Woman with grey hair talking in group

Collective bargaining in the independent sector

How to negotiate on pay in the independent sector, with some relevance to further education workplaces or academies where there is collective bargaining. 

Update for 2022/23

While the Covid pandemic made it a challenging year for independent school finances, rampant inflation coupled with pay freezes and below inflation increases for many years mean it has been even tougher for independent school staff.

On top of this, teachers have faced the additional threat of losing their right to the Teachers’ Pensions Scheme (TPS), or in some cases, facing a pay cut to retain it. This could be the equivalent of a cut of 25 per cent to remuneration.

The coronavirus collateral damage to the economy means that some parents will no longer be able to afford school fees. Some overseas boarders might not have the confidence to return to the UK.

Many independent schools received significant financial support through the coronavirus job retention scheme and Government loans on preferential terms. While this money did not fully meet loss of fee income, it did substantially mitigate it.

Regardless, many schools prosper. For many years, fee increases have outstripped inflation and wages and that surplus should have been put aside.

Do not accept coronavirus as a get-out-of-jail-free card to cut remuneration.

If belt-tightening is unavoidable, members should have thoroughly examined the finances and be satisfied that there really is no alternative.

Members need to be prepared and act collectively to protect their interests.

Independent NEU members at conference

Do you have?

1 minute – read the NEU collective bargaining starter for ten.
5 minutes – read the starter and latest updates.
10 minutes – read the starter, updates and the general guidance. 

Collective bargaining starter for ten

Cost of living Retail Price Index (RPI) through the roof

Inflation, as measured by the RPI, increased dramatically in the second half of 2021, and stood at 7.8 per cent for the year to January 2022.

This is the highest rate in 30 years.

RPI is the traditional measure of inflation used by employees and employers. It was introduced in 1947 to assist employers and employees in negotiations over salary increases to reflect rising costs.

Recently, the Government prefers the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) as it is lower due to omitting housing costs. For the year to January 2022, CPI inflation was 5.5 per cent.

Tellingly, the Government uses RPI for its own purposes for index-linked securities and gilts, non-means tested benefits, tax allowances, social housing rent increases, train fare increases and student loan interest rates etc.

RPI and CPI are updated monthly by the Office for National Statistics.

RPI inflation is forecast to remain high in 2022, with the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicting five per cent across the year, and to remain at an elevated level into 2023. 

Long-term inflation forecasts (OBR, Oct 2021) 
Year2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 
RPI 3.6 5.0 3.4 2.8 2.8 2.9 
CPI 2.3 4.0 2.6 2.1 2.0 2.0 

School fee increases

For many years, school fee increases have outstripped pay and RPI. The Independent Schools Council (ISC) census 2021 reports the average fee increase was 1.1 per cent – the lowest overall annual fee rise ever recorded in the ISC census. 

NEU believe that this exceptionally low increase, in an extraordinary year, will not be repeated. 

Pupil numbers 

The ISC 2021 census reports pupil numbers down slightly from last year’s record level to 532,237. This is still the third-highest pupil count since records began. 

Playing catch-up 

A pay claim could include an element to catch up on previous years below inflation. The annual NEU independent sector pay and conditions survey consistently reveals that the majority received an annual increase of less than inflation. 

State pay awards for teachers 

The Government has imposed a pay freeze on school teachers in England from 1 September 2021. It previously announced an intention to increase starting salaries to £30,000 by 2022/23, which would require an eight per cent pay rise on starting salaries ​in 2022 and a further eight per cent in 2023. This might be pushed back a year. 

The NEU has a major campaign on pay for state sector teachers. The principal claims are for an increase in pay of at least eight per cent in 2022 followed by at least eight per cent in 2023, to restore the pay losses since 2010.

In Wales, a pay freeze was not imposed. Instead, salaries across the pay scale were increased by 1.75 per cent, along with all allowances.

In Northern Ireland teachers were offered two per cent for 2020/21.

In Scotland, negotiations continue for the pay award covering 1 April 2021 to 31 March 2022. The current offer is 1 per cent increase at all SNCT pay points, effective from 1 April 2021; a further 1 per cent increase at all SNCT pay points, effective from 1 January 2022; and a one-off payment of £100.

