Peter Gregory has spent virtually every waking moment of the past few weeks revising for GCSE exams after years of coronavirus-disrupted classes. So the news that his teachers would strike on Wednesday has left the 15-year-old shocked and anxious.
“Strikes make the time [to study] shorter,” Gregory said from Slough, who plans to study English, maths and geography at A-level. “I know teachers need a reliable source of income, but they could be putting pupils’ education in jeopardy.”
When teachers across the UK walk out in a series of rolling strikes in February and March, millions of schoolchildren like Peter will have their studies set further back following the turmoil of the pandemic.
In England and Wales seven days of walk outs have been planned, starting on February 1. While in Scotland, schools are entering another week of industrial action over pay, which started last year.
Strikes by teachers are just the latest bout of industrial action to batter the UK this winter as public services curtailed by tight funding struggle to meet people’s needs.
But the walkouts over teacher pay expose a more profound problem afflicting UK schools, which are stretched by real-terms funding cuts and staff shortages that experts warn have already damaged education.
“We’re unmasking what has been going on — which is a service that is on its knees,” Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said.
Government analysis of England’s exam results last year showed just 59 per cent of 11-year-olds met expected standards in reading, writing and maths, down from 65 per cent in 2019 and below a 90 per cent government target. The gap in achievement between poor pupils and their better-off peers reached a 10-year high.
Natalie Perera, the chief executive of the Education Policy Institute think-tank, said there was a “real risk of a long-term stand-off between unions and government”, which would “set back education recovery”, especially for more disadvantaged students.
When unions met Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, this month, they insisted only additional funding for a pay rise would avert strikes. But the government indicated that there would be no more money, pointing to an extra £2bn allocated for schools over the next two years, announced in last year’s Autumn Statement.
That funded a pay increase of at least 5 per cent for teachers this year, which helped raise starting salaries to £28,000.
But with inflation at 10.5 per cent in December, that amounts to a 5 per cent real-terms pay cut for most teachers in 2022-23, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank. Over the past decade, it found pay for senior teachers fell 13 per cent in real terms.
A Financial Times analysis of average pay across striking public sectors found workers in areas such as health and transport fared even worse.
Falling pay has resulted in a “depressing” staffing picture, according to the IFS. Government data show the number of people entering teaching this academic year fell by 20 per cent compared with 2021-22. Entry to secondary school training was just 59 per cent of the government target.
From 2010 to 2019, real-terms school funding also fell 9 per cent and will only return to 2010 levels next year.
Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association, a charity for school governors, said teacher shortages were merely the tip of the iceberg.
Schools also reported shortages of specialist support staff such as psychologists, while more pupils than before the pandemic were suffering complex problems, including family poverty or mental ill health.
Schools were “dealing with so much more” owing to Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis, but “without access to specialist support”.
Sammy Wright, the vice-principal of Southmoor Academy in Sunderland, said he feared the strikes would hobble efforts to improve attendance, which had still not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Although supportive of his striking colleagues, he added that the disruption would disproportionately affect more vulnerable children. “The psychological spell of the routine is going to be broken.”
Victoria Benson, chief executive of single parents’ charity Gingerbread and a solo mother to six, said many parents were “very sympathetic” with striking teachers and especially their pay demands. “I put the responsibility at the feet of the government,” she said.
But she admitted that her three school-age children were “anxious” about missing classes. “It’s taken a while to get back into the action and I’m keen to keep the momentum going,” she said.
The majority of state schools are expected to be affected by the seven days of strikes over the next two months, although no school will be affected for more than four days.
In guidance issued this month, the government asked headteachers to keep schools open if possible on strike days — and to prioritise lessons for vulnerable children, those of “critical key workers” and pupils due to take exams.
But Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the plea highlighted government’s misunderstanding of why teachers were taking industrial action and that headteachers’ priority would be keeping schools safe.
The NAHT is one of three teacher unions that did not secure a mandate to strike but remained in dispute with government. Teachers, Whiteman said, were at their “wits’ end” owing to staff and resource strains.
In Slough, Gregory is worried that frustration will lead to more walkouts and further upheaval.
“It will be harder to learn if there are strikes,” he said. “It’s very worrying.”