Given the political furore surrounding the ongoing campaign of industrial action by the NUT and NASUWT unions, one might have expected a debate about teachers’ strikes to generate quite a stir in Westminster.
Indeed, schools minister Liz Truss told this afternoon’s Westminster Hall debate that she was “sad” that no-one from the Labour front bench had turned up. They weren’t the only ones, though: the room was largely empty, and only Ms Truss and fellow Tory Chris Skidmore, who called the debate, bothered speaking.
Mr Skidmore, who last week suggested government cuts weren’t that bad as they have not left people “lying dead in the streets”, had some more strong views to get off his chest.
While stressing that he doesn’t believe “the government should be in the business of banning teachers from going on strike”, Mr Skidmore (pictured) came up with the alternative proposal that parents should be balloted over whether teachers in their child’s school should be allowed to strike.
“Allowing parents a voice over teacher strike action would also help to depoliticise strikes that are currently organised by a militant few at the expense of the welfare of the many pupils and parents whose lives will be disrupted in the next few weeks,” the former Michael Gove adviser said.
The curious idea that industrial action should only be allowed with the support of those who would be most inconvenienced by it would certainly place a significant hurdle in the way of future action. But Mr Skidmore wasn’t finished yet. He had another bold suggestion: why don’t the unions organise strikes for the school holidays?
Teachers, he explained, stress that these are “not holidays in their entirety, and they are working hard in the schools themselves”. So why, therefore, don’t they strike then instead to keep disruption down to a minimum?
In response, Ms Truss made the point that the unions’ power was waning as they were “losing the argument”. In last week’s strike in the East, Yorkshire and Midlands, she said, just a third of schools had to close, compared with 60 per cent during the pensions strike of November 2011. She failed to mention that this could possibly be due to the fact that several other unions were also on board on that occasion.
On the thorny issue of performance-related pay, the unions would be “better off working with headteachers to make sure [the new policy] is implemented in a way which is fair for teachers”, Ms Truss said.
Finally, she pondered, would new shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt, like his predecessor Stephen Twigg, “refuse to condemn the strike action”?
He wasn’t there to answer. He didn’t miss much.