More bangers, please, or we'll be reduced to mash

3rd April 2009 at 01:00

"Oh, it's all right for you teachers - even in a recession, your jobs are safe. You'll get a pay rise too, while the rest of us have to sell our pets to feed our kids!"

Sounds familiar? Welcome to the new recession punchbag: public sector workers. What jammy dodgers we are, eh? Too often, teachers get lumped together with local councils and the NHS into one big bloodsucking ball. People are bored with bashing bankers and with asking Gordon Brown to apologise - although I don't know why because it's fun and it's free. Now it's the public sector's turn to be accused of draining the private sector dry, while "the taxpayer" keeps us comfy (as if we don't pay taxes ourselves).

The debate about pay is being reduced to a Punch and Judy show between the private and public sectors. The two sides bash each other with outrageous examples as sticks. It's easy to do, but unfair on both. In the debate about pay and perks, how useful is the publicprivate distinction anyway? Not every teacher's job is secure; not every private sector worker has a company car.

If the private and public sectors are Punch and Judy, the crocodile is the economy, the sausages the money supply, and Alistair Darling the policeman waving his truncheon around. For decades, we've had monetarism: control the crocodile by regulating the supply of sausages available to it. This is no longer enough. In a recession, you feed the crocodile more sausages to get it moving again. You can use taxpayers' sausages (fiscal policy). You can borrow sausages (increasing public debt). Or you can print sausages (quantitative easing).

So far, the crocodile has just gulped down all these sausages and carried on snoozing. The governor of the Bank of England has told Gordon Brown to stop spending public sausages. Even the Queen is worried. The Government already had a big sausage debt when the crocodile stopped moving. When it eventually wakes up, taxpayers' sausages will have to repay this debt. We'll need a pay rise before that happens.

We all know about the growth of the public sector, about waste in the NHS and daft jobs in local councils. Yet teachers' pay is too often included in this without consideration of its history. Yes, our pay has risen in real terms under a Labour government, but it's crucial to remember how very few sausages we had back then. And we can't afford to have them frozen now.

Even today, teachers' salaries start lower than other graduate jobs in both public and private sectors. Law and accountancy have the best starting salaries, averaging nearly Pounds 29,700. By contrast, if you decide to Teach First, you could start on as little as Pounds 16,750. Ratcatchers earn more. Lawyers, ratcatchers. I'm saying nothing.

As far as public sector comparisons go, it's not as if we're doing as well as health workers such as doctors and pharmacists either - and the gap broadens with time. Secondary school teachers in their forties earn 24 per cent less than health professionals; primary teachers 36 per cent less. This is why it is wrong to lump teachers together with other public sector workers.

These figures were published in a recent study commissioned by the NUT. The union will use them to lobby the Government for a pay rise of more than 2.3 per cent. Some hope. Faced with possible deflation for the first time in 50 years, it looks as if public sector pay will be frozen - from senior civil servants to nurses. Against that, who is going to sympathise with teachers who want a rise? Yet they should. Just remember the ratcatchers' pay.

Gone are the days of public sympathy for poorly paid teachers. Now we are weirdly at risk of being called fat cats. "Oh, it's all right for you, with your gold-plated pensions ..."

But our salaries have not gone up as much as the public imagines, and our pensions are not as shiny as they think. Journalists still write about teachers retiring at 60 when this is no longer the case. Those who joined the profession after 2007 must work until 65. I remember where I was when I heard the news. That's the trouble with gold-plating - it can be chipped off without warning.

The Punch and Judy show of private versus public sector salaries will probably knock our pay rise on the head. We need one now, though, because we may not see another if the Tories come to power. They will start doing something that journalists love typing even more than the phrase "gold-plated pensions": "clawing back public money".

Ah, the clawing. I can see them now, MPs fitted with giant, remote-controlled, steel hands, designed to swipe teachers' piggy banks while they sleep.

I don't have much hope for our pay rise. But I know that we are right to ask for it.

If anyone tells you you're lucky, with your secure job and your gold-plated pension, just tell them clearly and quietly that you need all the sausages you can get. And at least you didn't steal anyone else's.

Catherine Paver, Writer and part-time English teacher.

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