Cost-of-living crisis: Fuel hike pushes school staff to the brink

Schools are struggling to find and keep staff as soaring costs and years of pay restraint take their toll

Schools are struggling to find and keep staff as soaring costs and years of pay restraint take their toll


Support staff recruitment woes, teachers unable to fill their cars until payday, cash-strapped councils predicting cutbacks. Tom Belger reports on the fallout in schools from soaring inflation and a cost-of-living crisis.

Schools are struggling to find and keep staff as soaring fuel costs and years of pay restraint take their toll.

A poll suggests three-quarters of support staff cannot afford essential items, while some teachers are seeking help or eyeing new jobs as they struggle to cover petrol costs.

New figures reveal teaching assistant (TA) vacancies are double pre-Covid levels, with wages failing to keep pace with jobs in supermarket and pubs. 

But as union pay demands grow louder, school and council leaders warn unfunded pay hikes will force cutbacks.

Staff ditch cars and school meals

A recent poll of 500 support staff by the union GMB found only 23.8 per cent of TAs could afford “necessities”, compared with 30 per cent of members across other sectors. Four in 10 reported borrowing to cover essentials.

GMB analysis suggests that the average TA, many on term-time contracts, earned £13,980 last year.

It marks a £248 real-terms cut on 2011, which will widen if pay awards lag soaring inflation.

One East Midlands TA said she could no longer afford presents for her grandson, big supermarket shops or £3 school dinners.

“I’m £80 in debt on energy bills, even barely using them – I’m scared for winter. And my social life… I haven’t got one.”

Peter Hadwin, a primary school caretaker, said rising costs made recent 1.75 per cent local government pay rises “useless”. “I’ve started cycling to work. In lockdown, fuel was about £1 a litre – now it’s £1.92. It’s ridiculous.”

Meanwhile the real-terms pay for secretaries has fallen £1,769 to £17,445.

Many staff also feel overlooked. “People think of schools, they think ‘teachers’. The wheels that keep them running aren’t as glamorous,” Hadwin said.

“Caretakers and cleaners were in daily during Covid. Clapping’s superfluous – it’s real-terms pay increases and recognition we want.”

Staff seek private-sector jobs near home

Dan Morrow, the chief executive of the 17-school Dartmoor Multi-Academy Trust, called it “the most challenging recruitment market I’ve ever seen” for support staff. Trust TA vacancies averaged 2.7 applicants this year, compared with 12.3 in 2019

A survey of nearly 800 schools by the leaders’ union ASCL, published today, found more than nine in ten are struggling to recruit teachers and support staff. Nearly three-quarters have resorted to using supply to cover teacher vacancies.

Exclusive data from the jobs site Indeed reveals TA job vacancies have doubled on February 2020,

Marc Jordan, the chief executive of Creative Education Trust, said: “Fuel price hikes have really hit lower-paid staff, with many seeking work closer to home.”

Pepe DiIasio

One junior head in the south west said three TAs recently left his infant school because of low pay, one for a move to shop work. He cannot get TAs “for love nor money”.

Official figures show unemployment near record lows, and private-sector pay up 8 per cent annually, compared with 1.5 per cent for public sector jobs.

Pepe Di’Iasio, the head of Wales High School, near Sheffield, vowed to review and hike TA pay after his daughter noted she could earn more working in a pub. His hard-working TAs support “the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. We need to reassess the whole pay structure.”

Brighton councillors also voted this week on pay rises for low earners, citing school worries about supermarket pay growth outstripping their own. “We risk not being able to compete,” a report warned.

Teachers squeezed by cost-of-living crisis

Bryan McConnell, the NASUWT’s secretary in St Helens, said four new teachers recently asked for help, fearing they “couldn’t get to work as they couldn’t fill their tanks up until payday. It’s the first time I’ve had that.”

James Vanstone, a secondary teacher in Suffolk, said his commute of 51 miles had almost doubled his family’s fuel bills to £580 a month.

“We’re relatively comfortable, but our disposable income’s shrinking. We’re starting to lift-share, but it takes away the freedom to stay later at school.”

A Teacher Tapp poll found a quarter of teachers spent £200 on commutes in January, but petrol has leapt 32 per cent since.

Vanstone said any further rises could leave him “no choice but to look for something closer to home”, despite loving his job.

Emily Weston, a primary teacher in Swindon, said paying £30 more to fill her car was “draining my account”. She has nothing to fall back on bar family “if anything goes wrong”, and recently launched a group swapping money-saving tips.

Ruth Perry, the head of Manchester’s Newall Green Primary School, said commute distances probably explained the two applications for a recent teaching post that would usually attract ten or more.

The Education Policy Institute this week linked recruitment woes to the real-terms decline in pay, putting “supply at risk”.

Calm before the storm

Teachers now await government advisers’ recommended pay awards, and support staff await councils’ pay offer – both expected this month.

Nadhim Zahawi, the former education secretary, was non-committal this week on improving even a 3 per cent offer to experienced teachers.

Meanwhile, councils warn they are cash-strapped. The Local Government Association said last week inflation and minimum wage hikes risked cutbacks and the eradication of the bottom third of payscales – leaving TAs on the minimum. Retention, morale and hierarchies would be undermined.

The decisions will likely inflame tensions as teaching, leaders’ and support unions all want inflation-busting rises.

A TA in Unison said another 1.75 per cent hike would make “no impact”, and teaching unions say they will ballot if offers are inadequate.

GMB school transport staff in south London already plan a walkout next week, alleging an eight-year pay squeeze.

Sara Tanton, the deputy policy director at leaders’ union ASCL, said schools could not afford much-needed salary hikes without extra funding. “It’s a catch-22 if they don’t have the money for those awards without having to make cuts.”

Brighton acknowledged school concerns about unfunded rises, but said its plans did not include extra cash.

A Department for Education spokesperson highlighted a proposed 16.7 per cent rise over two years for new teachers, and a £4 billion school funding hike next year. Support staff pay “is for schools to set”.

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  1. Karen pollard

    So it seems teachers want 16% payrises over 2 years while T.A’S pay awards are governed by cash strapped schools, so no increase for us then. Once term time only pay is spread over 12 month its barely above minimum wage but I could stack shelves in asda at night for £12.50 an hour. I despair. No wonder moral is at an all time low.