Teaching unions have thrown down the gauntlet to their bosses by threatening to walkout of classrooms this autumn.
The NUT and the NASUWT, who between them represent 85 per cent of teachers in England and Wales, say they will ballot members over “sustained attacks on working conditions, pensions, pay, conditions of service and the threat to jobs”.
They say the attacks on them are “unprecedented”, but opponents say they’re sacrificing children’s education for their own “vested interests”.
Yet it was only in the 1980s that one union was holding rolling three day strikes, another was holding half-day strikes. It got so heated that a special cabinet commitee was set up to deal with the issue.
FactCheck looks at whether things now are worse, as the unions claim.
For unions, the problem seems to be that they’re at the centre of a perfect storm.
A government proposal to the School Teachers’ Review Body suggested earlier this month that pay could be set at a local rather than a national level, and would be more strongly linked to performance.
Under changes to public sector pensions expected to take place from April 2015, the government has also said that it wants teachers to accept a pension scheme based on a career average. They want pensions to be set with a lower accrual rate per year, and for teachers to take the state pension age. They also want them to pay higher contributions – an increase of 3.2 percentage points.
This is all in the midst of a two-year pay freeze, plus new types of schools including academy schools and free schools, which, unions say, are disrupting the classic model of the state-led education sector. And a rise in “no-notice” inspections, which teachers say add to their workload.
One union member told FactCheck:”What we’re seeing now is that the pressure has been ramped up – people’s pay conditions and service and pensions and job security are all being hit. It’s the most challenging set of circumstances I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve been in the industry since 1975.”
Starting salaries for teachers have been consistently lower than for graduates starting in other professions. A teacher starting at their first school in 1979 was on £3,231, according to research from the House of Commons. The average graduate in that year would have started on £3,970. By 2008, teachers would, on average, start on £20,133. Graduates would start at £24,500.
But from 1997 to 2008, salaries for teachers increased in real terms from 51 per cent per cent, compared with public sector workers who saw wages rise by 20.6 per cent.
Private sector workers saw wages rise by 9.8 per cent in the same period.
Unions say that teachers’ pay rises were boosted because the profession was struggling to attract graduates into the profession. Wages were so low, they say, that former education secretary, David Blunkett, raised them as an incentive.
Now the government says that teachers, along with other public sector workers, must foot the bills which will crop up due to greater life expectancy and the national debt which, ministers say, makes the current pension bill unsustainable.
FactCheck can’t really say whether the unions’ claim that the assault on them is “unprecedented” stands up or not – because many of the reforms haven’t actually taken place yet.
Although the government wants to change the way pay is set, the strife of the 1980s was caused by a similar measure. Margaret Thatcher got rid of the Burnham Committee – which involved unions, local authorities and observers from the department for education – and gave power to set pay to the secretary of state for education.
But all public sector workers are facing vast changes to their pensions and working conditions, so it’s not really that teachers are being singled out. Some public sector workers would argue teachers should be asked to retire at the same age that they do.
Likewise, much of the current problem appears to have been building up for some time – inspections and targets are nothing new.
It’s come at a difficult time for the unions, with everything combined, and now they fear that for the first time in around 100 years, pay will be taken out of state control altogether.
They also fear that teachers in different authorities would get paid vastly different amounts for the same job.
That may well change things for generations to come, meaning the jury as to whether this “assault” really is “unprecedented” is still out.