Teacher shortages are the real issue – not strikes

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
Anyone glancing at the media this week may have formed the impression that we are in the midst of a summer of industrial discontent despite the fact that this actually amounts to a single week of strikes involving rail workers. The amplified volume of noise on this issue is created by various reports of various groups of workers who may take industrial action in the future.
Among these are teachers, with two unions, the NEU and NASUWT, suggesting they may hold indicative ballots in the autumn if the government’s woeful pay plans for the next academic year do not significantly improve. 
Those pay plans are somewhat complex – here’s the Department for Education’s 129-page submission to the School Teachers’ Review Body if you fancy some weekend reading. And here’s ASCL’s – somewhat shorter but still extremely detailed – submission, setting out what we think needs to happen. 
But in a nutshell, they involve a two-year award with starting salaries rising by 8.9% and then 7.1% to deliver the Conservative manifesto commitment of £30,000 by 2023/24, and less for other pay points with those on the upper pay range and leadership ranges receiving the least at 3% and then 2%.
Given that the Retail Prices Index measure of inflation has reached 11.7% it is easy to see that many teachers and leaders are in line for a very substantial real-terms pay cut. And this, of course, follows many years of pay erosion which has seen the value of salaries plummet since 2010.
It is therefore not surprising that feelings are running high and that sabres are being rattled. Although it is worth pointing out at this stage that the rules on industrial action set the bar high in terms of the turnout and support required for it to go ahead.
All this begs the question of whether ASCL will be considering industrial action. That’s not my decision – it’s yours as our members – and we’ll be listening very carefully to feedback over the next few months. We aren’t a union with a history of industrial action, but members can share any initial views by emailing
Anyway, in this febrile climate, you might expect a statesmanlike Education Secretary to try to strike a note of calm authority – listening to the concerns being expressed and avoiding rhetoric which ramps up the sense of impending conflict.
But, of course, this is a government which likes nothing better than a spot of union-bashing and Nadhim Zahawi lost no time in raising the temperature further with an article in the Telegraph under the headline ‘The trade unions are failing our children’ in which he said a teachers’ strike would be “unforgiveable and unfair”.
So much for being statesmanlike then.
Before Mr Zahawi and the government paint themselves into a corner, however, they might like to consider two salient points.
The first is that their argument for below-inflation awards – that pegging wages to high levels of inflation will lock us into a 1970s-style vicious circle – might carry more weight were it not for the fact that they have managed to find reasons for cutting the real value of teacher pay ever since 2010. 
Austerity, Covid, inflation – there’s apparently never a good time to give teachers a pay award which keeps up with the cost of living.
The second is that the government’s pitiful record on teacher pay is directly linked to severe teacher shortages because too few people are training to become teachers and too many are quitting the profession early. There’s a lot of statistics out there about this, but here’s just one to chill the blood.
This year’s figures on new entrants to initial teacher training in England show that the government achieved only 22% of the target for physics. Yes, you did read that correctly. Only one fifth of the number required. And this is in a subject where teachers are already like gold dust.
If you can bear it, there’s lots more bad news in those statistics. Computing, modern foreign languages, music, geography, maths, design and technology. None of them achieved the recruitment target. The picture is slightly less bleak at primary, but we know the bulge of pupils we’ve seen over the last few years at the primary stage has now passed into secondary, making the missing of secondary targets even more worrying. 
The government may claim that raising starting salaries to £30,000 will fix the problem that it created, but that’s of limited use when it is also the case that around 40% of teachers leave teaching within 10 years of qualifying. It’s like trying to fill a bucket with holes not only in the bottom, but all the way up the sides.
For some reason ministers seem unable to see the link between this rate of attrition and their determination to impose pay awards which devalue the profession.
And before we disappear down a familiar rabbit hole, it is also worth mentioning that teacher pay awards do actually require funding and that it is totally unrealistic for the government to expect them to be paid for out of school budgets that are under huge and rising strain because of energy costs and other inflationary pressures.
So, the Education Secretary and the government might not like unions very much and may be savouring some sort of showdown with those union ‘barons’ we hear so much about in the press, but what he really should be focusing on is the fact that it is impossible to raise educational standards without teachers.
If we are condemned to a cycle of never-ending teacher shortages, the schools white paper with its bluster about raising attainment within eight years is just hot air. 
The government may not care for strikers. But it should care more for the education of children.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 
Posted: 24/06/2022 08:41:26