28 March 2023

Is an end to the teachers’ strikes in sight? Don’t bet on it…


Yesterday finally saw the outcome of the ‘intensive talks’ that the Department for Education had been holding with teaching unions for the last week or so.

The offer came in two parts. 

First, a £1000 one-off extra payment to every teacher for this academic year, funded by extra cash from the Government. That takes this year’s average increase to 7.8%.

Second, an average increase for 23/24 of 4.5%, with 0.5% of that funded by extra cash and the rest from the schools’ budget increase of £3.5bn, which is due this September.

It is fair to say that it hasn’t landed well with unions. The NEU immediately held a Zoom for its members and recommended they reject it, and the NAHT described it as ‘inadequate’. And of course social media’s response was as calm and considered as ever.

The unions will now ballot their members as to whether or not to accept it, which will make their annual conferences over Easter much more interesting than usual.

There’s two things to grapple with here. First of all: is the pay rise enough to stop the strikes? And secondly: can schools afford it as proposed by the government?

Dealing with the first of these: we’ll find out soon enough, as the unions are balloting their members electronically so should have results within a week or two. 

But is this a reasonable offer that will assuage teachers?

Well, it’s certainly a lot lower than the NEU was asking for, which varied depending on who you asked and when, but was always an inflation-busting figure, aimed at clawing back some of the salary decline of the past decade.

Even with the extra grand for this year, 7.8% is below inflation by any measure, so it’s still a real-terms fall, albeit smaller than before. It is, however, above the private sector average of around 7%. In terms of the proposed increase for next year, 4.5% is less than inflation right now, but Office for Budget Responsibility figures forecast that inflation over the 23/24 academic year will be only 1.4%, so it would represent a real-terms increase.

So it’s better now than the private sector has had, and better next year than expected (especially with inflation likely to be lower than previously forecast.) It feels like it should be just about good enough to be accepted and enable people to move on.

However, I’m not sure that’s going to happen.

Dates for new strikes have been pencilled in, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the NEU went through with them. After all, their action so far has got the Government to the negotiating table, and they probably think that a few more days’ action can squeeze a bit more cash out of them. That’s sad news for everyone, most of all pupils who face more disruption.

There is the other question to consider still: is this deal (let alone a more generous one) even affordable for schools?

It might be unpopular to say so, but I think it is.

The schools’ budget for this academic year (22/23) had the biggest ever cash increase, at £4bn or 8%. I was working in the Department for Education for the 2021 Spending Review and we were chuffed to bits when we secured this, along with decent increases for 23/24 and 24/25. Alas, circumstances – and inflation – soon turned triumph to disappointment.

The extra £2bn for each of 23/24 and 24/25 announced in the Autumn Statement means that overall the schools’ budget will grow by £3.5bn this September – a 7% increase. That’s pretty big, and should allow headroom for most schools to give a decent pay rise.

Don’t take my word for it though: Luke Sibieta, the IFS’ school funding maestro, said recently that the increase in funding for next year represented about a 3% real terms increase per pupil and that ‘schools have a little bit of room to pay for higher teacher pay rises in 2023-24…’

It is only a little bit of room, mind, and what individual schools can afford within the planned budget will to some extent depend on energy prices.

Following the huge increases of 2021 and 2022, wholesale prices have, thankfully, collapsed. Some schools got lucky and were largely shielded from these as they were on lower-cost fixed tariffs throughout. Others had to recontract when prices were at their peak, so got whacked with increases then and won’t feel the benefits of the current lower prices for some time. And many will be somewhere in between. These differential circumstances are why even with a settlement that is probably good on average, some might struggle to make it work.

And, of course, we’re continuing to see the wages that school support staff can earn elsewhere rocket, often with more flexible work patterns too, which puts upwards pressure on budgets as well.

My hunch is that the deal as proposed is affordable for most, but things need to be decided ASAP so that trusts and Heads have time to plan their staffing.

However, I’d not be surprised if there was another round of talks and we ended up with the DfE offering to underwrite more of the final increase i.e. it stayed at 4.5% but the DfE finding extra cash for 1% or 1.5% of it, not 0.5%.

Whatever happens, I hope it happens soon, so kids’ learning isn’t interrupted any further, teachers have certainty, and schools and trusts can finalise their budgets and staffing for next year with confidence. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.