OPINION: teachers are fed up with peanuts

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The Independent Online
T oday is pay day for almost 1.5 million public servants, including 450,000 schoolteachers in England and Wales. As review bodies report their recommendations, thousands more teachers in Scotland, Northern Ireland, in sixth-form colleges and in further and higher education throughout the UK will be watching closely.

Informed speculation fuelled by unattributable ministerial briefings put today's teachers' increase at about 3.8 per cent.

So while that figure would edge teachers ahead of inflation and, perhaps for the first time for several years, just about keep pace with average earnings, it will do little to resolve the crisis lurking just around the corner.

And it would still leave average pay at around pounds 22,000 per annum. The maximum for the unpromoted classroom teacher after nine years service would scarcely reach pounds 21,000. While not on the poverty line, it compares unfavourably with other professions.

In the context of teachers' open-ended contracts, imposed through statute in 1987, affording no protection from excessive workloads produced by one government reform upon another, the "total remuneration package" remains extremely unattractive.

Social changes, government reforms and media hostility have eliminated the job satisfaction that used in part to compensate for the meagre financial rewards.

The Inspectors' Report out on Monday again questioned teacher quality. According to the much-loved market forces survey, the price should be raised to attract higher-calibre entrants. After all, the Education Minister, Robin Squire, speaking on the Assisted Places Scheme, admitted in the House on 16 April 1995 that a pounds 20,000 salary "is not a great sum in today's climate".

The brutal reality is that teaching relies on continued high unemployment to keep its recruitment head above water. Even the recent slight upturn in the economy has already produced dramatic reductions in applications to teacher training.

The age structure of the teaching profession is woefully lopsided. More than two-thirds are now in the second half of a normal working career. Nearly 45 per cent are aged between 40 and 49. If the current "reach 50 and run" practice is maintained for reasons of stress, redundancy and the "fed-up factor", then the steady ebb of teachers in their fifties could turn into a mass exodus as the 40-49 age group attains the magic age of 50, when they can draw an early pension.

The Government might have to construct a Berlin-type wall by amending the pension regulations to keep teachers in schools and to protect the superannuation account. The Government's likely refusal to fund the 3.8 per cent will worsen the problem.

The gender structure of the profession is, likewise, lopsided. There is hardly a male entering the primary sector these days. More than 80 per cent of the primary profession is female, and the figure is rising every year. The traditional 50/50 split between female and male in the secondary sector is moving closer to 60/40. The role model message given to our youngsters must be extremely damaging. There needs to be a fair balance between the sexes.

The teachers' pay review body and the Government have so far proved remarkably complacent, despite precarious recruitment and retention.

Still, teachers gathered a small crumb of comfort from the recent grumblings by of MPs over their own pay rises. Despite various allowances, the MP's pounds 34,000 salary remains, like teachers' pay, remarkably modest in relation to the responsibilities carried. A Conservative MP pleaded comparability, saying: "If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys." That takes the week's prize for hypocrisy. What price market forces now!


The writer is general secretary of the Nation Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers.