With the economy in meltdown and the unemployment rate rocketing, a 20 per cent pay rise for heads might seem extreme. But Ed Balls, an economist by training, has given it his fulsome support. Indeed, the Schools Secretary has even asked whether 20 per cent is enough for those in charge of the biggest schools.
Last week's announcement was accompanied by a less spectacular, but still generally well received, 2.3 per cent pay rise for all teachers from September. But questions are now being raised about whether 20 per cent is affordable. And there are fears that the details of the pay recommendations could result in wage cuts for teachers who do difficult jobs looking after special educational needs pupils.
And beyond pay, serious concerns have also been raised at teachers' working hours. The School Teachers' Review Body (STRB), the official pay body, is encouraging the Government to take action.
The seemingly generous deal for heads - one that could take the highest paid towards Pounds 200,000-a-year - comes with significant strings attached. It will only be paid to those who are prepared to double or treble their responsibilities - effectively by taking on two or more schools in a federation.
Top heads are already understood to be earning in excess of Pounds 150,000, with opportunities for performance bonuses. Now, even these highest of earners will be in line for a guaranteed rise of up to 20 per cent if they take on the extra work.
Until now, salaries have failed to keep pace with the rapidly evolving job of running a school. The scale was stuck on the model of one headteacher for every school despite there now being 350 schools in federations.
This has left executive heads to negotiate their own salaries. In some cases, this has resulted in generous deals. One source suggested that heads were commanding "whatever they wanted". But in other cases, it is known that heads were not offered anything more than the opportunity to enhance their CVs.
The recommended pay rise comes with a call from the pay body for the whole system for rewarding heads to be looked at. Phil Revell, chief executive of the National Governors' Association, said the review needed to happen before the pay rises were imposed because he feared schools could be hit financially if they continued to employ individual heads in addition to executive headteachers.
"We like some of the primary federations where there are leaders of teaching and learning in each school who are not headteachers," he said. "In that situation, the executive head is earning their money.
"The potential savings come in reducing the number of school leaders. If you still have to have three headteachers and are then paying a big salary to an executive head on top of that, it could cause problems with affordability."
Headteacher pay for those in charge of a single school is supposedly capped at Pounds 107,000 in inner London, but governing bodies enjoy considerable flexibility to pay their school leaders more. Academies, which operate outside the national pay scales, have driven rises in heads' pay, with salaries almost invariably in excess of Pounds 100,000. The Harris federation of academies in south London is advertising for principals to start in September on salaries up to Pounds 130,000, plus performance bonuses, relocation packages and other benefits.
Even academies outside London are paying in excess of Pounds 100,000 a year, considerably above the Pounds 70,000 average headteacher salary. And as reported in The TES as long ago as 2007, some schools are offering signing-on bonuses of up to Pounds 40,000 to attract the best candidates.
As the worsening economy puts the squeeze on school budgets, all these payments, including extras for executive heads, will come under increasing scrutiny from governors and local authorities.
The general rise in teachers' pay by 2.3 per cent is less than the teaching unions had been lobbying for. The NUT had asked for 10 per cent, plus an additional one-off payment, to make up for below-inflation deals in recent years.
The union will debate whether to continue with its 10 per cent claim at its conference in Cardiff starting today. But it will do so knowing that public sympathy will be virtually non existent should they consider a repeat of last year's strike action.
Despite mild complaints and continuing words of encouragement to the pay body to reconsider, the economic reality means the 2.3 per cent is unlikely to change.
There is good news in inner-London, however, where starting pay for new teachers is set to increase by 4 per cent from Pounds 25,000 to Pounds 26,000, with salaries for more experienced teachers adjusted accordingly.
Of greater concern to Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, is the problem of teachers' long working hours. The STRB report highlighted continuing problems, despite changes to the school workforce which have resulted in a 44 per cent increase in the number of support staff employed in state schools between January 2003 and January 2008.
The pay body conceded there were "serious and legitimate concerns about workload". It called on school leaders to do more to manage reductions in staff hours. It wants the Government to explore why initiatives have failed to cut hours and to see what can be done. But the STRB has so far refused to put a limit on the number of hours teachers can work.
"There are issues and they are not going away," said Ms Keates. "Teachers cannot work effectively if they are working excessive hours. Imposing a work time limit is an important step to stop excessive hours."
Concerns have also been raised about recommended changes to the allowances paid to teachers of children with special educational needs.
At present, the lowest allowance - mandatory for all staff working in special schools and discretionary for those in mainstream schools - is more than Pounds 1,900. But the suggestion is that it should be cut to Pounds 1,000.
Martin Freedman, head of pay at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "We are extremely disappointed the lowest level of special education needs allowance has been halved. No organisation submitting evidence had called for a reduction in the value of the allowance.
"Teachers working in special needs face some of the most difficult challenges of all, and this proposal fails totally to recognise the crucial role they play."
Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the NUT, said the lower level might make it possible for more teachers to receive the allowance. She also welcomed the extension of the allowance to all teachers working in pupil referral units, which the pay board recognised was work as challenging as that in special schools. All teachers working in such units will receive a payment equal to the special needs allowance - whether Pounds 1,900 or Pounds 1,000 - from September.
In a week in which newspapers reported that PRU staff were having to teach a growing "wave of child thugs", this bonus may provide some solace - even if their pay remains a long way off the Pounds 200,000 now in the sights of super heads.
A BOOST FOR EXCELLENCE
Staff on the excellent teacher scheme will see their salaries soar: in London those at the top of the scale can earn Pounds 59,000 from September - a rise of 10 per cent. The minimum London pay will be Pounds 46,866, up a staggering 24 per cent from Pounds 37,672.
Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has accepted recommendations to overhaul the system for rewarding the highest performers who want to remain in the classroom, passing on their skills and acting as mentors to other staff.
When the scheme started in 2006, officials estimated 5,000 teachers would join in the first year but, by last January, only 60 had signed up.
The system for paying these teachers is being changed to ensure everyone on the scheme will receive a pay rise.