14 July 2023

Two cheers for a pay deal that gives the green light to future strikes


Given the harsh rhetoric used only last week during the latest school strikes, to have the teaching unions, Education Secretary and Prime Minister unite yesterday to announce they’d agreed a deal on pay was pretty damned amazing. 

It’s a great example of what politicians and officials can achieve, away from the public eye, when they are given a clear brief and the means – cash – to get results.

It also took strong leadership from the various union bosses to climb down from their previous demands, especially the NEU’s. Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted have played a blinder throughout this whole process, and can head off into their imminent retirements knowing they have pulled off one last triumph for their members.

And let’s be clear: this is a great deal for teachers. At a time when cash is tight they’ve secured one of the sector’s biggest ever pay rises, and a massive slug of extra cash to help with it too. (On top of billions extra already secured in the past year!)

The headline stat is a 6.5% raise, but it will actually be better than that for many staff. The starting salary across most of the country is going up by 7.1%, to hit £30,000, and around 40% will move up the various points on the pay scale, with increases of between 10% and 17%.

It’s also a good deal for pupils, ending the chaos created by industrial action. To have this carry on into the new school year would have been seriously bad news for kids. It’s been another bumpy year, as this week’s SATs results showed, and next year needs to be better.

Despite all that, I still can’t quite shake a sense of irritation at how things have turned out. I’m also concerned that this will prove to be little more than a temporary ceasefire in a wider battle for ever higher pay.

Yesterday’s deal confirms that all the previous statements about these strikes being about kids’ wellbeing or getting more money for schools were just chaff – it was only ever about higher pay. It led to some absurd contortions on the part of unions too. They initially claimed that finding cash for 4% of the previous 4.5% pay offer was ‘unfunded’, only to turn around today and say that finding 3.5% for a new, more generous 6.5% offer is ‘properly funded’. 

In addition, lots of the extra cash for this deal is money that was meant to be spent on one-to-one tuition for disadvantaged kids, but which schools didn’t actually arrange for them. So we are rewarding relatively well-off teachers for striking, using money schools were meant to spend on poor kids. Forgive me if I don’t break out the bunting just yet.

It all goes to show that strikes work, which is why I worry that the unions will be back for more money very soon – the NEU’s Kevin Courtney has already said as much:

Given how effective industrial action was this time around, and the fact that inflation is proving more persistent than previously hoped, there is every reason to expect unions to repeat things next year, especially with a general election due.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted a deal was found. Things couldn’t go on as they were and something had to give in the dispute. The teacher in me just worries that we’ve rewarded people for bad behaviour, and experience shows that this makes repeat offences more, not less, likely. I hope to be proved wrong though.

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