Because he's worth it: the pound;200,000 head

23rd July 2010 at 01:00
Amid jibes, watershed moment as public backs top dollar for worthwhile job

Poor Mark Elms. Just as most primary heads were packing away the games and fishing out their swimsuits, he was busy dodging the media glare after he was outed as the nation's highest paid teacher. Of course, most heads might be prepared to endure a little journalistic aggro for the chance to pocket pound;200,000 a year. But the spectacle of the press pack hounding a London primary head over his salary was unprecedented. There hasn't been such an outcry in Deptford since that unfortunate incident in a tavern involving Chris Marlowe, a dagger and an unpaid bill.

The press habitually links teachers with many things - incompetence, indolence and general deviance - but rarely wads of wonga. So this story was unusual. What gave it added traction was the proposal advanced by the Education Secretary, revealed in The TES the week before, that heads should earn no more than the Prime Minister. Only a small minority receives more than David Cameron's pound;142,500 - indeed it is unlikely that many heads in Wales are paid more than the pound;102,000 salary offered to run Bassaleg Comprehensive in Newport. But Britain could be forgiven for assuming that if the Government was considering a cap, there must be a burgeoning problem.

The prospect of so much lucre being deposited in a few headteachers' bank accounts triggered some predictable reactions. It incensed many commentators on the right, who saw it as evidence of public sector profligacy. Rejoicing was equally lacking on the left. "My head thoroughly deserves a salary that dwarfs mine" was not a sentiment commonly advanced by classroom teachers or their unions.

But it also threw up a couple of surprises. The first was this week's warning from the School Teachers' Review Body, backed by a formidable alliance of unions, that a cap on headteacher salaries could stoke pay inflation rather than contain it (page 6). Admittedly, most signatories were concerned about sidestepping the pay body rather than defending generous salaries for heads. Nevertheless, when was the last time seven trade unions clubbed together to remind a Conservative minister that political interference in the market can lead to unforeseen wage distortions?

The second surprise was more profound. Reporters who had expected parents at Mr Elms' school to join them in outrage over the size of his pay packet were nonplussed to find that many thought he "deserved every penny". The school is in a relatively deprived area, so their reaction could not be put down to familiarity with and acceptance of high salaries. But Mr Elms is widely credited with turning a poorly performing school around and giving hundreds of children chances they would not otherwise have had. Many parents clearly thought you could put a price on that - and it wasn't far off pound;200,000.

It seems the public will not tolerate hefty salaries for subsidized bankers, superfluous quangocrats and slippery politicians. But it is willing to contemplate generous remuneration for deserving individuals in worthwhile occupations. Excellent headteachers and schools appear to qualify. And that surely is progress.

Gerard Kelly, Editor


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