UK teaching unions threaten strikes in the autumn

The UK’s main teaching unions are threatening strike action this autumn if the government does not agree to an inflation-busting 12 per cent pay rise for their members.

The National Education Union and the NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union made the demands to Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, citing the soaring cost of living and the impact of a decade of real-terms cuts to teachers’ pay.

The strike threat sets up a clash up with Boris Johnson’s Conservative government as it tries to keep a lid on public sector pay demands, as overall CPI inflation hit 9.1 per cent on Wednesday, with increases for fuel and many basic foods running into double-digits.

The NEU set out its reasoning behind its demand for an 11.7 per cent increase in a letter to Zahawi on Wednesday, saying the figure matched current retail price inflation (RPI), which it argued is a better measure of the price of goods in the shops.

It added that the pay rise was essential to address a sharp rise in teacher vacancies in secondary schools and arrest the high number of staff quitting the profession within five years of qualifying.

Line chart of Average teachers' pay as a % of whole-economy average weekly earnings showing Teachers' pay has been falling in relative terms

Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint general secretaries of the NEU, said that without “sufficient action” by the government they would ballot members for strike action and be “strongly encouraging” them to vote in favour.

“You must respond to the new economic reality of double-digit inflation and the threat this poses to teacher living standards. We call on you to commit to an inflation-plus increase for all teachers,” they wrote.

The demand comes two days after the NASUWT asked for a 12 per cent pay rise this year, warning the profession faced an “existential emergency” following 12 years of real-terms pay cuts that it said had shrunk the value of salaries by 20 per cent in real terms.

“We will not allow cuts to our members’ pay and attacks on their pensions,” said Patrick Roach, NASUWT general secretary. “If a pay rise is not awarded, it will be won by our members in workplaces through industrial action.”

Unions have said the combination of eroded pay and increased workload is responsible for a rise in teacher vacancies and early departures from the profession that were undermining the government efforts to increase staff numbers.

“One in four teachers have left by the end of three years, one in three by the end of five,” Bousted and Courtney wrote to Zahawi. “You cannot afford to turn away from these figures and the reality behind them.” 

Both unions have said they will wait for the government’s response to pay recommendations from the School Teachers’ Review Body, which is expected at the end of the school year.

The government has suggested a 3 per cent rise in its evidence to the body, but unions said this predated the recent surge in inflation. The STRB’s recommendations are not binding on ministers.

Zahawi said the government would consider the independent pay body recommendations, but warned that strikes would damage the chances of pupils who have already suffered lost learning during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have proposed the highest pay awards in a generation for new teachers — 16.7 per cent over the next two years — alongside further pay awards for more experienced teachers and leaders.

“Young people have suffered more disruption to their education than any generation that’s gone before, and it’s the vital work of teachers that is helping them get back on track. The last thing I — or any parent — want to see is anything that would risk undoing that progress,” he said.

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