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Labour Market Realities: Teachers and the Public Sector Pay Freeze


Some politicians would have us believe that poor wage growth is a bit like the weather, beyond our control and difficult to predict. However in truth, the government has a lot more responsibility for this then they would like to admit.

The government might not be able to choose inflation and growth rates, but their policies have been letting workers down. Policy culprit number one: the austerity driven public sector pay freeze. We spoke to a teacher, Caroline, about how this policy is damaging to teachers and education.

June’s labour market figures illustrated more wage pain for workers. Real wages dipped by 0.4%, meaning pay rises are not keeping up with the cost of living. There are a number of reasons why real wages aren’t growing. We have poor economic growth, poor productivity growth, and rising inflation (a lot of which is due to Brexit and the drop in the pound), meaning private and public sector wage growth isn’t keeping up with cost of living. Situations like this often contribute to unexpected election results – ring any bells?  

However the factors behind the fall in wages aren’t simply unavoidable forces of nature we have no control over. For our 5.4 million public sector workers, the drop in real wages is down to a political decision made by the Cameron government and continued by the May administration: a public sector pay freeze.

The public sector pay freeze is a cap of a 1% pay increase for all relevant workers, including teachers, nurses, and fire fighters. This cap began with the Cameron government and, as the cost of living increases, is projected to reduce the value of public sector wages by £3,300 by 2020.

The justification for the pay freeze policy is austerity – which for some is living within our means, but for many others is not having the means to live. Austerity is to blame in more ways than one. Firstly there is of course the pay freeze, but there is a further effect of budget squeezes. 

Real education funding has been slashed. By 2020, 93% of schools will have had per pupil funding cut. There will have been an average of £86,951 cut to every primary school, and a £338 cut for every primary school student. Secondary schools have been hit hard too, with an average £370,298 cut per school and £436 per student.

This squeezes schools’ finances. As Caroline explains, this squeeze on school budgets motivates schools to pay their teachers less money. At the same time, austerity has meant that workers have been told to do “more with less”, in other words, longer hours, extra responsibility, and no extra pay.

Despite these challenges the government has enthusiastically pushed ahead with the wrong solutions: more free schools, which are already millions of pounds in debt, and the reintroduction of grammar schools, with their hideous reputation for lack of social mobility. Instead, they could be paying our teachers an adequate wage and reducing class sizes. We found something similar about the NHS when we interviewed a nurse back in March.

The public sector pay freeze is pushing Britain’s essential workers into despair. How can we be surprised that we face shortages of these key staff? How are these services going to function in the future? Let alone ensuring that staff have good morale and are well motivated? We need to end the 1% public sector pay freeze immediately. Our schools, hospitals, and other public services depend on doing so, as do the 5.4 million committed public sector workers.