Many schools in England and Wales will close this week as teachers go on strike for better pay and working conditions. Research shows that pupils may suffer consequences that can last a lifetime. The costs of industrial action reveal the large value that teachers bring to the economy.
On 16 January 2023, the National Education Union (NEU), which organises school teachers in England and Wales, announced seven dates of industrial action in February and March in a dispute over pay and workloads. Similarly, the University and College Union (UCU), which represents staff in further and higher education, has announced 18 new strike dates in a dispute over pay, pensions and working conditions.
When school teachers and other educators walk out of their workplaces, they do so under the assumption that striking will have serious consequences, putting pressure on their employers. But what exactly are the knock-on effects?
To evaluate the potential impact of industrial action by teachers in the UK, it is useful to look at existing evidence. For example, our current research on a strike in Sweden shows that industrial action by teachers can have significant consequences not just for pupils’ learning but also for their future economic success (their job prospects and salaries).
This means that teacher strikes are a credible threat with serious consequences and should be treated as such by all involved. Failing to pay teachers a fair wage may ultimately produce larger costs for governments and employers than those they are trying to forestall.
What has Covid-19 taught us about the effects of missed school days?
The current strikes come on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced schools around the world to shut down for extended periods.
Pupils are therefore already vulnerable and will remember the struggles of learning from home (often with inadequate space, resources or support). There is evidence that this experience has left many with profound gaps in their knowledge and it has exacerbated already existing inequalities (Betthäuser et al, 2022).
We know that pupils’ progress depends on the face-to-face instruction that they receive from their teachers in class. But perhaps the pandemic is unique? After all, Covid-19 disrupted the lives of families and young people in a number of ways, and it is hard to isolate the effects of suspended instruction from that of economic hardship, social isolation or the loss of a loved one. Would we really expect teacher strikes to have the same dramatic consequences?
Unfortunately, the experience from Covid-19 is not an isolated incident. There is extensive research confirming the close link between instruction time and learning.
For example, pupils make less progress, and variation in achievement grows, during the summer months when school is in recess (Kuhfeld et al, 2020). They also tend to do better in the subjects in which, due to differences in school organisation, they get more instruction (Lavy, 2015).
Further, studies on absences due to extreme weather (such as heavy snow) show that even marginal variation in days of instruction can affect pupils’ performance (Marcotte and Hemelt, 2008). So, even a couple of days away from class can have a large effect on a child’s education.
How might teacher strikes affect pupils’ learning and future economic success?
Other studies have looked directly at the impact of teacher strikes. For example, when teachers in the French community of Belgium went on strike for six weeks, researchers examined how secondary school-aged children did compared to the Flemish region where there were no strikes (Belot and Webbink, 2010).
This study found that in the French community, class repetition increased (more retook a year) and pupils became more likely to enrol in lower forms of higher education compared with their Flemish neighbours.
Similarly, researchers examined differences in the number of strike days that Argentinian children experienced growing up across provinces and cohorts (Jaume and Willén, 2019). This study looked not just at short-term effects, but also later life outcomes such as earnings and family formation.
The authors found that pupils lost out on 2-3% of their future income when exposed to an ‘average’ level of teacher strikes. Further, among those affected, men typically opted for less qualified occupations, and women were more likely to become housewives.
Ironically, the total earnings that were lost – in terms of people earning less than their potential or not working at all – would have corresponded to a raise of teachers’ pay by 62%.
Another study looked at what happened in US states that passed laws mandating teacher collective bargaining (Lovenheim and Willén, 2019). The findings are similar. Men who had gone to school after the passage of such laws saw their earnings decline by 4%. The laws did not affect the level of schooling attained, but they seem to have influenced earnings through adverse effects on life skills such as self-efficacy that young people learn in school.
Can teacher strikes have long-term effects?
In current research, we look at the 1989 teacher strike that forced Swedish secondary schools to close for five weeks (Liss and Engzell, 2023).
The comprehensive administrative registers that exist in Sweden allow us to follow the pupils who were affected by the strikes three decades down the line. People from this cohort are now in their 40s, which means that we can track their earnings up to the peaks of their careers.
The strike only happened in 44 of Sweden’s then 284 municipalities. The other 240 municipalities therefore provide a comparison case of what would have happened in the absence of industrial action.
The outcomes measured are pupils’ grade point average (GPA) at the end of upper secondary school – like A-levels in the UK and the main qualification for entrance to higher education – and earnings between the ages of 30 and 40.
The findings indicate that pupils who were subject to the strike immediately saw a drop in school performance of two percentile points. This means that someone who would have scored higher than 50% of their peers only achieved a mark that was better than 48% that year.
This may not sound like much, but in fact, this drop corresponds to how much pupils would have been expected to learn under normal circumstances during the five weeks that schools were closed.
The effects did not stop with the pupils who graduated that year. Their peers who were in lower grades and graduated several years later also saw their GPA drop by a similar amount. This suggests that it is much harder to make up for lost learning than it is to prevent it in the first place, echoing experiences from Covid-19.
Was the learning slide equally distributed? No. Similar to experiences during the pandemic, the effects were concentrated among pupils from vulnerable homes, those with less educated parents or those living closer to the poverty line.
What about pupils’ economic wellbeing later in life? According to our analysis, the exposed cohorts lost around 2% of their earnings during their prime working years because of the strike.
This highlights that lasting economic effects of teacher strikes are not isolated to Argentina or the United States. Even in Sweden, with its compressed wage distribution and comprehensive social safety net, scheduled instruction turns out to matter profoundly for young people’s future economic success.
When teachers go on strike, pupils are likely to be affected by school closures and disruptions to their education. If the strike lasts for an extended period, children can fall behind in their studies and have trouble catching up.
Research shows that this causes negative effects in terms of school performance, labour market participation and wages for those exposed to the strikes. In other words, teachers have a profound influence on children’s future success (and on the economic performance of the nation as a result).
These effects demonstrate the value of the work that teachers do and the importance of rewarding it accordingly. Paying teachers a higher wage could well make economic sense for policy-makers if it prevents them from taking industrial action.
Where can I find out more?
- Teachers' strikes: When and why are teachers striking?: BBC News.
- The long-run effects of teacher strikes: Research Briefs in Economic Policy, Cato Institute.
- How teacher collective bargaining affects students later in life: Education Next.
Who are experts on this question?
- Per Engzell
- Simon Burgess
- Sandra McNally
- John Jerrim
- Hans Henrik Sievertsen
- Lindsey Macmillan
- Stephen Machin