British teaching unions on Friday announced they would pause a national strike as they enter "intensive" talks with the government. Photo by Tolga Akmen/EPA-EFE
March 17 (UPI) -- British teachers suspended a wave of strikes in order to enter into "intensive" talks with the government Friday aimed at resolving a long-running dispute over pay, the four main unions and the education department said.
"In order for talks to begin and, we hope, reach a successful conclusion, the NEU has confirmed it will create a period of calm for two weeks during which time they have said no further strike dates will be announced," a joint statement from the two sides said.
The negotiations, focusing on pay, conditions and reducing teachers' workloads, are anticipated to run through the weekend.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has been in a standoff with the National Education Union and three other teachers' unions fuelling a series of strikes involving up to 200,000 teachers -- most recently on Thursday -- that forced up to 85% of schools to close.
However, the higher education sector complained of being excluded from the talks.
"As the Education Secretary enters into negotiations, college unions, staff and college leaders all stand on the sidelines looking in, with no mechanism to negotiate," said Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes.
"Pay in colleges is just as important, particularly now that colleges are part of the public sector. With college lecturers paid around $9,000 to $10,000 less than their counterparts in schools, a better pay award for schools will widen what is already an unacceptable gap. Poor pay is now holding back colleges from offering training and skills because they cannot recruit and retain people to teach," Hughes said.
"The irony is that this is most acute in the areas of the labor market which have the biggest skills shortages, and in which employers cannot recruit people. Better pay for college lecturers would unleash capacity to meet the wider labor market needs."
He said that if the government is serious about prioritizing jobs and opportunities, then the education secretary needed to negotiate with colleges as a matter of urgency.
Friday's talks come one day after the government offered a 5% pay rise for the financial year beginning in April to National Health Service nurses, midwives, ambulance paramedics and ancillary staff, plus a one-off additional cash payment for the current year.
Health unions have recommended their members should accept the deal.
The government, which says the money will not come out of clinical budgets, has yet to explain how it will fund the $5.85 billion in total that the two-phase raise will cost.
Progress on a bitter dispute with doctors, who are seeking a 25% pay rise, also appeared imminent Friday with Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab saying that a similar offer to the nurses' was on the table and that he hoped the British Medical Association would resume talks with Health Secretary Steve Barclay.
"We were ready to talk months ago. Our formal dispute started over 150 days ago and, again, that is just what I mean in that it is disappointing it has taken Steve Barclay so long to get to the negotiating table," said BMA junior doctors' committee co-chair Vivek Trivedi.
"So far we haven't arranged a time for this afternoon but there has been some correspondence between our offices so it does look like we'll be able to set something up in the near future."