The Government has announced plans to introduce minimum levels of service in schools during strikes by teachers, sparking fury from unions.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said strikes by teachers over pay in the past year were some of the most disruptive on record, with 25 million days lost.

Teaching unions attacked the announcement as “shameful”, accusing the Government of attempting to impose further restrictions on the democratic freedoms of teachers.

The Government launched a consultation on Tuesday, inviting views on issues such as priority attendance for vulnerable children, exam groups, children of critical workers and the use of rotas for strikes lasting five days or more.

The aim was to have minimum service levels in place by the next academic year.

The Education Secretary said: “Keeping children in school is my number one priority. Last year’s school strikes were some of the most disruptive on record for children and parents, with 25 million cumulative days lost, alongside the strike action that badly affected students in colleges and universities.

“We cannot afford a repeat of that disruption – particularly as young people continue to catch up from the pandemic.

Teachers on a picket line in Bristol
Teaching unions accused the Government of attempting to impose further restrictions on the democratic freedoms of teachers (Ben Birchall/PA)

“Whilst I know many schools and colleges worked really hard to keep children and young people in face-to-face education during strikes, we must make sure that approach is applied in every school, in every area of the country.”

The announcement followed discussions between Ms Keegan and trade unions to explore voluntary agreements in schools and colleges.

The Education Department said that while the talks were constructive, not enough progress was made to ensure protections for children and young people would be in place for the next academic year.

“The Government has therefore taken the step to open the nine-week consultation to hear the views of parents, young people and the education sector on how best to ensure minimum service levels in schools, colleges, as well higher education institutions,” a statement said.

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The attempt to impose further restrictions on our democratic freedoms is shameful. This Government wants to be tough on strikes, but not on the causes of strikes.

“We have an education system on its knees. A deep recruitment and retention crisis, rocketing workloads and falling pay, and thanks to underfunding we have the largest primary class sizes in Europe and secondary class sizes are the highest since records began more than 40 years ago.

“This is clearly unsustainable, but the Government is indifferent to the enormous challenges facing schools and colleges. The attempt at dialogue was never meaningful. It was disingenuous and cynical.

“The end of talks was briefed out to the press by Number 10 before the talks ended. Rishi Sunak always intended to implement this draconian legislation without consent or mandate.”

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: “The Government continues to ignore the fact that it is impossible to secure minimum service entitlements for pupils in an education system so neglected and underfunded, instead opting to aggressively quash criticism with this inflammatory policy.

“The Government is once again demonstrating its contempt for teachers, at a time when they should be listening to the concerns of the profession and facing up to the crisis in recruitment and retention they have created.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “It could not be clearer that the Government entered into talks with the profession about minimum services levels in incredibly bad faith.

“Having set initial proposals that no union could agree to, they have collapsed negotiations by briefing the media first and without ever coming back to the table. They have shown they cannot be trusted.

“We now have proof that the Government have never been serious about getting the buy-in of the profession – this has always been a hostile act and an attack on the basic democratic freedoms of school leaders and teachers that they are determined to force through.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Minimum service levels are a profoundly illiberal policy by a Government that has lost the argument.

“Nobody wants to go on strike.

“It is action that is taken as a last resort when all else has failed.

“But passing a law which effectively removes the right to strike from groups of employees is obviously done in order to weaken unions and the voice of employees over their pay and conditions.”

Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said: “If school workers were paid properly, strikes would be rare.

“The Government hasn’t invested in essential services or their workforces.

“Industrial action is often the only option if staff are to have any hope of keeping pay at decent levels, and sparing schools an endless recruitment nightmare.”

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has written to the Government to express “serious concerns” about its legislation.

The crossbench committee of MPs and Lords said that the Government has failed to allay concerns about the legislation and criticised an “insufficient“ consultation process.

The letter says: “In March 2023 the Joint Committee on Human Rights published a legislative scrutiny report on the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill.

“We raised a number of serious concerns about the compatibility of that Bill with the UK’s obligations under international law, including in particular the right to free assembly and association guaranteed by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

“As you will be aware, the ECHR has been made a part of domestic law through the Human Rights Act 1998.

“We do not consider that the consultation process that preceded these Regulations being laid was sufficient to meet these concerns.”

TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “MPs, Lords and employer groups are queuing up to condemn this draconian legislation.

“But instead of listening to concerns, the Conservatives are ploughing ahead with these spiteful new laws.

“These anti-strike laws are a deliberate attempt to restrict the right to strike – a fundamental British liberty.

“Make no mistake – they are undemocratic, unworkable and likely illegal.

“And crucially they will poison industrial relations and exacerbate disputes rather than help resolve them.

“That’s why unions will keep fighting this nasty legislation. We won’t stop until it is repealed.”

Commenting on the code of practice regulations and minimum service regulations passing in the House of Commons today, TUC general secretary Paul Nowak said: “These anti-strike laws represent a brazen attack on the right to strike – Conservative MPs have turned their backs on working people by voting them through.

“They are unworkable, undemocratic and likely in breach of international law and they threaten the right to strike of one in five workers.

“The Conservatives have designed these laws to escalate disputes, not resolve them, and they will only poison industrial relations and worsen disputes.”