Generous pensions mean many teachers are among top earners, says education secretary

Gillian Keegan, the 'strike-loathing' education secretary, revealed she is considering toughening up laws around striking

The education secretary Gillian Keegan has defended her claim that teachers are among the best off financially - arguing that when you consider the “whole package”, including the pension, those outside of London are among the “top earners”.

In comments that are likely to infuriate the National Education Union (NEU), the Cabinet minister told ITV News that benefits outside of the basic salary made it hard to compare their jobs to those in the private sector.

The NEU argues that it is right to compare the big real-terms pay cuts (12% over the past decade if you use the CPI rate of inflation, or more under RPI) suffered by their more experienced members to the smaller squeeze in the private sector.

In an exclusive interview, Ms Keegan - who has been dubbed the “strike-loathing” education secretary - also:

  • Revealed ministers are discussing whether to toughen up the law to force teachers to inform their heads if they plan to strike

  • Insisted that she would not move from her position of rejecting inflation-busting pay rises

  • Described how witnessing strikes in the 1980s, when she was an apprentice in Kirkby, hardened her views about trade unions and turned her into a Conservative

  • And said she would change the university application system - UCAS - to include apprenticeships alongside traditional degrees, as part of a push this week to promote different career paths

Gillian Keegan said she believes strikes make matters worse.

“Lots of people think from school, you go straight to university [and] we've been trying to say well actually no, there's lots of other routes into various careers and you should explore what all of those are.” She said apprenticeships could take you up to masters degree levels, arguing her own apprenticeship set her up perfectly for a career in business.

The comments came as ITV News spent two days with the education secretary to try to get into the mind of the woman charged with solving the pay dispute with teachers, which will see further strikes and school closures later this month and next.

Speaking at her parents’ house in Knowsley, Merseyside, where she grew up, Ms Keegan revealed that everyone she knew locally, including within her own large family, was a Labour supporter - adding she had never met a Conservative in Knowsley.

She also revealed that her own cousin is an NEU rep, who told her she had decided to strike.

“I said to her, look, it’s your own choice but make sure you tell your head because I couldn’t believe it that some teachers didn’t tell the heads,” she said.

Asked if she would change the law on that, Ms Keegan said: “Well that will be something that we’ll look at because I think we were all quite surprised to find out that that was the case.”

It was one of the biggest news stories of our time - and it's still not over. So what did Boris Johnson know about Downing Street’s notorious parties? With fresh revelations from our Number 10 sources, in their own words, listen to the inside story...

The minister argued that it was wrong for teachers to strike because her door was still open to discussions, saying they “do not need to strike to get my attention”.

When I asked what there was for unions to negotiate given she has already ruled out above-inflation pay rises, she said surveys showed teachers were worried about workload, bureaucracy, behaviour of children and pay, but “in that order”.

She suggested her focus was on “future pay”, which will make it difficult to strike a deal because teachers, like NHS workers, are asking for more money for this financial year - 2022/23 - and not just for 2023/24.

When I suggested that surely meant ongoing strikes, she shook her head and said: “I think that [the unions] will come to understand that looking at the bigger picture is really what we need to do. They want to make sure we recruit the best and make sure we retain teachers. I want exactly the same.”

While visiting a ship yard in Liverpool on the second day, I put to Ms Keegan that she had been wrong to claim that teachers were among the top 10% of earners, asking if she’d come into the job with a perception about teaching that was unfair.

She pointed to the “whole package”, including a pension that is “really quite valuable and it gets more valuable as you get older”.

Despite Labour leanings in Gillian Keegan's hometown of Knowsley, Merseyside, she grew to become a Tory in part because of strike action.

“If you look at all of that, you will find that teachers around the country, outside of London in particular, will be in the top earners.” She said, growing up in Knowsley, teachers were seen as earning “reasonably well for the area”.

Earlier we had visited her old school, where Ms Keegan also mentioned other differences between teaching and private sector jobs like longer holidays. I asked about that again.

“It is hard to compare the jobs from the private sector to the public sector,” she said. I asked if it was because of those conditions and she replied: “I don't know what the average pension is in the private sector. It's definitely not 23.6% employer contributory pension.”

At the site of the old Delco Electronics factory in Kirkby, where she worked at 16, Keegan described a union rep coming to her weekly to try to persuade her to join the union. She said she refused, and said she would take her chances.

Keegan argued that strikes at the factory sped up its closure and said that was where her opposition to them set in.

I asked if her NEU cousin had tried to persuade her on teacher pay, and Ms Keegan said no, arguing her economics was stronger.

So I asked her about the economics of the argument that paying teacher’s more would cause an inflationary spiral.

The IMF say wage-price spirals are rare, and Paul Johnson at the Institute for Fiscal Studies told us that matching the higher increases in the private sector would not push up inflation.

Would bigger pay rises really fuel rising inflation?

But Ms Keegan argued that bigger pay rises would be too expensive and could add “fuel to the fire”.

“If you start to put wages up across the whole of the public sector... first of all, it will cost £20 billion," she said.

"So we have to figure out where we raise the money from, because we've kind of figured out we can't just borrow it readily all the time.

“And that's that cost impact for everybody. But secondly, it doesn't solve the problem.” She said that halving inflation was the priority.

The NEU stressed that they had postponed action in Wales because of a willingness of the Welsh government to engage in talks, which the union’s joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said was in “stark contrast to the position taken by Westminster and the secretary of state for education, Gillian Keegan”.

The union’s former president Robin Bevan also hit back at the arguments writing in education outlet Tes that it was “laughable” to suggest that a “modest uplift in public sector pay after years of pay erosion” would cause inflation to spiral out of control.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders’ union, the NAHT, added that decline in real pay had contributed to a “major recruitment and retention crisis in schools which threatens our children’s education and harms their future prospects”.

He said school leaders had suffered a 19% real terms cut even using the generally lower inflation measure of CPI.

Asked about Liz Truss’s comeback and whether the former prime minister was right to say she’d been unfairly ousted, Ms Keegan said the “markets made their mind up”.

She also insisted she had never faced complaints about bullying, following controversy surrounding colleagues Gavin Williamson and now Dominic Raab.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know