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How academisation could be driving down teachers’ pay and conditions

Average salaries in academies are lower than in council-run schools, while union members have less bargaining power

Lee Burkwood
2 May 2023, 11.03am

A National Education Union (NEU) flag on display during a demonstration in central Middlesbrough last week. Teachers have warned that academisation is among the factors driving their pay down


Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Teachers in England are on strike today after teaching unions voted to reject the government’s latest pay offer of a bonus this year of £1,000 and an average 4.5% pay rise for next year.

The largest teaching union last week accused the government of refusing to negotiate, while the Department for Education insisted its pay offer was “fair and reasonable”. But teachers and union figures who spoke to openDemocracy say a factor that is often overlooked in the battle for wages is the drive to convert England’s schools into academies.

Although both academies and more traditional council-run schools get central government funding, only teachers at the latter are automatically bound by the minimum standards in the national pay framework. This means the government’s recent pay offer doesn’t necessarily apply to teachers at academies. Instead, academies can choose to adopt it, or negotiate with unions independently.

That, says Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary at the National Education Union (NEU), is a problem for collective bargaining.

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“Where once there was a single local authority employer,” he said, “now many academy trusts can operate in one area.

“This has undermined local collective agreements and accelerated deregulation of school staff’s terms and conditions.”

His warning appears to be borne out by government statistics, which show that pay in academies is lower in both primary and secondary settings. Teachers at council-run nurseries and primary schools earnt an average of £38,022 in 2021/22 while those at academies earnt an average £1,352 (3.5%) less. For secondary schools, the gap is slightly smaller: average pay in council-run secondaries is £41,449 a year; for academies, it’s £40,119, just over 3.2% lower. A Department for Education spokesperson claimed it was “not possible to draw conclusions” from the discrepancies.

All this is before taking into account the fact that average pay for classroom teachers across all school settings has risen by just under £4,500 since 2010. This amounts to a substantial real-terms pay cut after inflation, though the extent is not uniformly felt across all levels of seniority.

By contrast, average MAT CEO pay in 2021/22 was 10% more than the previous year, and more than half the country’s largest MATs increased the salaries of their top earners in the same period. In some cases, CEOs received inflation-busting rises. The NEU says these decisions can’t be challenged by unions. The government itself has abandoned efforts to rein CEO pay in academies.

openDemocracy spoke to two teachers about their experiences of working in academies.

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Mike*, a 32-year-old former teacher from east London, was made redundant by a multi-academy trust (MAT) after he says his school encouraged him to accept a different, lower-paid role. He told me, bluntly: “It was essentially fire and rehire.”

Kate*, a 41-year-old teacher in south-east England, was among those planning to strike today, having walked out four times this year. Her concern about academisation goes beyond pay: she says she noticed a cut in classroom support staffing when her school became an academy in 2017. Previously, each class had two teaching assistants (TAs) – that was reduced to one. “Before, we had therapists to deliver speech, language, mental health, play and massage therapy. Now higher-level TAs are expected to deliver them,” she said.

The number of academies has been increasing since the Academies Act 2010 enabled more council-run schools (and forced some) to become academies. As of 2021, 78% of English secondary schools were academies (59% run by MATs and 19% by SATs). The government stated last year that it wants all schools to be academies.

Lower pay

The government boasted last year that it had given new teachers a pay rise of up to 8.9%, alongside 5% for experienced teachers. But this only applied to council-run schools, not academies, potentially exempting huge numbers of teachers.

Kate’s been involved in the recent strikes and, although she’s keen for an above-inflation pay rise to make up for years of cuts, she’s pessimistic about that happening.

Mike, who’s worked in both academies and council-run (or “local authority maintained”) schools, has an explanation for the pay gap. “The main difference I noticed was that headteachers in an LA-maintained school took the time to listen to union reps like myself and our concerns about pay and conditions,” he said.

By contrast, he felt that he was targeted in his MAT for being a union rep – to the point of being accused of intimidating staff just for checking to see if they’d got strike ballots.

Mike would like to see schools brought back under local authority control because, he believes, there’s more accountability. “The problem with central government giving money to businesses to run schools is that it’s hard to regulate where that money goes,” he said. “Local council control means parents and staff can challenge decisions.” He also believes agreements with unions are better.

Lower standards

Kate is desperate for the government to improve conditions for teachers and to deal with the recruitment crisis. “We’ve found it hard to recruit qualified teachers. Many are leaving education because of unrealistic workload expectations,” she said. She’s considered quitting and told me she doesn’t expect the government to make any positive changes.

What’s more, a 2022 study showed that LA maintained schools outperform MATs in Ofsted rankings – 56% of the former have improved their ranking to ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, compared to 45% of MATs.

Mike also made claims of corruption at the MAT he used to work for, saying some of the staff who were laid off alongside him were subsequently offered work through a supply teaching agency that turned out to be run by the same people in charge of the academy trust. Halfway through an investigation into the matter, he says, they resigned. openDemocracy has been unable to verify the allegations.

It isn’t the first time a MAT has been accused of corruption. Profits Before Pupils? The Academies Scandal, a 2018 BBC documentary, exposed what appeared to be profiteering activities by a trust. Money meant for school repairs and fire safety was allegedly given to businesses owned by the trust’s sponsor. The repairs were never carried out. (A lawyer for the founder of the Bright Tribe trust, denied wrongdoing; the trust avoided criminal charges but no longer runs any schools.)

Courtney said: “Over the last 12 years, waste, lack of transparency and accountability has been inherent to how academies are run. The NEU remains committed to fighting for an education system organised on democratic principles, which has the voice of staff, pupils, parents at its heart.”

* Names have been changed.

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