Aleksandr the Meerkat makes a compelling case for using comparison to get good insurance, but that strategy has been unsuccessful in improving the pay of teachers in further education. It is time we stopped comparing our staff with those in schools and tried something different.
At first sight, there are obvious reasons for the discrepancy in salaries. School teaching is a graduate profession – further education teaching is not (only 50 per cent of teachers in the sector are graduates). More importantly, funding per student is higher in schools and average group sizes are significantly higher than in colleges. This permits a much higher average pay level, even when you factor in the greater number of tuition hours that school students receive.
However, there is a wider question that is more uncomfortable to consider. When we look inside our colleges, relative pay levels differ for different types of staff. Our senior staff are usually paid more than school leaders, many of our managers, too. This seems to reflect size and economies of scale. Our executive team of eight leads a college of 16,000 students. Local schools tend to have senior teams of five leading 800 students. In our college group, heads of department typically manage up to 20 staff. Management overheads in schools are much higher and department heads might manage only two or three people.
College leader pay: Fewer colleges paying over £200K
In most support areas that stark differential we see with teachers is also less obvious. Our finance, marketing, HR and IT staff might perceive their salaries low compared with major private sector employers, but they are generally paid at least as well as staff in schools. This reflects the nature and complexity of a college: the financial challenges are greater; the IT infrastructure is more significant; our stakeholder relationships are broader; the HR skills we need reflect the fact that we are usually one of the largest employers in our towns.
The problem with comparing teachers' pay in schools and colleges
So, if we are able to pay our senior staff and support staff relatively well despite lower funding, what is driving lower teaching salaries? Is it simply down to diseconomies of scale?
Sadly I think the answer is more subtle, and more uncomfortable, based on the fact that generosity or otherwise with taxpayers’ money tends to reflect the value people place on the public services we provide. This can be deeply unfair but it needs to be recognised if we want to change those perceptions.
There is a famous experiment where people were asked to value a perfect 24-piece set of plates and bowls. They were then asked to value a bigger set containing the same perfect 24 pieces plus cups and saucers, some of which were broken. Almost everyone valued the bigger set well below the smaller, even though it contained all the smaller pieces and more. Experiments like this show that the introduction of additional information dilutes an argument. We average rather than add the information. You don’t improve the quality of your argument by simply increasing the quantity of your argument.
A decade or so ago our teachers were forced to become teacher-qualified. It is a policy I thought misguided, and still do. For me, it was inevitable that teaching qualifications would have to be structured so no existing staff failed, and it drew attention to the fact that, unlike schools, many of our teachers weren’t already “proper” teachers. Why would the public value our staff in the same way as those working in schools knowing that?
Since then we have moved on and instead have championed our teachers as dual-professionals. On that basis, you might expect them to be rewarded and valued more than single-professional teachers. But the experiment earlier suggests that this approach might backfire. Pushing the dualism won’t work if you are a great teacher but a below-average engineer, or a great hairdresser but a below-average teacher.
The Office for National Statistics 2020 survey shows that the average salary of beauticians, bricklayers, carpenters, chefs, farmers, graphic designers, hairdressers, marketers and retailers ranges from £17,223 to £29,391. In contrast, qualified teachers in schools average £40,881, and in colleges about £32,000. That would suggest that pushing dual professionalism weakens the argument for higher pay rather than strengthens it for most of our staff. If our teachers are seen to derive their professionalism mainly from their occupational experience then moving into further education teaching clearly earns a salary premium as our teachers earn above their occupational average. On the other hand, if we wish to see their value based first on teaching professionalism, parading occupational competence will dilute perceived value.
The route to higher pay seems to require pushing high-quality teacher professionalism and, if we are not able to convince that it is as strong as in schools, then we should stop making the comparison.
Just as I have argued that teaching unions should forget trying to get the same rise for all their members, and instead seek good rises from colleges in a position to give them, I think we should consider trying to get much higher pay for some rather than all of our teachers. Where we can show that our staff are qualified to a very high level in their subject and their teaching, the case for better treatment is harder to dismiss.
Colleges are not schools. We have a very different purpose and mission. If we want to compare with anyone it should be with those in universities, promoting our staff as academics and educators. It was a comparator that worked well 40 years ago, even if our staff were seen as not quite as valuable. The average university salary is now over £50,000. We need to go back to the past to find a more rewarding future. As Aleksandr might say: “Simples”.
Ian Pryce is principal and chief executive of the Bedford College Group