In what has become a pattern, the government announced their decision on the 2018-19 teachers’ pay award at the end of July when most schools had closed for the summer break.
Teachers do not have negotiating rights over national pay and, instead, annual awards are decided by the Secretary of State for Education following a review body recommendation. The teacher unions had submitted a claim for a 5% rise to the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB). In fact 5% is a long way short of what is required to undo 10 years of below-inflation pay awards. The figure was chosen on the basis that it matched the claims of most other public sector unions and made the prospects of a joint pay campaign more likely.
The Review Body presented their Report to Damian Hinds in May but neither its contents nor his decision were made public until the end of July. We now know that the STRB recommended a 3.5% increase on all teacher pay ranges. This breach of the pay cap was based on evidence about the teacher recruitment and retention crisis and the STRB made it clear that, as a cost of living rise, they thought that it should go to all teachers. This last point matters considerably as teachers no longer have guaranteed pay scales but only pay ranges with maximum and minimum values. Hence it is perfectly legal for an employer to apply a national pay award only to the top and bottom of a scale and pay no increase to anyone in between.
In the event the Secretary of State decided not to accept the STRB recommendations in full. He announced a 3.5% increase for teachers on the main pay range, 2% on the upper pay range (more experienced) and 1.5% on the leadership range (heads, deputies, assistant heads). In response to significant pressure to fund this pay award in the light of cuts to school budgets he said schools would only have to fund the first 1% from existing budgets, the government would fund the rest.
It must be said that the initial response from the largest education union, the NEU, was poor. In a press statement they welcomed the 3.5% award and described it as ‘the penny finally dropping’. Things didn’t improve much over the summer with union communications focusing on the government’s refusal to accept the STRB recommendation rather than the failure of both Review Body and Secretary of State to accept the Union’s claim. The NUT section’s Conference policy is to fight for a 5% pay rise for all teachers and to ballot members for action in pursuit of that claim. By the end of August this had been rapidly reduced to campaigning for the 3.5% increase recommended by the STRB.
This shift was confirmed at the first National Executive of the year on September 7th. Officers of the Union proposed a campaign strategy which dropped the 5% claim and replaced it with the demand for the 3.5% recommended by the STRB. An amendment to this proposal tried to leave the question of our pay demand open pending a consultation with members but this was narrowly defeated. Had two SWP members voted differently it would have passed. A further amendment which insisted that the demand in any action campaign should be 5% was more heavily defeated.
The case for shifting to a demand that the STRB recommendation is applied is mainly presentational. This is the first time a government has ignored the Review Body’s recommendation and it will be much harder for them to defend their position publicly. When it comes to winning a ballot of members for national strike action, however, this shift is very dangerous. The majority of NEU teachers are paid on the main pay range and will be getting 3.5% in any case (unless their employer tries to pay it only to the top and bottom of the range, in which case there is a potential dispute with that employer). That majority will have nothing immediate or tangible to gain from a campaign for 3.5% for all. In effect the NEU will be asking the majority of its members to vote for significant strike action in pursuit of an increase for their senior leaders and more experienced colleagues. At best this creates an unnecessary additional barrier to reaching the onerous ballot thresholds imposed by the Trade Union Act. At worst it is a calculated decision to settle for yet another political campaign to expose the government rather than an industrial dispute which seeks to win.
At the September 7th Executive it was argued that a recent dispute in East Sussex proved that members would take action even where they had nothing to gain. In that case a large number of schools met the ballot thresholds in a campaign to ensure that all main range teachers got last year’s 2% rise This was a fairly cynical argument which ignored the fact that the strikes in east Sussex were sustained with strike pay, it is a very well-organised and led division and considerable national resources were (quite rightly) thrown into winning. None of these factors would apply across the country in a national ballot and this was pointed out by the Executive member for East Sussex who moved and voted for the amendment to leave the question of our claim open for now rather than reduce it to 3.5%.
The task for NEU members now is to build the pay campaign as it is and work as hard as we can to win support for action to increase the award and ensure that it is fully funded. If a serious fight can be generated around those issues it could make a real difference.
The decision of the NEU Executive has made that possibility a lot harder, but it hasn’t made it any less necessary.