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27 February 2023

Why is your teacher striking?

A guide for pupils missing school this week.

By Sam Freedman

It’s easy to explain why your teacher is striking: they want to be paid more. Whether they should be is a more interesting question.

The average salary for a teacher is about £42,000 a year. Someone starting as a new teacher next year will earn £30,000, and a headteacher of a secondary school can earn over £100,000. These numbers don’t sound too bad – the average salary for all workers in the UK is around £33,000.

But there a couple of points to consider in favour of your teacher’s position. First: to get the job they had to go to university and do at least one extra year of training on top of their degree. That’s a lot of tuition fees to pay and exams to pass. So it makes more sense to compare their pay to other jobs which also require going to university. When you take that into account, teachers are about average: £42,000 is quite similar to what an average solicitor, accountant or IT worker would earn.  

However, unlike those jobs teacher pay has been falling in recent years. Across all of society, wages are worth roughly the same now as they were 15 years ago, when we take into account that prices have gone up too. For teachers, wages have fallen by 15 per cent – and will fall again next year if the government get its way.

At the same time, teachers’ jobs have got harder and they are working longer hours. This is not because they are teaching more lessons than they used to, but rather because they are spending more time helping students and their families with non-academic problems. For instance, perhaps either you or some of your friends don’t have enough food at home because bills and prices have gone up by so much. More and more schools are running food banks to help with that, which takes up teachers’ time. Or maybe you know someone struggling with their mental health – that’s happening to a lot more people today and the health service can’t really cope. Again, it’s often schools that step in.

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[See also: When teachers strike, the country stops working]

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It is not hard to understand, then, why your teachers are unhappy – who wouldn’t be if they had to do more work for less money? The government’s argument is that it has no choice but to pay teachers less for two reasons. First, that we are not collecting enough money in taxes to pay for all the things the country needs. That means we are having to borrow well over £100bn this year to cover all our costs. The government wants to save money and one way is to cut wages for people working in jobs such as teaching and nursing. It could ask people to pay more tax instead but has decided that taxes are already very high and doesn’t want to ask for more.

What you spend money on, though, is always a choice – and the government could choose to borrow more, tax more, or cut something else to put salaries up. The second reason it says it is worried about putting up salaries for teachers, nurses and so on is that it might cause inflation. Or, in other words, if people have more money to spend that might push prices up. But inflation is falling now and a little more pay for teachers is unlikely to make much difference.

In reality, although the government would never quite put it like this it thinks teachers earn enough already and would like to save a bit of money to spend on other things.

I suspect that eventually the government and teachers will agree on a higher salary rise for next year that is less than what teachers want but more than what is currently being offered. Usually, these disputes end in a compromise because teachers really don’t enjoy striking – they lose a day’s pay and don’t like to see you all missing lessons. And the government can’t really afford for these strikes to go on and on because it makes it look bad in the eyes of voters.

But what matters most is whether this pay increase is enough to make teaching an attractive job for you or your friends in a few years’ time. The number of teachers being recruited every year has gone down, which is causing real shortages in some subjects – particularly ones like physics and computing, where people with degrees in those subjects can usually get well paid jobs in businesses. It doesn’t matter what the government thinks a fair salary for a teacher is, but whether it is actually enough to make people go into teaching in the first place.

If schools cannot get enough teachers then pay will have to go up more eventually – whether strikes continue or not.  

Read more:

I’m a civil servant – here’s why I’m striking on Budget day

How Bari Weiss broke the media

Peter Hitchens’ A Revolution Betrayed: The flawed promise of grammar schools

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