Teachers Join Wave of Public Service Strikes as U.K. Unveils Budget

Crowded classrooms in aging buildings. Years of strain through the pandemic. And underfunding that has teachers reaching into their own pockets for glue sticks and pens, even while inflation has cut deeply into their pay. Teachers in England say they have had enough.

Hundreds of schools fully or partly closed on Wednesday, including many that curtailed their schedules as educators walked out en masse as part of a two-day strike. The police did not release their own estimate, but teacher unions said that about 40,000 people rallied in London on Wednesday, many clutching pink and orange flags that read “Pay Up.”

“Nobody wants to be doing this, nobody wants to be away from the kids, but even the children understand this,” said Ellen Yates-Malone, a 30-year-old teacher in the crowds in central London. But, she said, educators felt like they had no other choice. “We aren’t just striking over pay, it’s about so much more.”

She traveled from her home near Brighton, England, to join the teachers and their supporters rallying in London as part of the strike, the latest in a series of actions organized by teachers in Britain advocating a pay raise and better working conditions.

The demonstrations coincided with a strike on London’s underground trains and the third day of a work stoppage by junior doctors working in the National Health Service. And the three strikes served as a reminder that Britain has yet to resolve labor disputes across a number of industries, which have been disrupting the country for months and calling attention again to the economic problems keenly felt by teachers, doctors, transport workers and many others.

A significant number of doctors joined the teachers on Wednesday to show their solidarity, including, Jennie Han, 28, who said it was important to send a clear message as the government assesses its financial plan for the year ahead.

Wednesday’s strikes came on the day of the annual budget announcement from Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor of the Exchequer, who presented it in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon. Heralding the new budget, Mr. Hunt said that the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that Britain would not enter a recession this year “because of changing international factors and the measures I take,” but that the economy would shrink.

Mr. Hunt’s budget speech, which outlined an expansion of child care services, did not present a plan on education spending or resolving labor disputes. He said the strikes were rooted in high inflation, and that the government would “work hard” to settle disputes “but only in a way that does not fuel inflation.”

Unions across the public sector had urged the Conservative government to commit to significant extra funding, saying that years of underfunding had hollowed out some of the country’s most essential public services, including health care, education and transportation. Shortly after his announcement, unions, including Unite and Unison, which represent workers across a number of sectors including health care, had already begun to criticize the measures that they say fail to address the public funding issues.

Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, had said she was open to talks with the unions if the strikes had been called off. In a letter to teachers in February, she acknowledged their concerns about pay and resources for students, saying, “I fully understand that teacher and leader workload is too high.” But she argued that it was in everyone’s best interest to halt the strike action.

Some schools, like Ms. Yates-Malone’s, were entirely closed on Wednesday, while others still operated with limited or online classes.

For many teachers who came out on Wednesday, the strike was not just about the pay. Lack of funding for education has left students with scant resources in aging school buildings, often forcing teachers themselves to buy essential classroom supplies with their own money, they said. In the wake of years of uncertainty in education throughout the pandemic, the struggles had only deepened, many said.

“It’s just having such a big impact on the mental health of the teachers, the staff and the children,” said Rosie Southall, 29, who also teaches elementary school.

The National Education Union, or N.E.U., had called for two final days of planned strikes in England on Wednesday and Thursday, after months of periodic strike actions. While teachers in Britain are represented by a number of unions, the N.E.U. has the largest membership, representing more than half a million educators across the country.

In an open letter to parents on Tuesday, Ms. Keegan, the education secretary, called the strikes “unnecessary” and causing “needless disruption.”

“This industrial action will mean more disruption to children’s education and to your lives too — whether that’s work, arranging child care, or changing other plans,” she wrote. “I am extremely disappointed that many young people will once again miss invaluable time learning with their teachers and friends, particularly after their education was significantly disrupted during the pandemic.”

Ms. Keegan’s offer to meet for talks on teacher pay had been contingent on the strike being paused, but with the walkout set to end after Thursday, the union and the government may begin talking next week.

During the march in London on Wednesday, cars and buses honked in support of the striking teachers as they marched from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, on their way to a rally timed for Mr. Hunt’s announcement.

“Of course, we are hopeful that the budget will allow for increased funding to raise pay across the public sector,” said John Rowland, a history teacher from Portsmouth, noting rising costs. “And it’s the solidarity of sorting everyone out together.”

Mr. Rowland, 27, held a bright yellow poster with the message “I Want to Teach Victorian Britain, Not Live It!” as he stood with other teachers in Hyde Park. But he said it had been a difficult decision to walk away from his job for the day.

“I do have a sense of guilt it not being there, but at the same time, if you don’t do it, you can’t enact change,” he said, adding that he has felt supported by student parents, particularly when he had gone to his local picket line during earlier strikes.

Caroline Allen, 41, a teacher and a single parent, had traveled with her daughter, Evelyn, 10, from Oxfordshire for the march. Nearly every teacher in her school, which her daughter also attends, decided to strike, and the school closed its doors on Wednesday. She said years of underfunding had left schools “at a crisis point.”

“The things that we were able to do years ago when I first started teaching, we don’t get money for anymore, and the kids are missing out,” she said. “And obviously — cost of living, single parents, trying to provide — its just not enough.”

Her colleague, Katheryn Churchill, 55, has been teaching for 25 years and said it was the first time she had chosen to strike. Teachers, she said, had borne the brunt of strains on public services like health and social care, where shortfalls have forced teachers to do double-duty supporting vulnerable children.

“Our workload has changed massively over the time I have been teaching, but it’s not recognized,” Ms. Churchill said. “It’s not properly supported, and we aren’t trained in it.”

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