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Why Teacher Walkouts Aren’t Just About Pay

A striking teacher talks to Josiah Mortimer about what the pay crisis looks like on the ground in a Cornish secondary school

Teachers and public sector workers march in central London on a day of national strike action with the NEU. Photo: Jamie Bellinger/Alamy

school strikes – a view from withinWhy Teacher Walkouts Aren’t Just About Pay

Josiah Mortimer speaks to a striking teacher about what the pay crisis looks like on the ground in a Cornish secondary school

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George Butterworth is getting ready to join a fresh round of school walkouts later this month. And though his reasoning is shared by many teachers, it’s not often heard in the news. 

The fight is not just about pay, it’s about the viability of England’s education system. 

“We see a huge gap between the public perception of these strikes – and how they’re reported – and what teachers say on the picket line,” Butterworth, a National Education Union member, tells me. 

As a lead teacher in a large Cornish secondary school for the past 12 years, he’s lived through the significant real-terms pay cuts experienced by the teaching profession. Over a decade, they’ve experienced an average 16% pay cut due to pay being repeatedly frozen despite rising prices. “Teachers have been affected the most by the public sector pay freeze,” he says. 

Now the government plans to implement a 4.5% pay offer for next year. The Department for Education says schools will receive funding for a £1,000 one-off payment for teachers this year, plus a grant for next year’s pay award. 

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“Schools will receive an additional £2 billion in 2023 to 2024, and in 2024 to 2025, taking school funding to its highest level in history. Because energy costs are forecast to fall at a faster rate than previously expected, an average pay rise of 4% is now judged to be affordable for schools,” a spokesperson for the department writes. 

But unions dispute the figures. Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint general secretaries of the NEU, said: “Not only is the offer on pay entirely out of step with the rest of the UK, it is also not fully funded.” NEU analysis shows that between two in five (42%) and three in five (58%) of schools will have to make cuts to afford staff pay rises. 

They point out that the offer is less than teachers in Scotland and Wales have been offered: “It does nothing to address the long-term decline in teacher pay and therefore does nothing to solve the problems in teacher recruitment and retention,” the union leaders argue. 

As Butterworth tells me: “The biggest issue we are facing as teachers is how the pay rises are funded. Scotland has fully funded a 12.5% pay raise for teachers over two years, while Wales has offered 11.5%. Our current offer is 9.5% over two years, but it is not fully funded.”

The government believes the pay raises can be covered by the cash on offer. But Butterworth fears the pay increases will be torn from existing resources. Official guidance is that schools should spend around 70-75% of their budget on salaries.

“Prior to this year, our school was at 85%. The pay raises would put us well over 90%, which is a major issue,” he says, adding: “With both pay raises, we would be looking at £800,000 extra in staff spending a year. That’s a lot of money going from the school budget into pay.”

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There is no doubt that the profession is in crisis. “Ten years ago, we would put out job applications and receive a dozen CVs, with six invited for an interview. Nowadays, we are re-advertising jobs and only getting 2-3 CVs from unqualified people. 

“We have had a Spanish teacher job advertised for three years, and a teaching assistant with a GCSE in it has been teaching Spanish instead. Similarly, a teaching assistant with only a Maths GCSE is teaching Maths to Key Stage 3” – i.e. ages 11-14, the secondary school teacher says. They are struggling to recruit trained staff.

Elysa Ferrito d’Abbro is a secondary chemistry teacher who used to work in inner London schools for five years and now teaches around Kent. Speaking from NEU conference in Harrogate, she tells Byline Times there are vacancies in all subjects, but particularly science.

And she says schools are increasingly relying on apprentices, who can be paid just £14,500 per apprentice outside of London, rising to £19,400 in Inner London. (Rightmove data from January puts the average Inner London rent at £3,000 per month.) Teaching Assistants and costly agency staff are plugging much of the rest of the 12% vacancy rate.

After most secondary schools were hived off from local authority control to become private academies during the coalition government years, teachers no longer need to have qualified teachers’ status or qualifications in the subject area they are teaching. 

A 2012 press release from the Department of Education states: “Independent schools and free schools can already hire brilliant people who have not got qualified teacher status (QTS). We are extending this flexibility to all academies so more schools can hire great linguists, computer scientists, engineers and other specialists who have not worked in state schools before.”

“This additional flexibility will help schools improve faster. No existing teacher contract is affected by this minor change.” That “minor change” line now looks like a rather unamusing joke.

Academies – which make up the overwhelming majority of schools in England now – could from then on employ teaching staff who they believe to be only “suitably qualified” – without the automatic requirement for them to have qualified teacher status.

“Things have really slipped since,” Butterworth says. Combined with teachers leaving the profession, schools are increasingly relying on unqualified staff, he says. A third of trained teachers are leaving within the first five years, according to a 2020 report, while a survey last year found that 44% plan to quite within the next five years. 

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“The last time we had a round of redundancies, all our teaching time got pushed up, with more contact time and less time for marking and planning. Over a two-week period, there are 50 lessons, and a full-time teacher has seven hours to plan and mark 43 lessons. It used to be 42, and it might go up again,” Butterworth says.

Staff are now expected to do one lunchtime duty every two weeks, effectively scrapping their lunch break. “The school knows they’re not allowed to impose this, but teachers think there’s no other option,” the Cornish teacher adds. 

“The number of young teachers who leave is huge. The average working week is about 60 hours, and most of us do about 20 hours of unpaid work a week. There aren’t enough people coming in, and conditions are unmanageable. If either pay rise comes from the school budget, it would mean redundancies,” he says.

The level of dissatisfaction is already high, but there are fears too for the next school year. A teacher shortfall of 30,000 staff is expected for September, when training the programme intake is compared to staff leaving the profession year on year. 

Butterworth and thousands of other teachers are following the pay talks closely: “The offer on the table is worse than I imagined, and it’s extremely insulting. The government claims that it’s a funded pay rise, but that is not the reality.”

Ministers say it’s their final offer, and if teachers reject it – as they have done – it will go back to the “independent” pay review body that recommended a lower 3% rise and no £1,000 one-off boost. 

This NEU activist’s school had 33 NEU members in September. Now they have 72. Strike numbers are going up, too, though there’s tension as exam season approaches.

Ferrito d’Abbro sees a similar picture in her schools: “You’re talking about large numbers of teachers including the Senior Leadership Teams and headteachers joining and voting [to strike]. It’s from receptionists all the way up. We’re all on the same page – we’re doing this for the kids and the sector.”

The government is betting on teachers’ goodwill. Unfortunately, it now appears to have run out. 

The Department for Education was contacted for comment.

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