‘As much as I love being in the classroom and teaching my students, the job’s tough enough as it is. If it can’t pay for my bills, I’ll have no choice but to stop doing what I love, stop doing what I’m bloody good at, and start doing whatever pays.’
These are the words of Mehnaz*, a teacher at a school in London for the past eleven years. She’s been a union rep for a while now, and says she’s never seen so many colleagues actually crying about their fears as she has in the first half term of this academic year.
‘We’re struggling,’ she continues. ‘Many of us are living in cold homes because we need to save wherever we can.’ Many of Mehnaz’s colleagues started coming into school early because they couldn’t afford to turn the heating on at home—but now the school has reduced its opening hours for staff in a bid to cut its own energy bills.
It’s a dire situation, made worse by the ongoing slashing of state school budgets and pitiful pay for teachers. ‘I know colleagues who are worried about how they’ll pay their rent or their mortgage, or how they’ll be able to afford childcare when they’re at work because their children’s schools are also having to reduce hours and close earlier than they previously did,’ Mehnaz adds.
Another colleague, she explains, has had to return early from maternity leave because she can’t afford to be off for as long as she’s entitled to. ‘I know a teacher who works part time and will need to go back to full time in order to make ends meet—she’ll need to pay for private childcare for her young children on those two extra days, but doesn’t have any alternative.’
Expectation and Reality
Hassan became a teacher in Luton five years ago because he saw it as a rewarding profession, improving prospects for young people and contributing to the betterment of society. But those noble ambitions have been made near impossible, he says, by a government that inflicts austerity on an already underfunded education system and on teachers’ pay.
The impact on students is as hard to see as the impact on teachers: ‘I’ve witnessed students skipping meals, asking their friends for food and lacking equipment,’ he recalls. ‘Even the basics of uniform.’ A recent study found that 58 percent of teachers were using their own money to feed hungry children in school. ‘You go into this career to help these kids but you can barely provide for yourself.’
Hassan and his colleague Mark set up a teacher’s donation programme in 2019, which once saw hundreds of pounds being donated each month from teachers to the local foodbank. Now, they’ve had to dramatically scale back, because donations have become few and far between.
‘I know colleagues who have second jobs delivering takeaways, working in restaurants, and driving taxis just to make ends meet,’ says Hassan. ‘All of that means less time and focus on school—if teachers were paid properly, you’d have a less tired workforce.’
Like Hassan, Mark got into teaching because he wanted to help the local community. But he says the yearly descent into having to ‘do more for children with fewer staff and less resources’ pulls that goal further and further out of reach.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, per-pupil spending in 2024-5 is expected to be three percent lower than in 2010—an indictment of more than ten years of austerity. Schools in the most deprived areas, of course, have been the worst affected, while in real terms, teachers’ pay has declined by more than 20 percent.
Mark and his colleagues do their best to meet everyone’s needs, he explains, but the funding just isn’t there to do it properly. ‘Kids in our care just aren’t getting the same opportunities for trips, guests, or conferences and the like which we were when we were children,’ he says, which means children don’t get the well-rounded education their teachers want to deliver—while pupils with special educational needs are often those who suffer the most from limited resources.
‘Schools don’t just exist for GCSEs. Secondary socialisation is just as important,’ says Hassan. ‘A trip to London for our kids would be the first time they’d ever visited the capital, and they live only thirty miles away.’
The Final Straw
Trying to do your job with limited resources is difficult enough, but being on the receiving end of sustained real-terms pay cut has brought many to breaking point—particularly as the cost of living crisis continues to bite.
Even before the crisis, in 2019, the Education Support Partnership warned that teachers were living in sheds and cars and eating out of foodbanks. Then, this July, after all the challenges of adapting to remote teaching or looking after other key workers’ children during Covid (not helped by a government that tried to force teachers back to unsafe classrooms, and demonised their unions when they pushed back) teachers were offered a five percent pay rise—in reality a seven percent pay cut, due to the soaring level of inflation.
‘It’s just typical,’ says Hassan. ‘Frontline workers, teachers, bus drivers, nurses, shop workers were the heroes of the pandemic. Now we’re militant unionists. Which is it?’
Daisy, a maths teacher at a secondary school in the South West, echoes his lack of surprise. ‘After seeing the pattern in teacher pay over the last decade or so, it’s clear the Tories have been committed to defunding the education sector.’
To add insult to injury, the pay offer is not fully funded. This is the main reason Mark is voting for industrial action: for most of the time he’s been in education, he says, the government has agreed pay awards with the unions and then expected schools to foot the bill for the increased pay.
‘It means there’ve had to be cuts in other budgets, which means fewer trips, less classroom materials like textbooks, and sometimes not hiring that extra teaching assistant the school needs,’ he adds. ‘It’s about time the government started properly funding each and every pay rise so that schools can afford the other things they need.’
This combination—stagnant pay and an increasing workload—has created a predictable recruitment and retention crisis, with educators leaving the profession in their droves. A survey by the NEU in April last year found that one in three teachers were planning on quitting within five years; an updated one this year found as many as 44 percent planned to be out by 2027. It’s a vicious cycle, with shortages increasingly the workloads of those who remain and driving them toward the door in turn.
For Sakunthala, a history teacher in London, staff shortages alongside an accountability agenda spurred on by Ofsted has created a workload that is simply unsustainable. Schools are beholden to Ofsted, she says, often to the detriment of teacher and student wellbeing. ‘We’re in dire need of a system that is more flexible and which actually listens to what students and teachers have to say, rather than demoralising and working them into exhaustion.’
With a rise in inspections and an increasing expectation to take on bureaucratic tasks, less time can be spent in the classroom. ‘Teaching doesn’t end when we leave school,’ Mehnaz points out. ‘We take planning and marking with us. For teachers who are parents, it means working more days or longer hours—which has a massive impact on our personal lives.’
Enough is Enough
Years of these interrelated problems piling up—pay, workload, staff shortages, austerity, attacks on teachers by the government and the press—made that low pay offer the final straw. Teachers are now mounting a fightback: the National Education Union, which represents more than 450,000 teaching staff, is balloting members across the across the country for national industrial action, along with NASUWT and NAHT, the headteachers’ union.
The NEU is demanding an inflation-busting pay rise for members, but workers know this isn’t just about pay: it’s about the good of pupils and the continuation of the education system as a whole.
For Sakunthala, in fact, it’s very much a battle of attrition. ‘We are being worn down by the government’s constant chopping and changing of policies, by cuts, by increases to workload, and by the need to effectively manage all students’ needs with less tools to support us.’
That means many teachers are often too tired and demoralised to organise and fight back, she says—but adds that it’s a make-or-break moment for the education system. ‘I would encourage all teachers to not just join a union but get involved with wider campaigning so we can really build a strong movement together and fight back against these attacks,’ she says.
‘Students, teachers and parents know that the current system is not working, in the same way that we know our current economic and political systems aren’t working. We need a radical change.’