Most academies replicate Government pay awards.

State sector pay awards support staff 

At the time of writing the pay award for support staff in the state sector has not been agreed. The recognised unions are balloting for strike action.

The employers pay offer remains with effect from 1 April 2021, an increase of 2.75 per cent on NJC pay point 1; and 1.75 per cent on all NJC pay points 2 and above. There is also a joint term-time only review group.

Defend the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS)

The TPS is a fundamental part of a teachers’ remuneration. Pension is deferred pay. For many, it is a contractual right and not something that can be universally changed by your employer.

NEU members have successfully persuaded their employers in more than 60 independent schools not to leave the TPS. The key to success? Acting early, acting collectively as the NEU and using the leverage of the threat of industrial action.

Be prepared. Read the guidance NEU TPS independent sector.

General guidance

Fundamental term of employment

Pay is a fundamental term of employment. The NEU believes that members should have the right to negotiate their pay, to be consulted or just informed.

Meaningful consultation is based on having all the relevant information, in good time, to enable staff to ask pertinent questions and to make informed decisions.

Meaningful negotiation is based on having all relevant information, in good time, to enable staff representatives to discuss matters with employer representatives with the aim of reaching agreement.

Strength in numbers

As trade union members, we know from experience that our interests are best served by acting collectively. Union membership and pay bargaining enhances pay, and it is not just us who say it.

Andrew Haldane, former chief economist, Bank of England, stated in June 2017:

“... there is a clear wage premium associated with trade union membership…”

Follow the Bank of England’s steer – get organised

Members should meet to discuss pay, determine priorities, and set a plan of action. This organising checklist can aid the discussion:

  • Does your school have a pay policy? Does it need improving?
  • Do you have negotiating rights? If not, consider recognition of the NEU.
  • Does the employer provide enough information to staff?
  • How strong is the NEU collective voice?
  • Is there an NEU rep team?
  • Look to strengthen staff voice by recruiting more colleagues into the NEU.

Follow the Bank of England’s steer – get your union recognised

Employees have the legal right to collective representation and to negotiate their main terms and conditions, under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, as amended by the Employment Relations Act 1999. 

NEU recommend securing collective rights through recognition of the NEU

If you only do one thing, submit a pay claim

Regardless of whether you enjoy statutory collective rights, the NEU recommends that members submit a pay claim. It doesn’t need to be sophisticated – being proactive changes the dynamic and can make an impact.

Some schools link pay to the state sector, often paid at a premium, in which case, you will be indirectly represented in the NEU negotiations with the Government.

Pay deal components 

It is important that NEU members submit a pay claim. Some things to consider:

  • cost of living. 
  • recruitment and retention. 
  • motivation and morale. 
  • performance. 
  • affordability. 
  • market. 

A cost-of-living increase below RPI inflation is in effect a cut in living standards.

Recruitment and retention

Education is a people business. The key to success is recruitment and retention. Parents expect quality staff and consistency of staffing.

Fewer graduates are being attracted to the profession, as pay has fallen in real terms for the past ten years. The retention rate continues to deteriorate with more than one in four newly qualified teachers leaving within three years.

Shortage of teachers and support staff in independent schools

Some independent schools are experiencing problems recruiting, particularly in maths, science and languages, and in support staff areas.

Part of the problem is that salaries have not kept pace with inflation, and the ever-increasing workload means that many teachers are retiring early.

Modern languages have been hit by Brexit. The perception that Britain is less welcoming has adversely affected, language teachers and teaching assistants.

Property prices have made it difficult for young teachers to get on the property ladder.

Motivation and morale

These considerations affect pay offers. Regardless of the economic situation, private sector employers have been historically unwilling to offer low pay awards for the fear of appearing mean.


There is good reason why employers should remunerate staff well.

What makes a successful school? “Above all, it is the hard work of the talented staff… both teaching and non-teaching staff.” Barnaby Lenon, ISC chairman.

As Richard Cairns, head teacher at Brighton College, has said, independent schools attract “outstanding teachers… by offering enhanced terms and conditions and smaller class sizes”. “These cost money and, inevitably, this is reflected in higher fees. Any school that thinks it can stint on teachers' salaries and class sizes while still offering a first-class education is kidding itself.”


