Nasa's loss is teaching's gain - plastic bags and all

29th February 2008 at 00:00
Seamus has had to move home twice in three months. Helen spent a month sleeping on a friend's sofa after being made homeless just before Christmas. Stephen endured the same fate but luckily managed to find a friend to house him for a few weeks while he was between places to live. Belongings in black plastic bags and boxes. No place to relax and call home. Additional anxiety and worry added to the stress of being in school.

Do I hear empathetic sighs of sadness for those involved? This is not the plight of pupils: these are the fates that have befallen colleagues. Professionally qualified, hard-working, dedicated teachers struggling to find decent, secure accommodation. How can this be? Quite easy when you consider the average house price is now pound;200,000.

My niece calls to announce that she has to make her provisional A-level option choices. She is thinking of becoming a teacher. I am thrilled. After all, this is the best job in the world. Well, actually, it was my second choice: I did want to be an astronaut but Nasa turned me down. Then her first question brings me down to earth. "Is the pay any good?"

What to say? Yes, it is good compared to the national minimum wage in Britain of pound;5.52 per hour. None of my "challenging" classes compares to the physical hardship of having to pick 275 leeks every hour for eight hours. Compared to the average annual wage of pound;24,000, it is also not bad. We get good pension deals and great holidays. Clearly it's better that many of society's "hidden" jobs: shovelling shit in a sewer for pound;55 a day, anyone?

Will she be happy, was her next question. According to What Britain Earns, a recent BBC programme, the happiest group in society are corporate managers who earn pound;130,000 per year. Yet the next happiest group, apparently, are hairdressers, proving that perhaps money isn't everything.

"Is it worth all the years of study or should I leave now and start earning?", she wonders. I try to focus on the argument of deferred gratification yet can't get the figure of pound;20 million earned by Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay out of my mind. Neither has university qualifications. Don't get me started on the salaries of professional footballers. I could fly to the moon and back on that.

The spectre of paying back crippling student loans surfaces: many colleagues are still struggling years after qualifying. How can I encourage her to enter the adult world laden with a heavy burden of debt?

Somehow, aspects of this just are not fair. The three-year pay deal for teachers proposed by Ed Balls at the start of this year, 2.45 per cent in 2008-09 then 2.3 per cent per year from 2009 and 2010, does not seem fair either. The financial future for my niece seems bleak. Do I want her to share that worry of being unable to afford a home and being saddled with debt? If we want the brightest stars to join our ranks, then why not wipe out their student loans? Or should I suggest my niece fly to the moon instead?

Julie Greenhough, Teacher at a boys' secondary school in London.

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