DfE’s teacher pay submission undermines strike talks

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Lucie Carlier

The DfE’s offer of formal pay talks on the condition that next week’s strikes be called off has not landed well in a week when it published plans for yet another below-inflation pay rise from September. Pete Henshaw reports

The National Education Union (NEU) is seeking clarity from Department for Education after its offer to move into more intensive “formal talks” to avoid next week’s planned strike action.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan wrote to education unions this week inviting them to attend “formal talks on pay, conditions and reform”.

A condition of launching these more intensive negotiations is that the NEU must call off its action planned for February 28, March 1 and 2.

However, the NEU says it is unclear whether this year’s pay rise will be on the table for negotiation and is seeking clarification.

The NEU executive committee is due to meet on Saturday when a decision to call off strike action could be made.

However, for the moment, the NEU is not budging. General secretary Kevin Courtney said on Tuesday evening (February 21) that “nothing substantial in the secretary of state's letter … suggests to us we should call off strikes for next week”.

The planned strikes are to take place on February 28 across the North of England, March 1 across the Midlands and East of England, and March 2 across London and the South. Two more national strikes are planned for March 15 and 16.

It comes after another round of talks between unions and the DfE on Tuesday (February 21) failed to make progress, with one union leader labelling the discussions “polite and meandering”. The meeting was focused on reducing teacher and leader workload and made no progress on the pay dispute.

The meetings have been taking place since January and involve the National Education Union, NASUWT, Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), and National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).

However, each time they yield little progress given the government’s so far inflexible position on pay.

The dispute centres on historic real-terms cuts to teachers’ pay which equate to as much as 13% since 2010. Salaries for teachers on most pay grades are expected to fall by 5% in real-terms this year alone (Sibieta, 2023). See full details of the pay dispute here. The NEU is pushing for a 10% pay rise.

However, the DfE has been unwilling to open negotiations over this year’s pay rise of 8.9% for new teachers falling to 5% for more experienced teachers.

And it has angered unions further this week after its formal evidence to the School Teachers Review Body recommended a below-inflation rise of just 3% for experienced teachers from September 2023 in addition to rises for new teachers to bring starting salaries to £30,000 (meaning an average pay award of 3.5% across the board). The DfE’s submission says that schools will be able to manage the pay rise from existing budgets (DfE, 2023).

The submission states: "(The DfE) anticipates that schools’ spending nationally could rise by a further £2.1bn in 2023/24 before they would face a net pressure on their budgets. For clarity, all expenditure on pay awards, and on increased energy costs, would therefore need to be covered within this £2.1bn 'headroom', to avoid schools facing an overall funding pressure nationally."

It adds that if energy prices come down then it could lead to a higher pay award: "Different energy scenarios mean that more headroom could be available than the 3.5% currently estimated."

On Tuesday evening, the DfE and the NEU exchanged press statements:

Statement from the Department for Education

“The education secretary has written to teaching unions inviting them to build on the constructive discussions that have already taken place and move into formal talks on pay, conditions and reform.

“Our hope is that we can find a fair and reasonable settlement that recognises the vital role teachers play, while acknowledging the wider economic pressures facing the country and the government’s priority to halve inflation.

“A condition of these talks will be that the NEU calls off next week’s strike action.”

Statement from the NEU

“The NEU is pleased that the secretary of state has agreed with the prime minister and chancellor to move into substantive formal talks with the NEU to end the dispute between us.

“Our dispute is about seeking pay increases for teachers which at least match price increases, and for any pay rises to be fully funded in school budgets.

“We have made that dispute clear to the DfE ministers since July of last year, and we have met in talks since January 9. However, in the talks so far the DfE has not made any offers on pay for this year, nor engaged in any substantive talks about pay for next year.

“Hopefully, this new commitment to talks to ‘end the dispute’ signals a change in the willingness of the DfE to countenance change.

“However, the letter from the DfE offering talks still contains no suggestion that they are willing to talk about pay rises this year and are willing to fund them. And the DfE's evidence to the STRB suggests a pay rise of 3% for experienced teachers for next September. This is still less than the current forecast for RPI and CPI inflation for quarter three this year so that projected rise will amount to a further pay cut on top of the already substantial pay cuts since 2010.

“We are willing to talk at any time: but there is nothing substantial in the secretary of state's letter that suggests to us we should call off strikes for next week. However, our national executive meets on Saturday, they could change that decision. There is time for the DfE to make clear that they will talk about pay rises for this school year and would fund those potential pay rises. There is time for them to tell us they are willing to move beyond a 3% pay rise for next September and to fund such pay rises.”

Strikes set to go-ahead

So with the government seemingly intent on pushing through below-inflation pay rises in September and showing no signs of wanting to negotiate this year’s pay rise, the chances of the strikes next week being called off look slimmer than ever – especially given the stark lack of progress so far.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, summed up the situation with a blunt statement on Tuesday evening: “While today’s talkswere polite, they were frankly meandering and with industrial action on the horizon once again, it is actions that are now required.

“We are pleased to have been invited to further formal talks on pay with the secretary of state later this week. We hope these discussions will have a greater degree of urgency and ultimately result in the long overdue improvements to teacher pay and conditions that are needed to end this dispute. That is surely in the best interests of children and young people.”

His counterpart at the NAHT, Paul Whiteman, also welcomed the “invitation to intensive talks with the DfE” but was clear: “We fully expect discussions on pay to be central to those meetings and a fair offer will be key to moving beyond the polite discussions so far to a point where we can hope for tangible progress towards an agreement.

“However, we have no control over action by a fellow union and it would be naive beyond belief for the DfE to pull the plug on these talks even before they have begun on that basis. That would demonstrate a government out of its depth when it comes to industrial relations with little clue about what it takes to come to an agreement.”

Mr Barton was equally damning about the DfE’s submission to the STRB: “The suggestion that a 3% pay award for the majority of teachers, which works out as yet another real-terms pay cut, is enough to solve the major staff shortages is not grounded in reality. The STRB must recommend the significant improvements to pay that are required to protect the education service from further harm. Meanwhile, we will continue to engage with the DfE in the hope of finding a resolution to the current industrial dispute.”

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.