratchet up attacks on trade union rights, pay and conditions.

The harsh reality is that NEU members face the fight of our lives, whoever is prime minister. The re-election of a solid bloc of Socialist Party members onto the NEU executive is therefore vital to provide a counterbalance to those who would try and persuade the union to retreat.

The following Socialist Party members are seeking nomination to the NEU national executive:

  • Sheila Caffrey district 12 (sitting NEC member)
  • Sean McCauley district 8 (sitting NEC member)
  • Steve Scott district 3 (sitting NEC member)
  • Louise Cuffaro district 16 (sitting NEC member)
  • Anna Scott district 3

Support staff and the 1 February action

Hugo Pierre, chair of Unison’s schools committee in London, has issued guidance to support staff, much of which has become national Unison advice. We print an extract here.

The Department for Education has published advice to schools: ‘Handling strike action in schools’. It is clear this is non-statutory advice. Therefore schools do not have to follow this.

The advice is written for headteachers to “keep the school open for as many pupils as possible.” At various points the document also mentions keeping the school open for ‘vulnerable’ pupils.

It is important to note that this is not the Covid situation, this is an industrial dispute where teachers are taking lawful industrial action as part of a trade dispute over pay and school funding, and the whole point of their industrial action is to close schools.

This advice to Unison members is to make clear that they should not be covering any work that would be done by a teacher on any day of strike action.

Higher Level Teatching Assistants (HTLAs) should only do specified work with support and/or supervision of a qualified teacher. Cover supervisors supervise students who are working to a lesson prepared by a qualified teacher, usually a classroom teacher. If you are in either of these roles, you should not be expected to take whole classes on the day of a strike if the teacher who normally supervises, supports or prepares your work is on strike.

Teaching assistants are not responsible for teaching whole classes or students within the class, even if they provide 1:1 support. Some teaching assistants may provide individual support to students outside of the classroom. However, this is under the direction of the class teacher. If the teacher is on strike that day then they cannot provide that support.

All other staff should not do any work that is normally done by a teacher on any strike days.

Supply teachers and the 1 February action

Martin Powell-Davies, NEU member and supply teacher, has published this advice to other supply teachers and NEU members.

The initial response of the government to the NEU calling action is to issue ‘guidance’ aimed at bullying heads into undermining action.

As every anti-union employer has done over centuries, one way the government wants heads to try and break strike action is to use even poorer-paid workers – in our cases support staff and supply staff – to do the work of trade union members on strike days.

Support staff are being backed by their unions to refuse to cover the work of striking colleagues.

But what about using agency supply teachers? The government has made it lawful to use agency workers to break strikes – before July 2022 it was illegal to do so.

Legally, because we aren’t employed directly by schools, NEU agency supply staff couldn’t be balloted, so we aren’t formally included in the action. Many will come under pressure from heads.

NEU reps in schools must involve supply staff in their strike discussions and pay campaigning. Remember, supply teachers will be the worst paid qualified teachers in your school. Agencies milk school budgets but then take a huge cut before paying their teachers. They don’t get teachers’ pension contributions paid on top of their salary either.

If agency teachers refuse to work on a strike day, we won’t just be losing a day’s pay (at 1/365) but more like two days’ pay (at 1/195) – because we can only find teaching work on the days that schools are open. We don’t get paid in the holidays.

Many supply staff feel aggrieved that their low pay rip-off hasn’t really featured in the union’s pay campaign so far. My appeal to NEU reps is to make sure that we put this right over the next few months of strike action.

Talk to supply staff, find out how little that they are being paid, invite them to join you on the picket line, and support their applications to local hardship funds when they face particular financial difficulties for refusing to be used by the government to break strikes.