The downside is that their starting pay is relatively low, they work longer hours than teachers in most other countries, and their classes are invariably bigger.
Statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggest that the salary of a UK primary teacher with 15 years' experience jumped by 40 per cent - even allowing for inflation - between 1985 and 1993. Portuguese teachers' pay rose even more dramatically (120 per cent) but primary staff in 18 countries fared less well than in the UK.
The average number of pupils per UK primary teacher was 21.7, a figure only exceeded by Turkey (27.6), Ireland (24.4) and the Netherlands (22.4). Three countries had fewer than 12 pupils per primary teacher, Austria (11.8), Denmark (11.2) and Italy (9.9).
The OECD also compared the annual number of teaching hours worked by primary staff and found that the average was 829. As our table shows, the Swiss, Dutch and Americans had to spend more time in the classroom than UK teachers. The Norwegians and Swedes have the lightest teaching load, but this is matched by their pay packets.
Scandinavia also has the oldest teachers. A third of Swedish teachers are now over 50 and more than 70 per cent of the Danes are over 40. The UK is not, of course, immune to this trend and the OECD report, Education at a Glance, lends support to those who feel that starting salaries are insufficiently attractive to graduates with good degrees. New primary teachers in the UK earn considerably less than staff with 15 years' experience, the report says. This is partly because UK teachers' earnings peak early.
A spokesman for the National Union of Teachers this week questioned the OECD's assertion that the pay of experienced staff had risen by 40 per cent. "It's true that teachers' pay was in a trough in 1985, that there was a buy-out of negotiating rights in 1987 and another hike just before the general election in 1992," she said.
"Nevertheless, having done our own calculations we cannot see how it can be more than 28 per cent. That's assuming they are comparing someone on Scale 2 in 1985 with an A allowance in 1993. You also have to remember that teachers' salaries are now about 4 per cent above the average white-collar workers' income compared with roughly 37 per cent after the Houghton award in 1975. "
Education At A Glance - OECD Indicators. Available from OECD, 2 Rue Andre-Pascal, 75775 Paris. Price: $50. An accompnaying booklet which discusses key themes costs $10.