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Perk practice;Personal finance

When it comes to the little extras that bolster employment packages, teachers get a rough deal, writes Neil Merrick

Faced with a looming staff shortage, education could take a lesson from the health service. To combat a serious shortage of nurses, NHS trusts have devised a range of innovative employment packages. Urged on by the employers' body, the NHS Executive, many trusts have launched "family-friendly" schemes that include benefits such as discounted holidays, cheap memberships at leisure centres and help with childcare.

Education, meanwhile, has responded to its recruitment problems by concentrating almost solely on pay, including possible "golden hellos" to help newly-qualified staff pay off student debts. In the words of Brian Clegg, assistant secretary for salaries at the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, the only "perks" available to staff are "free pencils and chalk".

A few schools and colleges are copying industry and other public-sector employers by offering a range of benefits, but they vary widely. While Hampshire teachers can take advantage of discounts at a private tennis and health club - thanks to their council's corporate membership - others have cars provided.

Mary Marsh, head of Holland Park School, in London's Kensington and Chelsea, is one of 33 heads and deputies in the borough given leased cars under a policy also covering local authority officers. Holland Park's 120 teachers and 30 support staff, meanwhile, are offered free travelcards and private health plans. But as part of an attempt to cut costs, both perks are about to be withdrawn for newly-appointed staff.

Ms Marsh, who points out that she has paid much extra tax for her Peugeot 306, says: "Schools are constrained by national pay and conditions while budgets are declining. That does not create a climate where schools feel able to remunerate particular people."

John Mowbray, general secretary of the Association of College Managers, agrees. He says his association is wary of suggesting school and college heads should be offered cars. "Principals are not keen to publicise their BMWs while staff are struggling to keep pace with the cost of living."

But Marcia Roberts, director of professional services at the Association of Colleges, says the fight to improve pay is at least partly to blame for the lack of innovation. She says colleges have been "put off" reviewing employment packages because of the entrenched attitude of unions, which have fought to ensure any extras do not come at the expense of salaries.

Phil Murray of human resource consultancy Hewitt Associates says two of the greatest obstacles to the introduction of such rewards in education are size (most schools have fewer than 100 staff and are not in a position to negotiate discount deals) and teachers' pensions - considered generous by employees in other sectors. "Private firms are rationalising pension arrangements to pay for wider benefits," he says.

Some local authorities offer their employees flexible schemes, where staff can trade part of their salary for a range of benefits such as private medical and dental insurance, personal accident cover, childcare vouchers and even extra holidays. Last year Surrey County Council introduced such a scheme for 600 of its 8,000 professional and support staff. It is being extended to a further 900 white-collar workers in April.

But Richard Mills, Surrey's acting head of personnel, says it cannot be extended to schools because the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Act strictly regulates salaries and holidays. Where Surrey teachers have the option of benefits without losing pay, such as private medical insurance, take-up has been fairly low.

Mr Murray says, anyway, no more than about 90 UK employers operate "flexi" schemes, although most offer non-flexible extra benefits. He adds: "Most schools have little room for manoeuvre when it comes to incurring extra costs."

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