Teachers are “in a win-win situation” following a withdrawal from strike action by one of the big two classroom teaching unions, its leader has claimed.
Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, was speaking as her union prepared for its annual conference this weekend, where delegates will decide how to continue their campaign for better pensions, pay and conditions; and fewer job losses.
It decided to pull out of a planned joint national strike with the NUT last month, citing a “belated commitment” by education secretary, Michael Gove, to discuss the NASUWT’s concerns.
Now, in a TES interview, Ms Keates has expressed scepticism about the government’s willingness to “engage”. But she said the union’s decision to take the offer of talks at face value had left her members in a strong position.
“We are in a win-win situation because if he [Mr Gove] is genuinely engaging we have got an opportunity make a difference for teachers,” the general secretary said.
“If he isn’t genuinely engaging, then the anger of teachers is going to just increase, particularly as it gets closer to a general election.”
The weekly talks with the Department for Education (DfE) have broken up for Easter after a late February start. Ms Keates said it was still “too early to tell” whether they were a success or failure.
She expects to know by May whether progress was possible and warned that the possibility of further joint strike action with the NUT was “always there”.
NASUWT conference delegates will vote on Sunday morning to decide what to do if the talks do not achieve the results they want. Neither Mr Gove, nor any other government minister, is travelling to Birmingham to hear their views.
“Every year he has been in office he has turned our invitation [to speak at NASUWT conference] down,” said Ms Keates. “In my view these [ministers] are elected representatives of the people. They shouldn't be just picking their audiences and they shouldn't be picking where they are going.”
She added that a standing invitation to any minister to attend a series of consultation conferences held by the union had only resulted in a single attendance by a DfE official.
“As far as the profession is concerned, the die is cast,” Ms Keates warned. Any move from government now was “almost going to be too little too late”.
“We are doing our best in the talks,” she added. “But they haven’t talked to us for three-and-a-half-years, so the first three meetings have basically been putting down a whole list of agenda items. It is a massive list as you can imagine.”
Her NUT counterpart, Christine Blower, expressed similar frustrations about the talks on the eve of her union’s national strike last month.
“The secretary of state has attended none of the talks, nor have other ministers,” the NUT general secretary said. “The talks are with civil servants who are forbidden by Mr Gove from straying into areas of policy. The talks are only allowed to discuss how Mr Gove’s policies are implemented.”
But Ms Keates has not given up yet. “If there is an opportunity for us to get something done for teachers then we are going to take it, if they [the DfE] are prepared, for once, to talk,” she said. “The ball is now back in their court.”