Will paying staff a fair wage tip schools over the edge?

19th January 2018 at 00:00
A new deal is being worked out to offer support staff pay rises of up to 16 per cent. But, as Will Hazell finds, the unfunded increases could spell ‘catastrophe’ for school budgets

Tightening belts has become the new norm for schools.

While funding settlements continue to shrink in real terms, they can at least be planned for. But after years of austerity, a new – and for many, unforeseen – threat to schools’ financial security is about to surface. And although schools may feel they cannot afford to shoulder it, they may also feel that morally they cannot afford not to.

It is support staff – teaching assistants, caterers, cleaners and administrative staff – who keep schools going. But the same staff are often barely paid a living wage.

Now a new pay deal is being thrashed out that could help to rectify that situation, with rises for some school staff expected to be as high 16 per cent.

But there is a catch – it seems unlikely that the government will provide any new money to fund a package that will cost more than double what the heads who were aware of it were expecting.

There are fears that schools are unprepared for a rise that will knock another hole in their already stretched budgets. Headteachers’ leaders are predicting that it will result in further job losses to a workforce already cut to the bone.

And there could be more to come. The lifting of the 1 per cent public sector pay cap means teachers are likely to be recommended a bigger pay rise later this year. If, as many expect, that too is unfunded, unions say it will be “catastrophic” for school finances.

Before Christmas, the National Joint Council (NJC), which determines wages for support staff in many state funded schools, set out its pay offer for the next two years.

For the first year, from April 2018, the offer involves a rise on a sliding scale from 9 to 3 per cent for the lowest paid staff and an increase of 2 per cent for those on higher pay points.

In the second year, those on the higher points will again receive a 2 per cent increase. But the introduction of a new pay spine from April 2019 for those on lower pay will see another large rise. By the end of the two years, some staff will have seen their salary increase by 16 per cent.

The “bottom loaded” offer is about giving the lowest paid staff a much-needed rise, as well as keeping pace with a planned increase in the national living wage.

However, if the offer is accepted by the unions – at the moment at least one wants an even bigger rise (bit.ly/RejectPayOffer) – it will have enormous implications for schools trying to stay in the black.

‘Huge impact’

Jon Richards is head of education at Unison, which is negotiating with the NJC, along with the Unite and GMB unions.

He says that the pay deal as it stands will have a “huge impact” on schools, because support staff tend to be on the lower pay points in line for the biggest rise.

“Support staff are hugely in the lower grades,” he says. “That 16 per cent increase will hit a fair chunk of people within the workforce.”

Crucially, the already slim chances of the government providing any extra funding to cover the increase are diminishing as pressure is increased to find more money to address the crisis in the NHS. Instead, schools are likely to be expected to fund the support staff pay increase from their heavily depleted budgets.

When asked whether the Department for Education will provide new money, a spokeswoman would only say: “The department is not involved in the process for setting support staff pay. We are aware of the offer and we will continue to support schools in managing their budgets.”

“We’re arguing, clearly, that we think it should be additional money,” says Richards. “Unless there’s more money to the system, it’s potentially going to squeeze budgets.”

The NJC represents local government employers, so you might guess that only maintained schools will be affected by the offer – but you’d be wrong.

Union recognition agreements, combined with the fact that terms and conditions are protected when support staff have their contracts transferred from local authority employment, means many academy trusts abide by any NJC deal.

 

Martyn Oliver, chief executive of Outwood Grange Academies Trust, which runs 22 schools in the North East, Yorkshire and the East Midlands, says that if the offer is enacted, it will cost his trust “a million pounds more a year for my existing support staff”.

A spokesman for Plymouth CAST, which runs 36 schools in the South West, says that the impact of the offer will be “considerable” because “staff costs comprise the majority of revenue expenditure in school budgets”.

“Any additional pressure would add to the challenge of balancing budgets,” he adds.

At Ark, which is already relying on loans between its schools to cover deficits (“Ark reports £4m loss and relies on loans between its schools to cover deficits”, bit.ly/ArkLoss) 21 per cent of support staff are subject to the NJC. A spokesman for the academy chain, says it is committed to paying staff “the real living wage” by September 2019. But he suggests that further pay rises could be impossible without extra government funding.

“While we strongly support efforts to bring school support staff up to the real living wage, it is not possible to continue with pay rises in schools without a commensurate increase in real-terms funding,” he warns.

Where multi-academy trusts (MATs) do not accept the NJC offer, they could still find themselves under pressure from unions to grant a similar pay increase. “We could end up in disputes with [MATs] on an individual basis if they refuse to implement the deal,” Richards says.

Considering how widespread the impact of the offer will be, some are surprised it has not generated greater attention. Oliver says he’s “amazed” by how little reaction there has been.

This feeds into fears schools are unprepared for the rise. Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says the pay offer will “come as a blow” to schools because it is double what they were budgeting for. “There will probably be some money in the budget, but less than half the actual cost,” he says.

Footing the bill

For headteacher unions, the real issue at hand is that they think the offer will be unfunded. “School support staff do a fantastic job and deserve a decent pay rise,” says Trobe. “What is unreasonable is that the government expects schools to foot the bill for that pay rise without providing them with the funding to do so.”

Valentine Mulholland, head of policy at the NAHT headteachers’ union, says giving support staff a good pay rise is “the right thing to do”. But the lack of new funding places the union in an “extreme dilemma” because it will put budgets under “enormous pressure”.

So what will be the impact of the unfunded rise? “School funding is on the rocks at the moment,” says Trobe. “When you’re already completely at the edge, this is a huge amount of money.” Schools will have to cut staffing levels as a result, he says.

Mulholland thinks schools will struggle to cut costs further. “When you’ve already pared down your support staff to the bone, there’s not very much more you can do,” she says.

But they’ll have to find the money, because the alternative – accepting that schools can’t afford the wages to keep good people in the sector – is unthinkable. As Mulholland warns: “Our members are at breaking point, but that’s not a reason to say that we’re going to accept that the profession is just going to die.”

And as for the prospect of a real pay rise for teachers later this year? “If that’s not a funded pay award I think there will be a dreadful situation in schools,” says Oliver.

Trobe is even blunter about the impact of an unfunded teachers’ pay deal. “Absolutely catastrophic,” he says. “There is no way that schools can afford to pay anymore out on pay rises, for teachers or support staff, without that being fully funded.”

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