Affordability is sometimes cited to deny a proper cost-of-living award when, more often, money is available but the employer prefers to spend it on something else.

If the employer argues they cannot afford an award that matches inflation, ask to see the figures. Most independent schools are registered charities, with accounts in the public domain on the Charity Commission website.

The right of disclosure of relevant information is a statutory right of employees where their nominated trade union is recognised. Even if you don’t enjoy this statutory right you could make a request in line with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) guidance.

The market rate can also affect what is offered. This may be the local market of competitor schools, the state sector, or general private sector. 

Bargaining and total reward 

There are other areas of reward, such as family-friendly policies or enhanced sick leave and pay. For example, NEU reps in one independent school negotiated a significant enhancement of maternity provision from the bare statutory minimum. 

Consolidated lump sums 

Combining percentage increases with minimum lump sums can benefit the low paid because a percentage figure increase can often be very low. 

Be wary of unconsolidated lump sums, as they are paid on a one-off basis and not added to your basic pay for future pay increases or pension contributions. 

The living wage 

NEU recommends that members consider including the request that the employer pays the living wage, as set by the Living Wage Foundation. This can make a significant difference to the lowest paid members, catering, and cleaning staff. 

The hourly rate is set independently in November. From November 2021, the rate is £11.05 per hour in London and £9.9 0 in the rest of the UK. 

NEU reps successfully negotiated a living wage agreement in the 23 independent schools run by the Girls Day School Trust. 

National minimum wage and the national living wage

From April 2022, the national living wage for employees aged 23 and over is £9.50 per hour. For employees aged 21 to 22, the minimum wage is £9.18.

The indices of a financially healthy independent school

To collective bargain effectively, you need to see the finances. When an employer says that they cannot afford a higher increase, often it is that they would prefer to spend the money on something else.

To avoid drawing conclusions from minor variances, it is advisable to look at trends, so request information over a period, say, five years.

Total income and expenditure

The biggest item on a school’s budget is staffing costs. The ISC estimates that the average independent school spends approximately 65-70 per cent of income on salaries.

Pupil numbers

Pupil numbers rising is a healthy sign. A dip in numbers may not mean that the school cannot afford a cost-of-living award as lean years should be offset with fat. A fall in pupil numbers might also have been offset by a fall in staff numbers.

School fees outstrip wage increases

The average school fee increase has outstripped wage increases and RPI for many years. The ISC census 2021 reports the average increase as 1.1 per cent. This is the lowest increase recorded and reflects the extraordinary impact of national lockdowns due to the Covid pandemic.

Synchronising your pay claim with the financial cycle of the school

NEU members submit a pay claim around February for the following September to maximise the chance of influencing the budget. The finance committee draft a budget February/March, for the main board before Easter.

If bargaining is conducted later, there is still scope for negotiation. It is likely that a provisional budget will have been set, including contingencies.

Salaries for teachers have around 37 per cent on-costs: NI 13.8 per cent; pension 23.6 per cent (TPS). A cost-of-living increase of three per cent, equates to an increase of 3.9 per cent for the school budget. On-costs for support staff are less, reflecting less generous pension.

There is a pay correlation between the age of pupils and the age of staff, salaries in pre-prep being the lowest and the more senior the highest.

Other sources of finance apart from fees

Some schools raise significant funds from parents, alumni, summer schools and after school clubs, weddings and other lettings etc.

Reserves and surplus

The Independent School Bursars Association recommends that a school runs an annual ten per cent surplus and a term's money in reserve. Many schools have much less.

NEU support

Get in touch if the NEU can help with your claim.

For instance, we can put you in contact with other NEU reps at local or comparable independents.

You might want advice on a particular argument your employer is using or a practical issue preventing genuine staff involvement in the decision-making process.

Let us know how your claim progresses. We want to know how you get on.

Independent pay survey 2022

In the latest survey of 1,200 NEU members working as teachers and support staff in independent schools, there is a clear trend in falling living standards. And as pay stagnates, workload remains high.

Back to top