Teachers and social workers suffer most from ‘lost decade’ for pay growth in UK

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Teachers and social workers have experienced the worst pay growth in the UK in the past decade, while public sector salaries have fallen significantly behind those in the private sector, according to research.

The years between 2010-11 and 2020-21 have been a “lost decade” for pay growth in the UK labour market, but new analysis tracking workers in different sectors over the period reveals that some have fared considerably worse than others.

The median salary in the education sector has grown by just 4.3%, once adjusted for inflation, with only social work lagging even further behind with a 4.1% increase. For comparison, the median or typical worker saw pay grow by 15% over the same period.

The biggest gain has been in the low-paid hospitality sector, where workers have seen a 35.3% jump in median earnings – thanks mainly to the introduction of the “national living wage”. Finance and insurance went up by 26.8% while professional and scientific services saw a 23.2% increase in real median pay.

With nurses and ambulance workers engaged in strike action, the research by the Tory-leaning consultancy Public First shows a 6.7% increase in real median pay in the health sector. Workers in the information and communications sector, in contrast, have seen a 21.7% increase.

Rather than looking at average earnings figures, the analysis draws on the longitudinal Understanding Society survey dataset, which tracks the same individuals and households over time, showing on-the-ground income progression, and covers all regions and nations of the UK, with an initial sample of just under 40,000.

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The findings also show the “scarring effect” of childcare responsibilities which continue to suppress salaries for women. While men in their 20s in 2010 saw their annual pay increase by 42% in real terms by a decade later, for women growth in pay was less than half as much (18%).

“It’s not surprising we are seeing so much industrial unrest at the moment,” said Scott Corfe, the director of data and modelling at Public First. “The progression benefits for public sector workers are quite limited. Even if you stay the course for a decade, your real pay will not have increased significantly.”

He continued: “Given education workers have fallen significantly behind many private-sector professional peers over the past decade, I wouldn’t be surprised if more start to seek work elsewhere. While it would be societally bad to see a brain drain of top talent from the education sector, it may be what teachers need to do to advance their living standards now.”

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Teachers in Scotland are already engaged in strike action, with more stoppages planned for January, and ballots are under way among members of the National Education Union (NEU) and the NASUWT in England.

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Kevin Courtney, the NEU joint general secretary, said: “This report, from a right-leaning thinktank, adds a lot of weight to the NEU’s argument. As the report says, widening pay gaps between education staff and comparable private sector roles will make it difficult to fill posts in schools.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This academic year the government only managed to recruit 59% of its target for trainee secondary teachers, a catastrophic result that has only added to the already acute shortage.”

The British Association of Social Workers said: “Social work is often the forgotten sector in public services, overshadowed by our colleagues in health, education and the police. While we are not striking yet, the current crisis in social work needs urgent attention from the government.

“We are losing far too many experienced social workers due to poor working conditions, and the new generation of social workers are entering a sector with stagnant wages and poor levels of support, all while navigating a cost of living crisis.”

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