Gillian Keegan will not address the annual conference of school and college leaders’ union ASCL next week, the organisation has announced, the first time an education secretary has missed the event in over 15 years.
The union announced today that Keegan, who was invited to speak at the Birmingham event next Friday, will not attend “because she hopes to be engaged in intensive talks at that time over the pay dispute which has led to industrial action by NEU members”.
However, no talks are currently scheduled, ASCL said.
It also comes following pleas from 360 school and college heads urging Keegan to delay controversial plans to withdraw funding from level 3 BTECs and applied general qualifications.
The last time an education secretary did not attend the conference is understood to be 2006, when schools minister Jacqui Smith appeared instead of her boss, Ruth Kelly.
General secretary Geoff Barton said his organisation was “disappointed that Gillian Keegan has decided not to come to our conference”. He will address the event in her place, the union said.
“We very much hoped she would use this opportunity to thank school and college leaders for everything they are doing in what is proving to be yet another extremely challenging year.”
It comes as school teaching unions remain locked in a bitter dispute with the government over pay and funding, which has so far led to four days of strike action by National Education Union members.
Tensions run high between unions and government
But Barton warned last month that unless there was “tangible progress towards an improved offer” in talks with government, then it will lead to “members of our union, and other education unions, also concluding that industrial action is the only option left”.
With tensions between unions and government still running high, Keegan’s decision not to attend the conference will likely prompt speculation that she fears a confrontation with heads.
ASCL members rarely heckle their guests, but it’s not unheard-of. Delegates shouted at Damian Hinds when he spoke about school funding at the conference in 2018, before they were slapped down by Barton.
The union leader said next week’s event would have given Keegan an opportunity to talk about how she “intends to address the teacher recruitment and retention crisis which is at the heart of the current industrial dispute”.
“But nevertheless we will continue to engage with the secretary of state positively and constructively and look forward to a time when she will feel more able to talk directly to our members.”
Other speakers at the event next week include Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman and shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson.
The Department for Education was approached for comment.