There has been tension in the air in recent weeks, as rumours about a public-sector pay freeze circulate.
It may be a bit premature to put forward an overwhelmingly strong case for the chancellor to loosen the purse strings. It could be that, impelled by a mixture of gratitude and desire for justice, he is already finalising the details of an enormous pay rise for teachers.
But, just in case he needs help to justify his decision to his colleagues at the Treasury, here are 10 compelling reasons to give teachers a pay rise, not a pay freeze.
1. Teachers are underpaid, anyway
Teachers are highly skilled and qualified professionals, whose expertise should be more highly rewarded than it has been in recent years. Our intellect directs the curriculum, and provides an effective education for whole generations.
2. The disproportionate risks of the coronavirus classroom
Teaching has become a very hazardous job, particularly in regions with high Covid infection rates. Older teachers and those with underlying health conditions are particularly at risk, day after day, in the classrooms they share with large numbers of students.
Safety measures are – frankly – inadequate. There is little chance of social distancing. Compare the average key stage 4 classroom with your local bank, for example, and you’ll get some idea of the comparatively high risk teachers are exposed to. On those grounds alone, they deserve compensation in their pay.
3. The need to adapt and reskill on the job
Online and blended learning have required considerable upskilling. But teachers have gone well beyond the basic levels of change needed by adapting IT tools in order to improve the quality of the virtual classroom.
4. The voluntary work done over the course of the pandemic
In a crisis, teachers have volunteered to do more in many different ways. Some have helped to operate food banks, while others have written extra courses to stretch Year 11 and 13 students beyond national qualifications, and thus ready their students for the next stage in their lives.
5. Keeping the national qualifications system running
Teachers have acted as assessors in the absence of exams, and have exercised even more finely tuned judgements than exam boards do.
Teachers’ ranking of large year groups, without bunching, is a far more detailed and far-reaching exercise than the one performed by examiners during grade-award meetings, where it is enough to divide thousands of candidates into just 10 bands at GCSE and six at A level.
6. The indirect benefits of teachers’ work
The ripple effects of teachers’ work with their pupils surface many years beyond the classroom, in all walks of life. Teachers educate care workers and nurses, doctors and all professions linked to them.
I’m sure I’m not the only teacher taken aback by a former pupil recognising me and telling me stories of how the help they were given in school has turned their lives around.
7. Compensation for extra hours, accrued because of exams uncertainy
Teachers constantly deal with change imposed from above (aka political meddling). The teachers’ mantra is “we will make it work”. And we do.
Time after time, examiners’ reports pay tribute to the implementation of increasingly complex and over-detailed changes. The process of adaptation takes up many extra hours, which are never acknowledged – let alone appreciated – by politicians and the general public.
8. Some of the longest hours in the world
In spite of all the efforts of the workload challenge, UK teachers’ hours remain among the longest in the world. If leaders of academy trusts and local authorities had to pay for all that overtime, for all those unnoticed and unappreciated extras, perhaps there might be proper streamlining of work and more effective use of teachers’ time.
9. The long-term attractiveness of teaching in the graduate jobs market
Jobs for graduates are scarce at present, and there has been a surge in teacher-training applications since the first lockdown.
But when the economy picks up, there will be more attractive options. This will drive down recruitment into the profession, particularly in shortage subjects.
10. Keeping expertise in the classroom
Successive governments have failed dismally to tackle the crisis of almost one in three teachers leaving the profession within their first five years of teaching.
Britain has one of the youngest teaching professions in the world, because experienced teachers leave, disillusioned by the way they have been treated. The long pay freezes of the past decades don’t inspire loyalty.
Pay has never been the most important reason for sticking with teaching. There are many teachers philosophical enough to consider themselves relatively well off, just because they have a secure job and pay when so many people are suffering the loss of income and status. And, for a while, the government may be able to trade on that.
But it seems that MPs can afford to award themselves eight pay rises in 10 years: a cumulative total of £13,730. Shouldn’t they then also reward those whose academic and pastoral skills provide an ongoing education, those who can’t shelter behind a computer screen, those who keep the country going day after day, in this most gruelling and unsettling period?
Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)