The NEU, the UK’s largest education union, announced this week that teaching staff will strike over seven days in February and March in a dispute over pay.
Much has been written already about the impact this will have on students’ learning, especially after years of disruption due to lockdowns. Many teachers and school leaders have responded that students’ learning is already affected every day by underfunding, overly ambitious targets and data crunching, the pressures of Ofsted and league tables, an ever-increasing workload and a demoralised, diminishing workforce.
The problem is that the NEU’s demand for an above-inflation pay rise won’t actually solve any of the above problems. Of course, pay can be seen as a reflection of value, and extra money in a pay-packet may make teachers feel less resentful about spending their weekends marking or planning lessons late into the evening. Schools need to recruit the best and the brightest and salaries can be seductive.
Yet pay is not make-or-break when it comes to teaching. I certainly did not go into teaching for the pay. When I started the Teach First programme in 2015 my salary was around £22,000, and that included an Inner London stipend. I knew that the salary was low and incomparable to my friends’, who went to the Big Four accountants and Magic Circle law firms and tech start-ups with playful perks like an in-office bowling alley.
When I decided to leave my Teach First school two years later it again had nothing to do with money. It was to do with the fact I was sworn at nearly every day; that kids brought knives into school and started fights in lessons; that parents turned up to parents evenings drunk (if at all). It had to do with the fact that we had no money for books, equipment or teaching assistants; that I was woefully unprepared to teach students with incredibly complex learning, behavioural and language needs; that class sizes were enormous and ever-growing while the curriculum only constricted.
A pay rise would not have persuaded me to stay. I valued my mental health over more money.
This is not to say that the strike is wrong, or that pay is not important. Many, many people are reeling from real-terms pay cuts, and it’s too easy to dismiss teachers as merely jumping on the bandwagon. Teachers’ pay has not just been eroded by six months of inflation but by a decade of austerity. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies teachers’ pay has been cut by £6,600 since 2010, with more experienced teachers experiencing the largest drop in their salaries in real terms, of about 13 per cent.
Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, said that teachers do not need to strike to get ministers’ attention, but the government has missed the warning signs and relied on teachers’ goodwill for too long. Last year the government missed its teacher recruitment target by a third. A third of teachers who qualified in the last decade have left the profession, and a survey by the NEU suggested 44 per cent of teaching staff plan to leave in the next five years.
While pay may give teaching a temporary boost, it won’t lighten the workload, or remove the bureaucracy, or relieve the stresses of working in a state sector that is obsessed with exams and yet a third of pupils don’t even pass GCSE English and maths. Working conditions, not pay, are the reason teachers leave. Until we tackle this schools will, to use a classic teacher phrase, never make the progress they are clearly capable of.