Teacher pay

History’s repetitions offer hope over pay and conditions

As the acrimonious cycle of pay dispute restarts, teachers should draw inspiration from the events of 50 years ago

As the acrimonious cycle of pay dispute restarts, teachers should draw inspiration from the events of 50 years ago

10 Mar 2024, 5:00

History repeats itself with unwavering predictability these days, and it seems to be doing it at a faster rate than ever. It’s only a year since the arguments over pay were last rehearsed, and here we are again with Gillian Keegan seemingly hell-bent on a collision course with unions. Perhaps taking a longer view would help us find a more sustainable settlement.

Let’s be clear, to begin with. We are beyond crisis. Significant numbers of teachers are leaving the job they love. Of the ones I’m aware of across several schools and authorities, career choices range from driving instructors on £30/hour to a growing  trend of applying to become teaching assistants (albeit the most important of roles)  – relinquishing professional status to reclaim some sort of work/life balance.

Given this state of things, a crass 2 per cent salary increase can only fuel more discontent and strikes. Just as predictably, Keegan will then blame teachers and unions for lost learning days. “Won’t someone think of the children?” she will ask, pointing to the effects of the pandemic they have already suffered and the disruptions caused by last year’s strikes.

And yet, it is teachers who have been working so hard to compensate for all the pernicious effects of lockdowns and years of school underfunding. The fact that our crumbling schools are functioning effectively at all is down to their dedication, integrity and professionalism.

Strikes aren’t some selfish self-enrichment racket. They are a desperate plea to protect pupils against further flight from the profession caused by low pay and overwhelming workloads. Predictably enough, unions will make that point when they are attacked for representing their members’ interests.

For those of us who started teaching half a century ago, there is déjà vu on a bigger scale here. Happily, it offers a glimmer of hope. 1974 saw the first major pay disputes in the teaching profession; schools were in chaos and Scotland’s teachers were on strike. Angry exchanges in parliament included the following criticism of the Secretary of State by an MP:

There is déjà vu on a bigger scale here

 “The handling of this matter and stubbornness in relation to the teachers is the single greatest obstacle to getting the teachers back to work. Instead of putting the blame on the teachers will he consider his own position and stand down and make way for someone who can command the respect and confidence of the teaching profession.”

Sound familiar?

Fortunately, the Secretary of State for Education and Science in England, Reg Prentice, sought a solution by joint commissioning with Scotland an inquiry into the pay of teachers in schools and colleges. The Houghton Committee was the first independent review of teachers’ pay in Great Britain as a whole. It was also one of the first national responses to the plight of underpaid teachers.

Despite the government’s need to cut public spending, the committee’s recommendations were accepted and teachers’ paltry salaries were increased by around 30 per cent. This defining moment resolved the growing unrest and averted a major recruitment and retention crisis. Stability returned and crisis was avoided.

The words Prentice used when presenting the Houghton Report’s findings in 1975 were as significant as the outcome. Their warmth and respect may surprise teachers today.

“[…] the pay, the status, the training and the morale of the teaching profession are the most important factors in education. I believe that the pay settlement is a recognition of the contribution which teachers make to society. […] The report provides new opportunities for the teaching profession and should also encourage greater and much needed stability in staffing.’

Allowing for inflation and the fact that teachers work on average 50 hours per week, many are worse off financially today than they were pre-Houghton. As in the mid-70s, an increasing number are pursuing supplementary incomes or alternative employment in pursuit of financial security, better prospects, conditions and a better work/life balance.

History repeats itself, and the outcome is clear: Only a complete revaluation of teaching and schools will sustainably get us out of the hole education finds itself in. Government should skip all the unnecessary steps on the road to that destination – “or stand down and make way for someone who can”.

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  1. E Vine

    And after Houghton the long terminal decline, the rapid increase in overload, micro management, the elimination of creativity, a destructive move away from collaboration to competition. In short a loss of recognition of the differences between education, cramming and being trained to pass exams rather than think. The myth that the English education system was somehow a gold standard was perpetuated as an excuse to do nothing except patch a label saying “England Baccalaureate” on the tin in the hope it would make a difference or fool anyone. Fools Gold.

  2. Abigail

    The general public, for the most part, have no idea. I’m finishing up as a trainee teacher about to enter the profession and already considering other careers. Teachers have directly said to me ‘get out while you still can’. What I’ve already experienced in schools is enough to put you off before you even start and the salary doesn’t exactly encourage you to stick at it. It’s the kind hearts and caring nature of teachers that keeps the profession going under these circumstances – were just being taken advantage of. So here’s my rant. The people running our education system haven’t got a clue what it’s like to try to keep up with the demands of teaching from the job itself, the government, ofsted and even your own wishes to do the best for your pupils when everything else seems to be against you. Funding is a joke… the salary is bad, espeically considering what teachers put up with… and that would be if you went home with that salary. Funding in schools has got to a point where we, as teachers, are spending a large proportion of our salary just to be able to do our job. When has anyone ever asked a batista to turn up an hour before they begin their paid shift just to prepare the coffee they will sell in their paid hours? We don’t ask baristas to then supply the coffee beans and milk with their salary. Nor do we ask them to stay after paid hours to prepare their coffee for the next day. The list goes on. I just wish the people in charge ACTUALLY understood. Take the position of a teacher for a week. If they still feel current policies, salaries, funding etc is appropriate, fine… but I’m willing to bet they’d be too tired to even process the week let alone new policies.

  3. Any person on the cabinet who claims to be the secretary for that particular department needs to to a minimum of 6 months on the ground level and recurrence the same pay as someone in the ground level.
    That will change the tune of the whole system.
    Lead from behind not grim the clouds.

  4. Everything has been said here about the reasons for the crisis in teacher recruitment and as a retired Primary Acting Head have to agree with all that is stated here.
    Government interference has not improved the classroom experience for pupils or teachers.
    Our professionalism and experience has been undermined by Civil servants who have neither in Education.
    I retired a little early due to a very stressful situation which would have affected my life expectancy.
    Noone has to remain in a job where they are not trusted to make their own judgements with regard to teaching and learning in their classrooms, to be constantly checked and observed by the qualified and unqualified, to be rigorously testing our pupils and ticking boxes. Teachers are intelligent, talented people, well qualified and creative.This prescription followed by inspection to enforce the Government dictates is insulting to dedicated, hardworking professionals.
    Noone has to do a difficult job and not be appreciated.
    Many decide that they have freedom to at least choose. They choose not to suffer the indignity any more. The children are then the ones to suffer.

  5. Lorna D

    In a local primary school all the support staff have been asked to take a 20% cut in hours and the head is also dropping from 5 to 4 days a week, effectively also taking a 20% cut. This is because the numbers of pupils have dropped and along with the funding per pupil being insufficient the school would become financially unviable. The head has done that in order to ensure the teaching staff do not suffer any loss of earnings and to try to keep the school viable.
    The school is a very important part of its community. Local and county councils keep telling us there are insufficient funds to keep services going yet I wonder how many of them would be prepared to take a 20% cut in their salaries to augment the money for services? Indeed how many government ministers would do that to help the country in its financial crisis?
    In all the years I taught, from early 80s to a few years ago, teachers were supplementing class resources from their own pockets, working incredibly long hours just to keep up with the increasingly heavy administrative burden, changes in the National Curriculum and dealing with the insidious decrease in the creativity within the curriculum. The governmental insistence on competition, the narrowing of the curriculum and their attempts to remove any attempts to enrich pupils education in the state sector is so sad.