Teachers face pay cut this year as strike talks deadlocked

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

As talks to avert looming teacher strikes yielded no progress, new analysis shows that most teachers are facing a 5% real-terms cut to their pay this year.

Trade unions said this week that their meeting with the Department for Education (DfE) was “constructive but largely unsatisfactory” and yielded “no concrete progress”.

The meeting took place as ballots for industrial action by the National Education Union (NEU), NASUWT, and National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) officially closed this week.

Furthermore, a consultative ballot by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has also shown that a majority of its members are in favour of proceeding to a formal ballot.

Analysis published this week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that with inflation running at around 10%, most teachers are likely to experience real-terms salary cuts this year. Indeed, salaries for teachers on most pay grades are expected to fall by 5% in real-terms in 2022/23 (Sibieta, 2023).

The analysis confirms that since 2010 salaries for more experienced and senior teachers have fallen by 13% in real-terms, teachers in the middle of the salary scale have experienced cuts of 9% to 10%, and starting salaries have fallen by 5% (Sibieta, 2023).

The DfE is worried, especially given that the NEU’s indicative ballot of members last year easily met new legal thresholds for strike action.

As such, education secretary Gillian Keegan finally sat down this week with the leaders of the four unions.

The ballots

To be successful, ballots must now meet thresholds as defined by the Trade Union Act. This means ballots have to achieve at least a 50% turnout of eligible union members, with a majority voting in favour of strike action. And as education is considered a key service, there is an additional threshold of 40% of all eligible members supporting action.

The NEU, NAHT and NASUWT launched ballots last term. The NEU ballot,which targeted 300,000 teaching and support staff members in England and Wales, closes on Friday (January 13).

The NASUWT, which has 300,000 teacher members across the UK,sent its ballot to members in England, Scotland and Wales. It closed on Monday (January 9).

The NAHT ballot, meanwhile asked its school leader members working in state-funded schools in England and Wales whether they would be prepared to take industrial action. This closed on Wednesday (January 11).

The NEU has previously said that if members vote for industrial action, then strikes could take place as soon as January 30.

Meanwhile, a consultative ballot on industrial action carried out by ASCL has shown a majority of members in favour of a formal ballot.

The results showed that 54% of eligible members voted, with 69% of these in favour of a formal ballot on strikes and 74% in favour of a formal ballot on action short of a strike.

We can expect to hear soon from the NAHT, NEU and NASUWT with the results of their ballots and their next steps. Meanwhile, the ASCL executive committee has met to discuss the results of its consultative ballot and will “meet again in due course to decide on the next steps”.

The meeting

The meeting between the DfE and the unions has been described as “talks about talks” and reportedly centred on the scope for future discussions, including the current pay award for 2022/23 (see below) and the award for 2023/24.

The unions were positive that the meeting had taken place and welcomed signs from the DfE that further dialogue would be possible. However, that is where the positivity ends for the moment.

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary: “The meeting was constructive but largely unsatisfactory in that our concerns over the long-term erosion of teacher pay and conditions, the inadequacy of this year’s pay award, and the on-going teacher recruitment and retention crisis, remain unresolved.

“We are pleased that there was at least a commitment from the education secretary to look jointly at our respective submissions to the pay review body for next year’s pay award. However, that does not address the shortcomings with this year’s below-inflation award, or the fact that leader and teacher pay has fallen in real terms by a fifth since 2010.

“We cannot go on like this. We are expecting further talks to take place in the near future, and we sincerely hope that these issues can be resolved through discussion rather than industrial action. However, these talks must lead to a positive outcome.”

On the results of the ASCL consultative ballot: “The results show the strength of feeling which exists among school leaders over the desperately difficult situation they are facing in recruiting and retaining staff and operating their schools without the adequate funding to do so.

“We urge the government to avoid an escalation of this dispute, and do the right thing by schools and children, by addressing recruitment, retention and funding as a matter of urgency”

Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint general secretaries of the NEU: “It is welcome that a meeting was held – and we believe that union ballots were crucial in the meeting taking place. There is a promise of further discussions both on the government’s evidence to the STRB for next year and on changes to pay during this year.

“There is no concrete progress, but the existence of these discussions is due to the possibility of industrial action. We have offered to clear our diaries for such talks, but we have no dates yet.

“However, the DfE was definitely downplaying the prospects of movement this year – and wasn’t at all specific about next year.If the government wants to avoid industrial action, then there is only a small window of opportunity before the NEU declares its ballot result and its plans for action. No-one wants to strike, and the government can avoid it by talking and making concrete progress on pay.”

Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT general secretary: “There is no doubt that the conclusion of industrial action ballots of teachers over pay this week is what has brought the minister to the table with us.

“We welcome commitments made by the minister to continue dialogue with us following months of refusal by her predecessors.

“Given the pressing issues, the minister must now intensify and accelerate a programme of further talks.

“We have been clear we will meet any time and any place to discuss these issues and that we will commit the time necessary to make progress. However, we will remain in dispute with the Government unless tangible progress is forthcoming.”

The dispute

The dispute comes amid a challenging backdrop for schools and school staff:

The final straw for the teaching and leadership unions came when the DfE accepted the STRB’s pay proposals for 2022/23.

It means school leaders and experienced teachers (M6, U1, U2, U3) saw a 5% increase from September 2022. Rises are higher for newer teachers, with an 8.9% rise for M1 tapering down to a 5.5% rise for M5 (see table) (STRB, 2022; DfE, 2022).

Pay proposals: The STRB's pay proposals for September 2022 have been accepted in full by the government (source: STRB, 2022)

However, with rates of inflation soaring at 9.3% (CPI) and 19.9% (RPI) amid the cost of living crisis, it means that this year, once again, teachers and school leaders will see real-terms cuts to their pay, compounding the significant real-terms cuts seen since 2010.

Indeed, years of pay restraint have seen pay fall in real-terms between 2007 and 2021 by 8% for upper pay scale and 4% for main pay scale colleagues. In contrast, average earnings across the whole economy rose by 0.6% across the same period (Cribb & Sibieta, 2021).

And the new analysis published this week (Sibieta, 2023) only serves to confirm what teachers on the ground already know – that salaries for teachers on most pay grades will fall by 5% in real-terms in 2022/23.

The DfE’s pay award, meanwhile, sits in contrast to demands from the NASUWT for a fully-funded 12% pay rise this year. The NEU is calling for a fully-funded “above inflation” pay rise. The NAHT, meanwhile, wants a fully-funded pay award at the rate of CPI inflation as of September 2022 (10.1%) plus 5%.

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