Editorial - Why national pay isn't going anywhere

5th February 2010 at 00:00
This nonsensical system will stay because the alternatives don't have a hope in hell

Are you feeling comfortable in Llanelli or counting the pennies in Brecon? Are you skint in Cardiff or do you find your salary goes surprisingly far in Aberdare? If the answer is yes, it is probably because nationally agreed pay rates for teachers make little or no allowance for local conditions. Now the Government has shelved plans for regional pay awards just as an influential think-tank is urging an end to national pay bargaining and the Opposition is making bullish noises about devolving more budgetary power to heads (page 1). How should teachers' pay be set?

For teaching unions, the idea that a colleague who has similar experience and identical qualifications should receive a bigger salary because they teach a shortage subject, or are employed in an area that has difficulty attracting staff, is inherently unfair. Pay levels - or so traditionalists believe - should be determined nationally and applied indiscriminately.

That is nonsense. Such pickled thinking wouldn't look out of place in an episode of Life on Mars. It does wonders for the egos of general secretaries, but fails to address scarcity or reward performance. It impedes mobility by encouraging teachers to stay in cheap areas and deters them from expensive ones. Indeed, the system is already fraying at the edges as governing bodies seeking the best candidates award headteachers salaries in excess of national agreements.

It is hard to find a logical reason for the continuance of national pay bargaining. And yet it will almost certainly be here at the general election after next. Why?

First, because there is more flexibility in the current system than reformers suppose - recruitment and retention points, golden hellos and so on. If the money exists, headteachers can already channel cash to the staff they think deserve and require it.

Second, because regional pay bargaining would simply replicate the inadequacies of national agreements at a local level: the negotiations would be no less cumbersome, the discrepancies where regions overlapped no less jarring, the employment market no more fluid.

But the main reason why national pay bargaining will not be replaced by a supply-side revolution is, ironically, because of a complete lack of demand from the people who would supposedly benefit from it - headteachers. Some believe that the freedom to vary pay is the wrong kind of incentive that will only attract the wrong kind of teacher. Almost all wish to forgo the pleasure of local negotiations with the administrative and legal headaches they entail. If the prospect were so attractive, why do those groups that already have the freedom to set their own pay - independent schools and academies - fail to deviate much from national norms?

Headteachers' fears may be misplaced or exaggerated, but when even large universities prefer to remain in national bargaining units because the alternatives are too onerous, they are understandable. The only way any government could force the pace of change would be to decline to turn up with the beer and sandwiches at the next scheduled round of talks. How likely is that?

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

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