Labour will fight laws designed to keep schools open during teacher strikes

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Labour will launch an attack on Monday on new laws to keep schools open during strikes, as teacher walkouts bring chaos this week.

Some 100,000 teachers in the National Education Union are planning to strike on Wednesday, affecting 23,000 schools, demanding above-inflation pay rises funded by the Treasury.

Headteachers are racing to bring in contingency plans, including “giant classes” to keep children in class and a shift to Covid-era online learning.

But Labour is making a fresh attempt to block a new law introduced by ministers, currently in Parliament, which would keep schools open during strikes by introducing legally-required minimum service levels across six key public sectors, including education.

Labour will table an amendment this week in a bid to force Grant Shapps, the Business Secretary, to undertake a comprehensive impact assessment on the proposals, including on workforce numbers, employers and equality law.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said the law is “collapsing around the ears” of Mr Shapps, and vowed to “force them to go back to the drawing board with this dog’s dinner of a Bill”.

The intervention will raise further fears among parents and education leaders fearful that the strike - one of seven days of action by the hard-Left NEU in February and March - will be disastrous for teenagers.

In one sign of the emergency plans being drawn up, Ashton Community Science College, an 865-pupil secondary school near Preston in Lancashire, is preparing giant lessons, with up to three classes merged to be taught by a teacher.

Meanwhile, the Department for Education (DfE) has published new remote learning guidance urging schools to audit access to digital devices and help families with their internet connectivity to pivot to online classes.

Even for those teachers not striking, the union Unison, which represents 200,000 support staff, said its members “should not be expected to provide cover for, or take classes, where this would normally be done by teachers who are taking action”.

The impact could also trickle down to nursery closures, with staff needing to home-school their own children.

Neil Leitch, the chief executive at the Early Years Alliance, said: “This may well result in early educators needing to stay home on strike days, which in turn may force some early years settings to limit the number of children at their setting, or even temporarily close, to cope with this.

“As such, it is vital that those schools remaining open for critical workers ensure that those working in early years settings are included in this. This will help ensure that the care and education of our very youngest children is as unaffected as possible during this time.”

Last-ditch talks will be held on Monday between Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, and union leaders though Dr Mary Bousted, the NEU’s leader, said they were unlikely to stop the strike.

Ms Keegan has appealed to NEU members to inform schools whether they intend to strike or not, amid fears of “additional and unnecessary disruption” because schools close out of precaution.

Us For Them, a group of parents, warned that Year 11 pupils taking their GCSE exams this summer would be particularly hard hit, having lost at least 111 days of schooling during Covid lockdowns.

“A few days more days off school here and there may appear innocuous, but we are not in a normal educational environment - the repeated school closures have meant that one in four children is now persistently absent from school,” Arabella Skinner, from the group, said.

“On the back of lockdowns, youth mental health diagnoses have skyrocketed. The unions are making a cost of living argument that they partly caused, by being instrumental in forcing schools to shut during Covid.

“By closing schools yet again, we are telling our children that education is optional and that adults will always put their interests above children’s.”

Leora Cruddas, the chief executive of the Confederation of Schools Trust which represents academies, said that support staff and members of the NASUWT union who are not on strike “can’t be compelled” to cover for their striking colleagues and “that is a position that is protected”.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Strike action is highly damaging to children’s education, particularly following the disruption that children have experienced over the past two years.

“As part of our ongoing support to school leaders to do everything they can to keep as many children in school as possible, we have requested information from schools to help inform this work.”