So, the seven-year-long public sector pay cap is at an end. More than one million NHS staff are being offered increases of at least 6.5 per cent over three years. Everyone who values our great health service – the commitment, professionalism and expertise of our NHS staff – will be delighted about that news. It is long overdue and thoroughly deserved.
What is also long overdue, of course, is a decent pay increase for teachers.
A report published earlier this week by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) found that teachers’ real average hourly pay has decreased by 15 per cent since 2009-10. This is more than the decline in the real average hourly pay of nurses and police officers which fell by four and 11 per cent respectively over the same period.
Thankfully, despite a background of falling real-terms pay and longer working hours, 78 per cent of teachers report that they are satisfied with their jobs – slightly lower than nurses (81 per cent) and higher than police officers (67 per cent).
That is testimony to the fact that teaching has significant non-monetary rewards, such as the sense of fulfillment gained from working with young people, of seeing a pupil overcome a barrier or challenge, of working in the positive and optimistic environment of a school or college community. We should celebrate that.
Teacher pay vs teacher patience
But we cannot go on stretching the patience of teachers, both in terms of pay and workload. The consequences are all too clear. Because the warning signs are clear. What the NFER report also found was that teachers are more likely to leave their profession than nurses or police officers.
And that chimes with what we are seeing in official government statistics which show that nearly one-third of newly qualified teachers leave within five years – and that the recruitment targets for initial teacher training have been missed in secondary school subjects for five successive years.
It doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap to understand why this is happening. However as fulfilling teaching can be, the tough practical reality is that it has to compete with other graduate careers which offer better pay and fewer working hours.
This was recognised in last year’s report by the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB), which said that average starting salaries and profession-wide earnings are considerably lower for teaching than for other graduate professions. It warned that there was “a real risk that schools will not be able to recruit and retain a workforce of high-quality teachers to support pupil achievement.”
Unfortunately, that committee’s room for manoeuvre was restricted by an instruction from the government “to promote recruitment and retention” within the 1 per cent public sector pay cap, plus the fact that schools had to afford pay awards from their existing cash-strapped budgets without any additional government funding.
The signs for this year’s pay round are a little more positive. In her remit letter to the STRB, former education secretary Justine Greening said that the government “has adopted a more flexible approach to public sector pay, to address any areas of skills shortages.” However, she added that the last spending review “budgeted for one per cent average basic pay awards”.
Which brings us back to this week’s announcement about the pay deal for NHS staff. Because now is the time for the government to set out what it is going to do with regards to teachers’ pay in time for the STRB to report back on its recommendations for pay awards in 2018/19.
All the evidence points to the fact that a significant increase is needed to compensate for the long period of real-terms decline in teachers’ pay, to make teaching more competitive with other graduate career options and improve recruitment and retention.
But this is only going to be possible if it is funded by the government.
Time to step up
Last week’s report by the Education Policy Institute on school funding pressures showed that many schools were unable to afford even a pay rise of 1 per cent for their staff next year without having to make further cuts. So they are not going to be able to afford the 5 per cent pay rise we believe is needed – unless the government steps up and puts its money where its mouth is over improving recruitment and retention.
We cannot continue to rely on the non-monetary rewards of teaching and the fact that – despite the circumstances – teachers express high degrees of satisfaction with their jobs. We are already struggling with teacher shortages of crisis proportions. The situation will become worse over the next few years as pupil numbers rise unless urgent action is taken. We have to make the circumstances themselves more conducive to attracting graduates into our profession and keeping hold of them. And one of these factors simply must be pay.
Anything less lets down our teachers and – most significantly – the children in our schools.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton