Why is the Government Giving Teachers a Pay Rise?

by James McAsh

23 July 2020

Danny Lawson/Reuters

On Tuesday 21 July the government announced a pay rise for a range of public sector workers. Teachers will enjoy the highest increase, with a rise of an average of 3.1%. Newly qualified teachers will receive 5.5%, more experienced teachers on the ‘upper’ or ‘leadership’ pay scale will get 2.75%, and the rest of us will get something in between. This is our biggest pay rise in fifteen years – but is nonetheless nothing like enough to make up for the past ten years of cuts.

The government has presented this pay rise as a generous gift to thank us for our hard work during the pandemic. In reality, it is the result of three things: economics, union power, and ideology.


Between 1919 and 1987, teacher pay was negotiated by employers and trade unions through the Burnham Committee. Under Margaret Thatcher, sectoral bargaining was abolished and replaced by the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB). This so-called ‘independent’ body recommends a paylift based on parameters set by the government. 

The STRB is supposed to set a wage level that balances teacher supply and demand. It’s a technocratic institution that introduces free-market economics into the pay process in place of trade union negotiation. The body is meant to be free from political interference, and able to base its decisions on objective economic factors alone.

The most significant of these factors are the supply of teachers and predicted pupil numbers. For some time now, these have pointed towards the need for higher pay. This is the eighth year in a row that the government has missed its targets for recruitment and the number of teachers leaving the profession has increased each year. Meanwhile, the secondary school pupil population is projected to rise by 15% between 2018 and 2025. Lots of pupils and not enough teachers – the laws of supply and demand dictate that wages must rise.

This was the official story: that the STRB makes an objective analysis of the market to give its pay recommendation. In reality, there is more to it. For a start, one of the criteria the STRB must consider is ‘affordability’. This is not shaped by abstract market forces – it is a direct consequence of governments’ funding decisions. There has been a teacher shortage for the past decade, but for most of this time teacher pay has been cut. The difference is that the government has now committed more money for education.

Union power.

What changed? The rising power of education trade unions. The first sign of this was the 2017 general election, when three quarters of a million people changed their vote as a result of concerns around school cuts – around which the National Education Union had waged a huge campaign

Boris Johnson recognised this, and was keen to avoid repeating the same mistakes. His government was elected on a promise to ‘level up’ funding for all schools. The cash injection into the education system does not bring schools back to their 2010 levels, but it is, nonetheless, a real terms increase on previous years, and a victory for education trade unionists. 

The government’s decision to raise teachers’ pay does not just reflect the rising power of unions in education – it is also intended to halt it. For decades, teaching was a life-long career and the teaching unions comprised members with years of experience and a commitment to transforming the profession to which they had devoted their life. This is beginning to change – already approximately a third of teachers leave in their first five years. The government’s pay rise is designed to accelerate this process. Newly qualified teachers have been promised a 23% pay rise over three years, while the overall pay structure will be ‘flattened’. Higher starting salaries will attract more recent graduates, whilst lower salaries for more experienced teachers will limit opportunities for career progression. The result, the government hopes, will be a profession where young people work extraordinarily long hours for five years before moving on to something new. If you do not plan to stay in the profession for long, then you are less likely to commit time and energy to its union. Why strike for better pay and conditions if you plan to leave next year?

Conservative ideology.

But the government’s pay strategy is not pure industrial relations – it has an ideological element too. Nowhere is this clearer than in the treatment of teaching assistants and other support staff, who are not included in this pay rise. Their pay is negotiated separately and, last we heard, the government was offering them only a 2% rise. Why is this so much lower than the rise for teachers? The unavoidable conclusion is that the government simply does not value support staff.

This is no surprise. Not only do the Tories have a general disdain for low-paid workers, teaching assistants do not fit neatly within their vision for education. Progressive pedagogy is child-led, with emphasis on group-work and individual discovery. Teaching assistants play a central role in this kind of education, especially in supporting children with Special Education Needs or Disabilities (SEND). By contrast, according to Conservative ideology, children learn best by listening to their teacher and memorising key facts. SEND children barely fit in the picture at all. If this is your vision for education, why fight to keep teaching assistants? 

A break from the past?

The Johnson government’s approach to education differs from the last’s, and the teacher pay rise exemplifies this. Instead of instituting a blanket pay freeze and all-encompassing austerity, the new government has taken a more strategic approach. With its moderate increases to school funding, Johnson hopes to take the wind out of the unions’ sails. By increasing teacher pay, he hopes to appease an angry workforce. But at the same time he is playing divide-and-rule – trying to drive a wedge between newer teachers and their more experienced colleagues. 

The teacher pay rise is at the same time an indication of the strength of education trade unions and an attempt to undermine them. But as we have seen over the past few months, education trade unionists are not just concerned about their own pay and conditions. We are willing to fight for our safety and wellbeing, and that of the children we teach. This pay rise is a victory – but it will not stop us from fighting.

James McAsh is a primary school teacher, Labour councillor and National Education Union activist.

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