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Could you live on just pound;8,500 a year, Mr Clarke?

Graeme Paton and William Stewart on inequalities shown in our pay survey

It is that time of year again when ministers, employers, governors and unions get to put their penny's worth into the debate over teachers' pay.

The battlelines are already being drawn as submissions to the School Teachers' Review Body are being finalised. Among flashpoints this year will be new teachers' salary and plans to vary pay locally to tackle staff shortages. The National Union of Teachers says the plan to allow all schools with recruitment problems to pay London rates is impractical, inflexible and prescriptive.

The union, which was excluded from salary talks because of its refusal to sign the workforce deal, is also critical of the agreement on the upper pay scale reached by the Government with other unions.

It uses a comparison between the pound;27,123 salary that teachers can expect after five years with the pound;35,000 the average graduate earns after the same period to argue for significant pay hikes for all experienced teachers.

But it is not just classroom professionals whose pay packets come under the microscope at this time of the year. Today The TES turns the tables on the movers and shakers to highlight the massive gulfs in today's education sector.

From quango bosses at the top to dinner ladies at the bottom, it seems everyone is putting in maximum effort, but only a few get the really big bucks back. Top salary, for the second year running, goes to Mark Haysom, the chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, who takes home around pound;180,000, a sum expected to soar to nearer pound;200,000 with benefits. Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, earned pound;137,812 in 2003-4, plus pound;104,699 in benefits, taking his overall pay package to pound;242,511, the highest in our survey.

Next up is Heather du Quesnay, the outgoing chief executive of the National College for School Leadership, with a salary of pound;149,033. The Tories have already been critical of so-called "fat cat" salaries being pulled in by officials at education quangos. If they had their way, Ms du Quesnay would be the first and last boss of the national college - they want to axe it as part of a move to save pound;5.7 billion.

But she is not the only person on a six-figure salary in today's TES chart.

The latest Department for Education and Skills accounts show that David Normington, the permanent secretary and the department's top civil servant, is on up to pound;145,000 while his boss, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, gets pound;130,347.

Graham Badman, education director at the country's biggest education authority, Kent, earns about pound;130,000, almost double that of the top official at tiny Rutland.

The country's best-paid head is still believed to be Alistair Falk, who gets pound;120,000-a-year for being in charge of the West London academy.

Other heads are not so lucky. According to the NUT, half of secondary heads are on up to pound;62,547 and most primary heads up to pound;43,296.

Teachers' pay is just as varied, with new teachers starting at pound;18,558 while the maximum a classroom teacher can earn without bonuses, passing through the threshold or being an advanced skills teacher is pound;34,914. But that's before anyone takes into account other benefits, such as the inner-London allowance of pound;3,500 (or pound;6,000 for the upper pay scales), up to pound;10,572 for extra duties and pound;3,396 for special needs teachers.

Assistants are the poor relation in classrooms. With some starting on just pound;8,500, it is little wonder their union Unison is locked in talks over pay with councils nationwide.

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