Why the road to teacher strikes could have been avoided

For years the government has been warned by its independent review body of the dangers of failing to boost pay and improve the pay structure for teachers – but to no avail. Had it listened, this week’s strike action might never have happened
31st January 2023, 12:55pm


Why the road to teacher strikes could have been avoided

Why the road to teacher strikes could have been avoided years ago

Strike action by teachers is expected to affect over 23,000 schools in the whole of England and Wales tomorrow (1 February). At the heart of this dispute is pay.

Despite the government accepting the recommendations of the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) to offer pay rises of between 5 per cent for experienced teachers and 9 per cent for those on starting salaries in 2022-23, rising inflation and the cost-of-living crisis have left many facing what are, in effect, pay cuts.

Indeed, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, there has been a long period of real-terms reductions in teacher salaries dating back to 2010. That this situation has led to strikes is perhaps not surprising in some ways - but could they have been avoided?

Teacher strikes: background to the pay dispute 

The government often likes to note that pay is determined not entirely by itself but also by the public sector pay review bodies, such as the STRB, which are independent and free to make recommendations.

For example, James Cleverly said in July, when he was education secretary, that “the government values the independent expertise and insight of the STRB”.

However, as the Institute for Government spelled out in December: “Ministers are wrong to suggest that the independent pay review bodies dictate public sector pay settlements … Review body recommendations are constrained by the scope of the remit ministers give them.”

It noted that pay review bodies were “asked to also pay heed to the government’s inflation target” and that “departments had fixed budgets - and so any additional spending on pay would need to be matched by lower spending elsewhere”.

As such, the STRB sits in a position where although it can push its own views - see, for example, a higher-than-expected uplift for more experienced teachers than the government proposed for 2022-2023 - it is still operating within a world of governmental constraint.

Yet it’s arguable that if the government had been more in tune with the STRB over the past few years, the strikes that are about to occur may have never come to pass.

Determining pay rises

In its report for 2020-2021 the STRB said that not only were there significant difficulties recruiting new teachers and retaining teachers, but also that resignations had risen in age groups 35-44 and 45-54. 

The STRB award of 5.5 per cent for new teachers was in line with a government pledge to work towards a higher starting salary of £30,000 by September 2022, but for experienced teachers and leaders a rise of 2.75 percent rise was less impressive.

The fear was that retention rates would suffer further, but the STRB appeared optimistic that higher funding of £47.6 billion for 2020-21, £49.8 billion for 2021-22 and £52.2 billion in 2022-23 would bring an opportunity “to secure a significant improvement in the competitiveness of the teacher pay framework over the next two to three years”.  

However, for the following year, the government confirmed that no pay uplift would occur except for those starting from £24,000.

As such, the STRB report for 2021-2022 rubber-stamped the government’s proposals, but warned: “The Review Body urges that we be allowed to fully exercise our role in making recommendations on pay uplifts for all teachers and school leaders for 2022-23.”  

Prophetically, it was particularly concerned about the impact of a pay freeze longer than one year and cognisant that pay in the private sector was already recovering after the onset of the pandemic.

Yet a statement in response from Gavin Williamson, who was education secretary at the time, merely thanked the “independent” STRB for its recommendation.

For teachers this was “a slap in the face” after their intense work during Covid-19 lockdowns, and the House of Lords tabled a motion of regret.

This is perhaps why, in 2022, the STRB recommended increases above those in its remit. But it was too late and, with the rising rate of inflation, strike action is now imminent.

Pay structure proposals ignored

In short, the STRB can only have a limited impact on the actual numbers because the Treasury holds the purse strings.

However, its advice on pay structure could have helped to address long-established grievances, which have contributed to low morale and greater motivation to take industrial action. Here, too, it seems to have been ignored.

For example in 2020, the STRB said that “teachers’ earnings should remain competitive with those with similar levels of experience in comparable graduate professions”.

Ensuring this competitivity would bring “clarity for teachers on how their careers can be expected to progress and their potential earnings, up to and including moving into leadership positions”.

No specific detail was provided but we could infer that “competitive” means eventually pegging teacher pay at the higher private sector rates to attract and retain more teachers, thus overriding the government’s affordability imperative

Perhaps predictably, Gavin Williamson’s parliamentary statement played up the impact of the 5.5 per cent for new recruits and heralded the whole award as “a decisive step towards a pay structure which better supports teacher retention”, making no reference to emerging retention issues in the 35-54 age range, which in 2023 have translated into a shortage of school leaders.

Undeterred, in 2021 the STRB redoubled its efforts for “an opportunity to review aspects of the pay framework for classroom teachers to ensure it recognises high performance and increases in teaching excellence and capability, while also rewarding teachers for taking on management and leadership responsibilities.”

But nothing was said about the report’s wider vision or the longer-term issues that it deliberately highlighted, such as the need to investigate equality concerns, as reported in the past three STRB documents

Still hoping to convince the DfE on this issue, the 2022 report is even more outspoken, voicing a direct plea to be given a “multi-year remit” that would allow it to: “identify those areas where the framework can be improved such that it best supports, rewards and incentivises teachers at all stages of their careers, and to consider, and make recommendations on, the changes needed to the framework to deliver this.”

Education secretary Gillian Keegan’s response in the 2023 remit letter is equivocal: “Should my department then decide to progress this work further, it would consider engaging the STRB through the remit process for future years.”

Missed opportunities 

Reading between the lines, one might ask: was the lukewarm government response because of other priorities? Or was it an effort to ward off the inevitable expense of a properly funded pay structure that would require substantial uplifts to keep pace with similar career points for graduates in similar types of work?

Whatever the reason, it seems that despite clear attempts by the STRB to alert the government to the dangers of failing to boost pay and reorder pay scales for teachers at all levels, these warnings went unheeded.

Would listening to those warnings have avoided strike action? We’ll never know.

But we do know that the suggestions that have been ignored and the decisions that have been taken have led us to a situation where on Wednesday some 320,000 will leave their classrooms in protest over their pay.

Yvonne Williams is the chair of the Post-16 and HE Working Group at the National Association for the Teaching of English

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