'The last straw? Heads are fuming over pay deal'

After a tough year balancing the books, headteachers are demoralised at a real-terms pay cut, writes one heads' leader

Paul Whiteman, NAHT, headteacher, school funding, real terms funding cuts, Ofsted

This week I attended a speech by education secretary Damian Hinds, in which he set out his plans to further support the effort to improve social mobility. I was pleased to see the focus on early years and school readiness. NAHT members have been warning for some time about the decline in school readiness and how vital supporting early years is. School leaders will welcome the announcement – any help to parents in support of children in this crucial area of development is positive. Children’s early speech and language skills are the foundations upon which all future learning is built.

We will, of course, also urge the government to invest in vital services, including speech and language therapy and early years services, so that those children who need specialist support receive it as early as possible.

Improving social mobility and equality of opportunity through access to a good education is the core of what school leaders do. And I know that they will rally around all positive moves that help. It’s good that, despite all the pressures, we have a profession that continues to respond time after time.

But the fact that the profession, through the leadership of school leaders, can be absolutely relied upon, is being taken for granted.

Just when we thought that we’d hear nothing until September, we were surprised – on what was the last day of school for many – by the secretary of state’s announcement on teacher and school leaders’ pay. And there’s a lot to be surprised about – instead of an across-the-board settlement, teachers on the main scale are getting a 3.5 per cent increase, those on the upper scale 2 per cent and leaders 1.5 per cent.

Heads suffer a real-terms pay cut

It’s the first time in my six years at NAHT, where I am now general secretary, that the government has decided to reject the recommendations of the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB), which recommended 3.5 per cent for all sections of the teacher workforce. Unfortunately, as the "detailed response" that the education secretary promised would be made available has still not materialised, there’s no explanation for this departure from the STRB’s advice. We’re pretty clear that it’s about the funding but it would still be good to fully understand the thinking behind how it’s being distributed.

In the past few days, as the news has sunk in, I’ve had the chance to hear from quite a few NAHT members. As I expected, the news has been bittersweet for school leaders. While it’s a relief that the increases will be partially funded in England, the government’s description of the award as "fully funded" is not quite as it seems. The Department for Education has promised to fund the difference between the 1 per cent it expected that most schools had budgeted for and the overall impact. This misses the point that some struggling schools will have to make heartbreaking decisions to even find the 1 per cent.

The DfE refers to a grant but we have no clarity how it will work and, apparently, it’s not part of the consultation over the summer on the proposals. So we have to trust that this is what will happen. The trouble is, these are the same school leaders who were told that no school would get less than £3,300 for a primary place under the National Funding Formula and £4,600 for a secondary place, only to find that this was a "notional amount" given to local authorities but not guaranteed to be passed through to schools. So trust is wearing a bit thin.

'Heartbreaking' budget decisions

Let’s be clear that it’s critical that the funding isn’t just a notional national amount – any school that isn’t fully funded to deliver the increases will have to choose between paying their staff the amounts recommended or making more damaging cuts. The funding has to get to each school to cover their costs.

If the funding gets through school leaders will be relieved that they can offer their main pay scale staff a bit more of a pay rise than they were expecting. But they also have to keep their more experienced, upper pay scale teachers motivated when the DfE has told them that keeping them in the profession, and ensuring that they don’t see a real-terms pay cut, isn’t as important.

School leaders were coming to the long-awaited end to an exceptionally hard year. For many, the funding crisis has tipped a challenging job into an impossible one. DfE workforce data shows that school leaders are walking away from the profession or taking a demotion in large numbers. Nearly a third of school leaders appointed as new secondary heads in 2013 had left by 2016; for primary heads, it was nearly one in five. And it’s not just retention that is in crisis – NAHT’s own survey data shows that recruitment to leadership roles is equally tricky. Schools struggled or failed to recruit 78 per cent of deputy roles and 70 per cent of assistant head roles.

To receive a message at the end of that year from the secretary of state that UPS teachers and school leaders are not valued as much as others, that they don’t deserve even a cost-of-living increase after years of real-terms pay devaluation, can feel like the last straw. It’s the principle of the thing even more than the cash.

The decision to ignore much of what the STRB recommended, the decision to make unfair pay differentials part of the award, is a serious misjudgement. I hope that it does not get ugly as a result, but my post bag does not make pretty reading.

Paul Whiteman is general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union. He tweets @PaulWhiteman6

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you