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4 August 2023

Why the teacher strikes might not be over

The unions have accepted a pay deal, but industrial action could return if the problems in the sector don’t improve.

By Emily Formstone

All four teaching unions that were involved in strike action against the government over pay have accepted a proposed salary increase from 3 per cent to 6.5 per cent. The deal will end the industrial action that has led to eight days of strikes over the past six months. Yet, the government’s proposal – based on a recommendation from an independent pay review body – does not grant campaigners their plea for a fully funded, above-inflation pay rise. With inflation standing at 7.9 per cent, a 6.5 per cent raise is still, in real terms, a pay cut.

Though the current phase of industrial action has come to an end, there is a chance that the strikes will reignite next year, when teacher’s pay comes under review again. Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretaries of the National Education Union (NEU), made this sound likely in a video addressing NEU members. The pair focused on how “the power of the union” lies in its membership, but also in timing. The pay recommendation awarded for the September 2024/25 cycle could fall just months before the next general election (which must be held by January 2025). With that in mind, Courtney predicts there “will be huge pressure on the government and we believe that you can move them again [on pay and conditions]”.

Yet the government is remaining positive in the face of this discontent. Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, resembled the Cheshire Cat when she spoke to Sky News about the negotiations. She acknowledged that high inflation rates have “made it very difficult for everybody”, and underlined the government’s aim to halve inflation by the end of the year. (This is the idea behind casting the offer on pay as “fair and reasonable”.) Keegan’s official statement, which asserts that it is “the highest School Teachers’ Review Body award in three decades” – referring to the pay review body – is similar to the government’s statement in 2022, which described the 5.4 per cent pay rise as “the highest pay award for teachers in the last 30 years”. With inflation remaining stubbornly high, you can already hear the statement’s third iteration in July 2024, where the award will be “the highest in one score year and ten”.

Against the backdrop of ongoing strikes from doctors, transport workers, and university staff, the end to teachers’ strikes could prove to be a brief comma, rather than a permanent full-stop. The Tories, in presenting a pay cut as a pay rise, are applying a simple plaster over a much larger wound. Even if inflation rates are to fall, unrest amongst teachers will remain over hefty workloads and excessive hours. The government’s newly assembled “workload reduction taskforce” is a starting point. But the Tories shouldn’t rule out a return of strikes if the underlying conditions for teachers don’t improve.

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