The past year has seen a historic wave of trade union strikes in the UK, with transport workers, nurses, junior doctors, university lecturers, ambulance drivers, Amazon workers, and others walking out. The largest teachers’ union in the UK, the National Education Union (NEU), joined the strike wave on Jan. 16, announcing that its ballot of members had met the required threshold to commence strikes over pay and funding.
Earlier this month, the NEU met for its annual national conference—a meeting that took place at a crucial juncture in this ongoing industrial action. The conference opened with the unveiling of NEU members’ verdict on the UK government’s recent pay offer: 98% of the nearly 200,000 NEU members who voted—a record turnout—had voted to reject it.
The conference auditorium erupted after attendees received news of this resounding rejection, with hundreds of teachers and school staff waving the flags they had carried on their picket lines during strikes in February and March. Although the industrial action has already cost members four days of pay at a moment when workers across the UK and beyond are experiencing a cost-of-living crisis, accepting the government’s offer would have meant abandoning demands for substantive redress of years of neglect. The Conservative government had offered only a £1,000 one-off payment to teachers for the 2022-23 year, accompanied by a far-below-inflation pay rise of 4.5% for 2023-24. Worst of all, the offer was largely unfunded, meaning that schools would be expected to pay their teachers more out of existing budgets that are already stretched to the breaking point. With this paltry contract offer to settle the national dispute, the government had spectacularly failed to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, and the only question was how dramatic the NEU’s rejection would be.
Between 2010-2022, teachers in the UK experienced real-terms pay cuts of between 5-13%, depending on their pay grade. Their pay has fallen more than that of nurses and other public sector workers, and new teachers earn far below their counterparts in other professions with similar education credentials. Education spending as a share of the UK’s GDP has also dropped sharply over the same period, after steadily rising during the Labour governments of 1997-2010, and is now significantly below the OECD average. Less funding means higher workloads and worse working conditions for teachers.
The UK’s highly controversial school inspection service, Ofsted, has only made these existing problems worse. A non-ministerial department of government, The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) is responsible for inspecting all state schools and reporting to Parliament on their quality. Teachers are saddled with extensive reporting requirements related to Ofsted and they experience particularly extreme stress every few years when their school is up for inspection. After observing a school for one day, an Ofsted inspector will issue a 1-2 word rating— “Outstanding,” “Good,” “Requires improvement,” or “Inadequate”—which is publicly available. These Ofsted ratings can make or break educators’ careers, and the recent suicide of headteacher Ruth Perry after an unsuccessful Ofsted inspection has tragically highlighted the cruel, unnecessary pressures this process puts on people. What’s worse, the government has offered no credible evidence that Ofsted’s punitive system of accountability has improved the quality of schools, nor has it considered alternative accountability systems based on global best practices.
These issues with pay, workload, and stress have led to a teacher recruitment and retention crisis in the UK. The government routinely fails to meet its targets for recruiting new teachers in most subjects, and 1 in 3 new teachers are leaving the profession within five years. Many schools are running on skeleton staff as open positions receive few, if any, applicants.
Any staff member in a UK state-funded school could share more personal evidence of the ongoing crisis in the education sector. Last year, I taught at a school of over 1,500 people, including staff and students, in which there was only one functioning toilet cubicle for all female staff. Temperatures in classrooms were freezing in the winter and intolerably hot in the summer. And this school was, in the judgment of Ofsted, “Good.” Colleagues have also recently reported to me more severe health and safety concerns in their schools, from leaking roofs to loose asbestos. There is no money in school budgets to fix these issues. Another colleague’s school was so short of math teachers that a single teacher was required to teach three classes’ worth of students (almost 100 in total) with a megaphone.
Since the UK government has vowed not to re-engage in talks with the NEU in the foreseeable future, days of nationwide strike action already planned for April 27 and May 2 will go ahead. Having rejected the government’s last offer, the most urgent business on the NEU conference delegates’ very full agenda was deciding on a strike strategy beyond May 2. Deliberations were complex, with several strike patterns of varying intensity considered. Some delegates advocated for an immediate escalation of more strike days in May, while others were concerned this could be counterproductive.
One serious concern that emerged out of these strike strategy deliberations was the upcoming exam season. The UK has an extremely exam-centric education system, with students’ final grades in most subjects entirely decided by exams taken at the end of the last year of schooling. Many teachers have already found it difficult to cancel class time in the lead-up to exams, and this pressure will only become more intense as we inch closer to exam season, which is scheduled to take place between May and June. If teachers are perceived to be unconcerned with student outcomes on final exams, public support for the strikes may also decline. Up until now, a modest majority of the general public has been in support of the teachers’ strikes, but this could change. In the end, the NEU opted for the least aggressive of the options proposed at the conference: a further three days of strikes in June and July, which will not impact students taking public exams, and a re-ballot of members to authorize strikes in the fall.
Halfway through the NEU conference, it was announced that the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) had also resoundingly rejected the government’s pay offer. (Headteachers are the most senior members of schools, and earn salaries generally far in excess of even the next most senior level of leadership.) With a turnout of 64% of the total membership, 90% of headteachers who voted also rejected the government’s offer. Even more notably, 78% of these headteachers said they would be willing to take industrial action. It is hard to overstate the significance of this for the teachers’ campaign. The NAHT vote promises to ward off a potential decline in public support and to embolden teachers who have been concerned about rifts within their schools or reprisals from leadership. It also raises the possibility of coordinated strike action between school leaders and other staff. If this were to occur, there would be much greater pressure on the government to act.
The NAHT’s rejection of the pay offer must also be understood in the context of growing, sector-wide despair about Ofsted in the wake of Ruth Perry’s suicide. Last month, the NAHT threatened to sue Ofsted for its failure to pause inspections following Perry’s death. This is all the more significant given that many Ofsted inspectors are themselves current or former headteachers. The issues of funding and toxic surveillance are galvanizing the profession at all levels, and the government appears to be rattled. As a Department for Education source told journalist Tilda Martin of Tes magazine: “NAHT seem determined to raise the temperature. Last week, they threatened to sue Ofsted. Now they’re accusing govt of turning backs on children. You expect this sort of rhetoric from NEU, not NAHT.”
On the last full day of the conference, the NEU unanimously passed an urgent motion calling for the abolition of Ofsted. The union is calling on school leaders to immediately cease participating in Ofsted inspections and to remove references to Ofsted ratings on school websites and other materials. This campaign will escalate concurrently with the pay and funding dispute over the coming months. Speaking at the NEU conference, NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman told attendees, “this needs to be a watershed moment.”
The UK state school system is in dire straits, and the NEU conference this month will go down as a critical and historic inflection point for the ongoing campaigns against funding cuts and toxic surveillance. However, though solidarity between teachers and headteachers is heartening, the road ahead remains difficult. The government is counting on resolve and public support weakening during exam season. It will, indeed, be a challenge to win another strike ballot during this period. And the government has new anti-strike legislation currently before the House of Lords.
Nevertheless, NEU delegates left the conference and returned to their districts with a feeling that change is possible. Last year, many doubted that the NEU would be able to meet the government’s demanding turnout thresholds for the first round of strikes, but it did. Over 50,000 new members have joined the NEU since those strikes were announced in January.
There are reasons to be optimistic. Besides, pessimism is a luxury that teachers cannot afford.