Editorial - Heads' salaries have no place in 'fat cat' debate

18th December 2009 at 00:00
And being appropriately rewarded for doing a vital job should not be cause for shame

There can be no great debate about whether it is right to publish the salaries of those few public servants lucky enough to enjoy substantial pay packets. University vice-chancellors and heads of colleges already have their salaries highlighted for the benefit of the neighbours; there is no reason why highly paid school leaders should not submit to the same scrutiny (page 4).

Recognising the electorate's right to see how much top public sector workers earn is one thing. Indulging in an orgy of misdirected fury is another. Headteachers do not deserve to be caught up in the current hysteria to curtail the "culture of excess". "Excess" - a couple of errant shopaholic and megalomaniacal heads aside - has hardly been a common feature of school management.

For all the talk of "superheads" commanding salaries with several zeroes, only a minority earns above #163;100,000 and a tiny percentage over #163;150,000, although their numbers may rise significantly as demand outstrips supply. A head earns, on average, #163;70,000 - far less than a bog-standard GP, who commands #163;110,000.

It is still extremely difficult to recruit good headteachers. The number of applicants per post remains in low single figures, despite the recession. Nine out of 10 classroom teachers and four out of 10 departmental managers say they have no aspirations for headship. The responsibilities are heavy, the hours long and the scrutiny incessant. The pay differential with deputies, particularly in primaries, is too small.

In view of the lack of heads, there are plenty of reasons why - even in these gloomy days - their pay should rise in certain localities to stimulate supply. Critics counter that this would divert scarce money away from frontline services. They argue that superheads are not like thrusting corporate execs because they enjoy far less opportunity to shape their environment and hence have far less impact. To tempt candidates with something as crass as a hefty pay packet, they say, would only attract the wrong sort.

To which the response must be, first, that the most vital part of the frontline is a capable and excellent head without whom no school can function well. Second, if heads' effectiveness is constrained by limits on their freedom to manage - from overly restrictive nationwide union agreements to micro-management by government - then those restrictions should be removed. And finally, headteachers may not be principally motivated by money, but they - and potential heads - are certainly demotivated by a lack of it, particularly if they perceive that they are falling behind comparable professions.

It would be regrettable if the move to name top earners was confused with a desire to shame. Well-paid heads have nothing to feel ashamed about. They are remunerated well for good reasons. The status of the profession will not be enhanced if its leaders are poorly paid. And if they are embarrassed by having their salary published, they should take comfort in the knowledge that transparency tends to increase market rates rather than depress them. Ask a vice-chancellor.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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