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Majority of schools in England closed to some pupils amid teachers’ strike

Striking members and supporters of the National Education Union (NEU) on Whitehall, on a march from Portland Place to Westminster where they will hold a rally against the Government's controversial plans for a new law on minimum service levels during strikes. Photo by Jordan Pettitt/PA

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

The majority of schools in England were forced to shut their doors to some pupils as teachers went on strike, data suggests

More than half (54%) of state schools in England were either fully closed or restricted access to pupils during the first day of walkouts by teachers, Department for Education (DfE) data has suggested.

Teachers in England and Wales, who are members of the National Education Union (NEU), took part in the first national strike since 2016.

Secondary schools were more likely to have closed their doors to some cohorts of pupils than primary schools, according to figures by the DfE.

The biggest strike in a decade took place on Wednesday, with up to half a million workers walking out in bitter disputes over pay, jobs and conditions.

Based on data submitted to the DfE by 77% of state schools in England, 45.9% were estimated to be fully open, 44.7% were open but restricting attendance, and 9.3% were closed during the teacher strikes.

Nearly a fifth (17.4%) of secondary schools reported being fully open and 73.6% restricted attendance, compared to 52.1% of primary schools which reported being fully open and 38.7% with restricted attendance.

A separate Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) poll, of 948 heads and principals in England and Wales – mostly in secondary schools, found that 97% said teachers were on strike in their workplace.

Among the 920 schools and sixth-form colleges polled where teachers were on strike, 80% said they were partially open with some students on site and 9% said they were completely shut during strikes.

Some schools closed their doors to all pupils because of strikes by the NEU, while others opened for vulnerable students and children of critical workers.

Many schools partially opened to pupils, with exam year groups prioritised.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, told the PA news agency that he believes “more than 200,000” members staged walkouts on Wednesday, adding that the strike has been “really effective”.

Teachers joined civil servants, train and bus drivers and university staff who also stopped work on the biggest single day of strikes in a decade.

Picket lines were mounted outside railway stations, schools, government departments and universities across the country, with unions saying they are receiving strong support from the public.

The TUC also held a series of protests against the Government’s controversial plans for a new law on minimum levels of service during strikes.

School leaders reported using support staff and supply staff to cover lessons for pupils who were in during the strikes, while others combined classes.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The overwhelming feeling among school and college leaders and teachers today will be one of sadness that we have reached a point at which strike action has been taken as a last resort against a Government that will not listen.

“This has clearly been a difficult day for everyone concerned, but the stark truth is that the erosion of teacher pay and conditions over the past decade, and resulting teacher shortages, mean every day in education is a difficult one.”

Walkouts by teachers took place on Wednesday – the first of seven days of strikes in February and March – after talks with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan on Monday failed to find a resolution in a dispute over pay.

Ms Keegan has called the strike action by the NEU “deeply disappointing”, but said conversations with unions were “ongoing”.

The NEU leaders have called on the Education Secretary to “step up with concrete and meaningful proposals” on pay to prevent further strikes.

Mr Courtney and Mary Bousted, the joint general secretaries of the NEU, said: “Today, we put the Education Secretary on notice. She has until our next strike day for England, February 28, to change her stance.

“NEU members do not want to go on strike again. They want constructive talks that deal directly with the long-standing concerns they experience in their schools and colleges every day. So that they can get back to doing what they do best, working with pupils in the classroom.

“However, be in no doubt that our members will do whatever it takes to stand up for education, including further strike action, if Gillian Keegan still fails to step up with concrete and meaningful proposals.”

Ms Keegan said on Wednesday: “One school closure is too many and it remains deeply disappointing that the NEU proceeded with this disruptive action – but many teachers, head teachers and support staff have shown that children’s education and wellbeing must always come first.

“Conversations with unions are ongoing and I will be continuing discussions around pay, workload, recruitment and retention, and more.”

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