The impoverished schoolteacher, darning his or her socks by candlelight, was a stock image of 19th-century novels. It is a far cry from today when British teachers are among the best paid in the developed world. But, as we report today, not all share in the profession’s relative prosperity.
The Teacher Support Network is a charity that awarded £120,000 in grants to struggling teachers in the academic year September 2012 to June 2013. Some needed an urgent cash injection to cover basic food and accommodation. Significantly, more than a quarter were supply teachers working on zero-hours contracts, meaning no pay over the long summer break.
Use of zero-hours contracts is now almost standard in the huge retail sector, where unions are weak. But it is growing fast throughout the UK, although the extent of this growth is disputed. While the Office for National Statistics this summer estimated that 250,000 people in the UK work on such contracts, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development put the figure at a million.
Until recently, the heavily unionised teaching profession kept zero-hours contracts at bay, but as universities in particular come under pressure to cut costs, many have resorted to them. Indeed, a recent report showed that half of our universities and two-thirds of colleges of further education use them to a degree.
These contracts may suit some people, and some sectors of the economy, that rely on people who want only occasional earnings. But it would be a depressing step backwards if the system rooted itself in school teaching. The number of teachers seeking emergency grants to pay for food and rent may still be small, but the fact that we again have hungry teachers at all is a cause for serious concern.