Pay deal only leaves us standing still

25th January 2008 at 00:00
"It could have been a lot worse," was the considered judgment of one teacher asked about last week's pay award.

The delay surrounding the deal had caused some annoyance, on top of the irritation felt by the Westminster government's earlier refusal to consider revisiting the previous deal, despite inflation topping the 3.5 per cent mark - the trigger point for a possible review.

With the threat of a 2 per cent settlement in the air there was some relief when 2.45 per cent was announced.

However, teachers realise that despite doing better than other public-sector workers, this offer leaves them at best standing still and at worst out of pocket.

The unions are now testing the water with their members as to future action. Much depends on the impact of inflation over the next few months. It's going to be an uneasy time.

Teachers' salaries in Wales are not devolved - there is no appetite that they should be - and are therefore determined by Westminster in response to advice from the independent School Teachers' Review Body, set up in the late 1990s.

Over the past few years, the STRB has gained a measure of respect as an honest broker, and there were fears that it would be "leant on" by ministers to produce a recommendation acceptable to the Treasury. Recent shenanigans over the pay settlement for the police had escalated an already tense atmosphere.

For the time being at least, the independence and credibility of the STRB has remained intact. And the fact that its recommendations for a 2.3 per cent increase in years two and three are to be reviewed by the very latest in the summer of 2009 gives some leeway for manoeuvre.

The remit of that review will consider far more than inflation, keeping a keen eye in particular on recruitment and retention rates of teachers in England and Wales.

The medium and long-term reaction to this offer will circle round inflation and which of two measures the profession feels is telling the more accurate story.

Is the rate of inflation best calculated with or without taking account of the cost of housing? If it is, then inflation, according to this retail price index, is now running at about 4.3 per cent. If housing costs are excluded, then the consumer price index shows inflation just above 2 per cent.

If housing costs rise quite sharply, as they have done in the past few months as interest rates rise and credit becomes more expensive, then 2.3 per cent and even 2.45 per cent will feel much more like a cut than a rise. In either case, there is little comfort here for young teachers chasing the ever-receding first step on the housing ladder.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers has always been the voice of moderation in the workplace - strikes are seen as the last resort. It has embraced social partnership and sought to co-operate with governments in introducing change and reform. The ATL has been proud of its part in the remodelling agenda, which has led to reduction in workload and expansion of the education workforce.

But ATL members are increasingly uncertain of the future. If inflation gets worse then they could well turn against the deal in droves and consider that some sort of industrial action is, regrettably, necessary.

The teaching profession has responded well to all the changes of the past decade and delivered real improvements for pupils. Any erosion in wages would be a bitter injustice and could start to affect retention and recruitment.

The jury will be out for some time yet deciding whether or not their political paymasters have done enough to prove that teachers really are respected and valued.

Dr Philip Dixon is director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru.

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