Gillian Keegan’s insistence that schools can afford the pay offer cannot alter reality

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is obviously worried that schools will regard her pay offer with dismay not just because it isn’t enough to boost recruitment and retention but because of the more immediate problem that many will feel they cannot afford the cost of the pay award.
This is presumably why she wrote to headteachers and teachers on Wednesday in an attempt to persuade them that schools do in fact have enough money. This is odd because, surely, they know their own budgets better than the Education Secretary does and are only too aware of what impact a 4% increase to teacher pay in 2023/24 would have on their finances (the government would put in the other 0.5% to make it up to 4.5% on average).
Assurances from Ms Keegan that they can afford the cost will not alter the reality of the figures that they have in front of them. And the reality for many schools and trusts is that they are desperately short of money. An extra 4% on top of their existing costs will necessitate another round of cost cutting.
Ms Keegan was particularly keen to explain why the Department for Education’s own assessment had changed. Last month it told the pay review body that 3.5% was the figure it considered affordable for 2023/24. The extra half a percent that it now considers affordable, she said, is because school energy costs will not rise as much as expected. Again, schools probably know their energy costs better than the Education Secretary does and judging from the emails we’ve received on this subject the Department for Education has got its sums spectacularly wrong. Our feedback suggests that energy costs continue to be very high and represent a huge extra strain on finances.
She was also keen to suggest that the Institute for Fiscal Studies – a respected independent think-tank – had come to the same conclusion as the government that schools can afford the costs. This was a reference to a Twitter thread from Luke Sibieta, an expert in education economics at the IFS, who – obviously – did not say that at all.
The line seized upon by the Education Secretary was his system-level analysis that after accounting for new pay offers, the IFS estimates school funding is growing faster than school costs. But she does not quote his important caveat in the same thread that “this is just an average” and that “some schools will be seeing costs growing faster than funding. This includes special schools that rely on more support staff. It also includes London, where funding isn’t growing as fast and where schools rely more on inexperienced teachers, who are seeing bigger pay rises.”
Nor does Ms Keegan’s letter mention his next observation which is that “even with the new pay offer, teacher salaries in England in 2023 would still be 13% lower than in 2010 for more experienced and senior teachers, which is most of them.”
The reality, of course, is that there is no such thing as an average school, and that funding rates vary depending on a large number of different factors. The funding rate in primary education, for example, is so low that small one-form entry schools are probably close to being financially unsustainable in some instances, and the prospect of an extra 4% cost on their budgets will feel like an impending disaster with few options about what they can cut.
In any event, school leaders and teachers will be the ultimate judges of whether the pay offer stacks up through the various votes that are now taking place in the respective unions. ASCL’s vote closes today and we’ll release our results on Tuesday. Without wanting to jump the gun, I think it is fair to say that your verdict is not looking good for the government.

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 
Posted: 31/03/2023 11:31:08