Downing Street has confirmed that more than 11,000 schools have either closed or cancelled lessons as a result of the strikes over pensions. But it insisted that only half of members of the Public and Commercial Services union, which represents civil service workers, have joined the walkouts, declaring Britain’s borders “open for business” with air travel unaffected.
Official figures show that a total of 11,114 school have been affected by the industrial action: 5,679 local authority run-schools were shut and 4,999 were partially closed. A total of 201 academies and city technology colleges were also closed, with 235 partially open.
It means that more than 2 million pupils are affected by the action. Parents across the country, particularly in the major cities, have been forced to stay at home or make other arrangements for their children.
Downing Street acknowledged that the strikes would have a knock-on effect for the economy.
Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the early indications were that “large numbers” of schools were affected by the action. NUT figures suggest around 80%.
“We realise that’s very disruptive for parents, and we do regret that,” he said. “We had hoped to reach a settlement before the industrial action, but the government isn’t serious about talks.”
Michael Gove, the education secretary, said on a visit to an open primary school: “I feel disappointed that people have chosen to go out on strike today. I understand that there are really strong feelings about pensions and we absolutely want to ensure that everyone in the public, especially teachers, have decent pensions.”
Thousands of people are gathering in Manchester and London to take part in marches with roads in both cities shut down. Police leave in the capital has been cancelled with a large Met operation underway in central London to police the march.
There are picket lines outside government buildings in Whitehall as well as well as schools, tax offices, courts and jobcentres across the country. Some 350 colleges and 75 universities are also closed or operating a scaled-back timetable.
The government claimed that turnout among the civil service was low but the PCS insisted it was the best supported of the union’s history.
“Less than half of PCS members have decided to take part reinforcing what we saw at the ballot which was very limited support for strike action,” the prime minister’s spokesman said.
Jobcentres and tax offices are open, albeit with some offering reduced services. Courts are prioritising the most urgent cases, he said.
The PCS counterclaimed that 90% of members in the Department of Work and Pensions and 85% in HM Revenue and Customs had walked out.
Mark Serwotka, the union’s general secretary, said: “The government made a lot of the fact that after the strike ballot it was clear civil servants didn’t support strike action, but today we can see that they have voted with their feet.”
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, said: “These strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are still going on but parents and the public have been let down by both sides because the government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner.
“After today’s disruption, I urge both sides to put aside the rhetoric, get round the negotiating table and stop it happening again.”
The government is coming under increasing pressure to justify claims that the current system is “unaffordable”. David Cameron said this week that it was in danger of “going broke” but the report – by the former Labour business secretary Lord Hutton – on which the government’s reforms are based, confirms that as a share of GDP the cost of pensions peeked last year at 1.9% and is now projected to fall to 1.4% by 2059-60.
The Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, who is leading the pension negotiations, was accused on Radio 4’s Today Programme of “floundering” by Serwotka when asked to justify the statements.
Maude would only say that the Hutton report had “very clearly” said that the status quo was “not tenable”.
“You cannot continue to have more and more people in retirement being supported by fewer and fewer people in work,” said Maude.
The prime minister’s official spokesman dismissed the row. “People are getting caught up in a semantic debate,” he said.
“There is this debate that is raging about unaffordable versus untenable. The fact of the matter is this was looked into very thoroughly by Hutton and he concluded that we needed to reform public sector pensions.”
Asked if striking unions would be excluded from future talks, he said: “We want to have a constructive dialogue. We will continue to approach these discussions in that way.”
Annual figures released by the Department for Education on Thursday show that there are 8.2 million pupils in 24,500 schools in England, including 2,400 private schools. According to the government’s estimation that half of schools are affected, at least 10,000 are closed with at least 2 million pupils affected by closures and hundreds of thousands of more missing cancelled lessons.
Maude claimed the turnout was lower than the 2004 and 2007 strikes against Labour’s pension reforms. He issued the government’s assessment of the impact of the strike on the civil service claiming that Just under 80% of civil servants were at work estimating that around 100,000 out of the 500,000 workforce was striking. The PCS union has around 250,000 members who were balloted.
He said: “What today has shown is that the vast majority of hardworking public sector employees do not support today’s premature strike and have come into work today; I want to thank them all for coming in, ignoring the pickets and putting the public first.
“I am not at all surprised by the very low turnout for today’s action – less than half of PCS’s own members chose to take part. Very few civil servants wanted this strike at all – less than 10% of them voted for it – and they are right.
“It is simply wrong for their leader to be pushing for walkouts when serious talks, set up at the request of the TUC itself, are still ongoing. As Brendan Barber [the TUC general secretary] said, the government are approaching this whole process in good faith.”
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