As readers contemplate their squeezed pay packets, constricted job prospects and formidable tax hikes in the wake of this week's Budget, they should entertain an unnatural urge - spare a thought for the Government. For many, this will not come easily. But have a heart! It spent years in opposition developing ambitious plans for schools only to attain power and discover there was no money to pay for them. What is a minister to do?
Specifically, how is one supposed to deliver a first-class education system and attract motivated, respected and appropriately rewarded staff if your chum the Chancellor refuses to pay them any additional money? Nothing, not an extra penny, nada until 2013. "Become a teacher and see your pay stagnate." Yep, that'll work.
Of course, teachers are not motivated principally by fat salaries. But the historically low levels of pay associated with teaching until a few years ago were a reflection of the true value society placed on its worth, whatever the platitudes to the contrary. No one - especially, one hopes, a Government alive to the benefits that enhanced status can bring to teaching - wants teachers to be reduced back to the ranks of the low-paid, with all the consequences that would have for school performance. So, given these austere times, what can the Government do?
The unions' answer has been both unimaginative and shrewd. Their reaction to the prospect of freezes and cuts deployed the usual range of overused adjectives and threats: "brutal", "devastating", "unprincipled", "outrageous", "We know where you live", and so on. Unfortunately, undifferentiated screaming isn't terribly convincing and is bound to backfire. Everyone accepts that times are tough, sacrifices have to be made and barking a collective yelp against every measure to tackle the deficit will make it easier for the Government to dismiss reasonable concerns along with the unreasonable ones.
On the other hand, despite the bleating, so far the unions have chosen to keep their powder dry. The pain for most teachers, after all, will not completely hit home until 2011, when the current pay deal ends. But the really big battle will be over pensions, and the Government's intentions on those won't be clear until later next year. If it misjudges its review, the unions could mobilise the profession in a way they are unlikely to be able to do over pay.
Which still leaves the Government in a bind. How can it make teaching an attractive proposition and stick to its guns on public-sector pay, especially if the economy improves and competition for graduates increases? Well, it could redefine "public". Academies, being in effect independent state schools, are in theory free to pay their staff more from slightly larger budgets. Fixed salaries in non-academy schools could be trumped by flexible alternatives in academies. What a happy congruence of political principle and economic necessity! "Want a pay rise? Join an academy." Much snappier. Gerard Kelly, Editor E firstname.lastname@example.org.