The National Education Union’s 2020 independent sector pay & conditions survey reveals that 71% of independent school staff feel their school is currently providing a safe working environment however, a significant minority - 29% - do not think this is the case.

This compares to a figure of only 59% of NEU state sector members who felt their school was providing a safe working environment in an NEU snapshot survey earlier this term.

The survey of 1,428 independent school staff was conducted a head of the NEU Independent Sector Conference, which is held today. (1)

Effectiveness of Covid-security

A teacher in the east midlands highlighted a common problem: “Social distancing is impossible in most areas of school due to an old building and small classrooms, however efforts are made to distance as much as physically possible”.

Of the measures taken, additional cleaning scores the highest approval rate with 83% of respondents agreeing that adequate provision had been made.

Isolating staff/pupils showing symptoms scores an approval rate of 76%, social distancing 67%, and Personal Protective Equipment 58%.

However, just 39% report that their employer has made adequate provision for clinically extremely vulnerable staff to work from home.

Bubbles and ventilation

The effectiveness of “bubbles” as a protective measure divides opinion, with 24% agreeing that they were effective, 52% thinking they were to some extent, while 23% feel that they were not working.

A london teacher commented: “The bubbles reduce contact between children successfully, but staff move between all bubbles”.

Squaring the circle of good ventilation while keeping warm is problematic and will become more so as we go deeper into the winter months. In answer to the question, Do you have satisfactory measures in place to ensure that classrooms and other work areas will remain ventilated throughout the autumn and winter period, whilst at the same time ensuring a comfortable temperature? 43% answered Yes, 44% No, with 13% stating that they didn’t know.

As a head of department in the south east commented, “We have been told to keep windows open, so we get cold, but that we must if we want to stay safe.”

Infection and isolation

Two areas where it is clear that respondents feel improvements are needed are transparency of infection and isolating measures.

Less than half (42%) of teacher respondents said that all staff are alerted when pupils or staff are sent home on showing coronavirus symptoms.

We asked, If you have been in a bubble that has had someone symptomatic or with a positive Covid-19 test, have your expectations about whether you should self-isolate or continue to attend school been met?  While the majority of staff say they have agreed with school decisions (73%), a significant minority (25%) said they were told to stay in work when they believe they should have been sent home to isolate. For support staff, the figure is even higher at 41%.

Some vulnerable staff face financial hardship if they self-isolate in line with Government advice. A teacher in yorkshire & humber commented: “I only received SSP while isolating.  I am classed as extremely clinically vulnerable and have an NHS letter to isolate but after losing so much pay last time I cannot afford to follow the advice”.

A head of year in the North West lamented the lack of focus on staff in her school: “The emphasis is on doing ‘more than the competitors’ rather than doing things well. No recognition that staff have pressures outside school, whether childcare, medical, psychological.”

Cost of living

While staff work harder than ever in trying circumstances during the coronavirus crisis, their terms and conditions are being whittled away.

For a third year in a row, cost of living increases in the independent sector have failed to keep pace with inflation and the state sector. Just 5% of independent school teachers reported that their pay increase had matched or bettered the 2.75% headline award in the state sector.  For support staff, only 6% reported that they received a pay award that matched or bettered the 2% state award.

Worse still, the majority of respondents (63% of teachers and 53% of support staff) reported that they received no cost-of-living increase whatsoever.

A few are even facing pay cuts.  A teacher from the West Midlands commented: “We have been told that from January we face a 10% pay cut.”


Many teachers working in the independent sector face further woe as their employers continue to consider leaving the Teachers’ Pension Scheme.  The large majority (78%) of teachers responding said that their employer currently provides access to the TPS for teachers but more than half reported that their employer has proposed leaving.

In schools where consultation on leaving the TPS had been completed, just over half (51%) had left. There is, however, some good news in that NEU representations are persuading many employers not to proceed with their proposals.  After representations from NEU members, 39% of employers have agreed to remain in the scheme, while a further 10% have left but with better future pension terms for staff than originally proposed. (2)

Commenting on the survey results, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“It is clear from the NEU independent sector survey that school managements have gone to great lengths to try to minimise the risk to staff and pupils. However, a lot more needs to be done.

“Amongst other things, the NEU is concerned by a lack of transparency in some independent schools when pupils or staff report Covid symptoms. We believe that maximum transparency creates trust.

“We commend the great efforts made by members to ensure the best education continues while trying to cope with the health risks to pupils and staff. NEU members are working very hard academically and pastorally, mastering new technologies, navigating altered relationships with pupils, and adapting to new procedures and routines.

“Despite this, their pay and conditions are being whittled away. Teachers and support staff in the independent sector deserve a pay increase not a pay cut. For the third year in a row, however, pay in the independent sector has failed to keep pace with the state sector pay awards. And teachers’ pension rights via the TPS are coming under increased threat.

“More and more, NEU members working in the independent sector are organising and using their collective strength to robustly resist employers who unilaterally seek to cut their pensions. The NEU will vigorously support our members to do so.

“We also call on employers to prioritise staff workload. Additional work demands, willingly done in a time of crisis, should not become embedded as a new normal. It is unreasonable to expect school staff to shoulder additional workload, through teaching children both at home and in school or working longer hours due to staggered start and finish times, without measures being taken elsewhere to compensate for this.

“The NEU is concerned that some employers are using the pandemic to justify cutting staff terms and conditions.  Coronavirus is not a get-out-of-jail-free card to cut pay, dump the TPS and increase workload. The NEU will robustly support its members in seeking fair reward and protecting their terms and conditions.”



Editor’s Note

  1. The National Education Union survey of 1,240 teacher members and 188 support staff members was conducted between 2 and 16 November 2020.
  2. Q11 If you are, or were in the TPS, since 2019 has your employer consulted on leaving the TPS? Answers adjusted to reflect only where consultation on leaving had been instigated [removing no consultation or on-going]