The recent junior doctors strike not only demonstrated the regard with which the medical community is held by the general public but also brought into sharp focus the parallels – or lack thereof – between junior doctors' pay and working conditions and their teaching equivalents.
The contrast is stark.
On the issue of pay, the current minimum starting salary for a junior doctor will be £27,000 under the much-maligned contract imposed by Jeremy Hunt – although the department of health estimates that in the first few years of their career, they will earn around £40,000 owing to salary supplements. Eventually, doctors can earn up to £69,000.
That £27,000 basic wage is based on a 40-hour working week with all hours between 7am and 7pm Monday to Friday respectively. However, any hours’ doctors do outside of this, they qualify for overtime. So, for example, any work on a Sunday will be time plus 30 per cent. Any extra work between 9pm and 7am will also receive overtime. In other words, that £27,000 will most likely be significantly supplemented, particularly given government requirements for a seven-day NHS.
Let’s compare that to the average NQT outside of London.
They will start on £22,000. For the teacher with no desire to take on extra responsibilities, the most they can expect to earn at any point in their career might be between £34,000 and £37,000. It will take them a long time to get there too; perhaps 10 years. As we know, the concept of "overtime", so normal for others, is completely foreign to teachers. They are paid that £22,000 to work 50, 60, even 70 hours a week. Taking that into account, the hourly rate they will actually receive is closer to the minimum wage, holidays included.
Make no mistake, this is a huge disparity, even taking into account the fact that doctors spend five or six years completing medical training.
Let me be clear, this is not about knocking doctors. I believe it’s absolutely right that they are paid the way they are and they acted well within their rights by striking over the imposition of Hunt’s contract. This article is about the teachers, not the doctors. This is about highlighting the contrast between the way doctors and teachers – both groups who contribute an immense amount to society – are treated quite differently by the government and perhaps even the public at large.
If teachers were paid for the extra working hours they treat as part and parcel of their day-to-day lives, the public coffers would soon be empty.
Apart from the fact they are paid much less, is teaching unique in any other way compared with being a doctor, lawyer, dentist or accountant?
If you have ever worked in a school as a full-time teacher and survived more than a week, you will know that the terms "work" and "job" take on a whole new meaning in the sphere of education.
For example, normal workplaces and particularly offices, experience lulls. At TES towers, Ed Dorrell finds a moment to pop to the toilet. Ann Mroz nips to the coffee machine. Jon Severs momentarily closes his eyes and sniffs the pages of TES professional. Adi Bloom makes a personal call, only for a second. Perhaps, God forbid, staff might wander over the road for a pub lunch. Normal, acceptable behaviour in the vast majority of workers in this country but that never happens in schools any more. It used to.
There is hardly time to breathe in the average UK school, let alone relax for a leisurely sandwich of a lunchtime: most teachers can be seen scoffing them on the run to the next duty or detention.
No time to switch off
A teacher simply can’t switch off. The relative calmness of the courtroom when out of session, the local GP practice at the end of surgery or indeed a newspaper after it’s gone to press are as foreign to the teacher as the moon is to the sun.
The "performance" aspect of teaching is one that is rarely appreciated or understood. Imagine a West End performer on stage for five hours a day, five days a week, coming off stage exhausted each day and then being asked to work, again, without pay, each evening. How long would a doctor hack it? If a doctor stutters, struggles to find the correct data on his or her computer or is just having a bad day, they have one patient in front of them at a time and some control over the clock. Meanwhile, a teacher in the same situation might find a class of 30 tearing them apart in an instant or a senior leader on their backs immediately.
That senior leader represents another problem: the scrutiny and lack of trust in teachers seems to be a unique phenomenon.
But this isn’t about point-scoring, only about recognising the current lack of equilibrium. By pointing out these inequalities between the professions, it’s easy to be shouted down as part of Michael Gove’s "blob", whatever that is. But surely the current recruitment and retention crisis has a lot to do with the problems I am outlining – and the way members of the public treat the school staff they interact with.
The fact that the business of education revolves around children presents a moral dilemma for teachers who want to do something about these issues. For example, many respond to the idea of "working to contract" by fearing that it will compromise their moral mission. By refusing to mark and assess work, attend meetings, input data or plan lessons properly, they worry that it’s the children who might ultimately lose out.
Pupils come first
It is this moral dilemma that explains why, when NASUWT tried to introduce a "work to rule" campaign, not enough of its members could toe the line. Some deviated to one degree or another, but no more than that.
Teachers are there for their pupils and, ultimately, everything else is secondary. That includes being prepared to double up on workload to save a kid from the latest daft government initiative. It is a natural instinct from a group of people feel dedicated to the children they teach and who are willing to compromise on everything for them, sometimes to their own detriment.
Whereas the junior doctors have been out on strike, backed by a militant BMA, to battle Hunt’s injustices, teachers are divided in more ways than one; between moral imperatives, multiple unions and a natural spirit of stoicism.
Surely, the campaign to "talk up the profession" (think College of Teaching etc, etc) must include a fierce and uncompromising drive to show the general population just how "professional" teaching is and just how challenging the teaching standards are to meet on a daily basis.
It deserves to stand alongside all other professions in every respect. Its belittlement is a national scandal and one that will undermine the capacity of this country to keep its teachers in the classroom, let alone in the UK.
Raise the wage, raise the status; give teachers the respect they deserve.