The recent Budget confirmed the government's intention to award a one per cent a year pay increase to public sector workers for four years beginning in 2016/17.
However, in a letter to the chairs of the public sector pay review bodies, including to Dame Patricia Hodgson, chair of the School Teachers' Review Body (STRB), the chief secretary to the Treasury, Greg Hands, has suggested that not every worker should get the rise.
He wrote: "The government expects pay awards to be applied in a targeted manner to support the delivery of public services, and to address recruitment and retention pressures.
"This may mean that some workers could receive more than one per cent, while others could receive less; there should not be an expectation that every worker will receive a one per cent award."
The letter sparked a strongly worded response from all three major teaching unions – who warned that this approach would do nothing to ease recruitment or retention problems within the profession.
Adrian Prandle, director of economic strategy and negotiations at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "The government might be in denial, but the STRB has already warned of an impending crisis in teacher numbers.
"Political interference to further limit any chance of pay rises will not make teaching an attractive profession for graduates saddled with student debts."
Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: "The idea that many teachers will not get a one per cent pay rise next year, coupled with the fact that performance-related pay in schools has meant that many teachers are now being denied progression up the pay scales, will be a disaster for teacher recruitment and retention.
"Teachers have already had five years of pay caps and pay freezes, while average earnings elsewhere have gone up by 10 per cent. New graduates are getting the message that there are no pay prospects in teaching."
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: "Unfortunately, nothing in the letter comes as a surprise. The letter from the Treasury imposes on review bodies further unjustified constraints, compromising their independence.
"The letter promotes even deeper cuts to teachers' pay, arrogantly ignoring the evidence of a recruitment and retention crisis in teaching, in which a key driving factor is the decline in teachers' pay in comparison to other graduate professions. Government policy is rendering the profession unattractive and uncompetitive."