Pay alone is not the key, Mr Blunkett

11th December 1998 at 00:00
CAN'T make your mind up about the Green Paper on teachers? Here's an exercise to help: decide which of the following has the most attractive career.

April teaches PE. She is in school from 8am until around 5pm. Any spare non-contact time is absorbed by her head-of-year pastoral duties. She runs activities in lunch-times and after school. After eight years' teaching, her salary is around Pounds 23,000.

Bernard has taught foreign languages for 20 years. He takes classes for 18 hours a week; the rest he spends on preparation or marking, at home if he wishes. He runs no clubs and has no pastoral duties. He earns around Pounds 18,000.

Janine is a languages teacher with 10 years' experience. She has no headteacher or head of department overseeing her. She earns around Pounds 46,000 and gets two weeks' "skiing leave" on top of normal holidays.

These are all real cases and, in case you haven't guessed, April teaches in England, Bernard in France and Janine in Switzerland. It's certainly clear what young people think. In England, too few want to teach, unlike in France and in Switzerland.

It cannot simply be pay. While average salaries in Switzerland are double those in Britain, most French teachers earn less than their British equivalents.

The burden of work may hold a clue. The French have it relatively easy. Swiss teachers have a long teaching week, but have far less bureaucracy and administration.

What about professional autonomy? All three countries have a national curriculum, but only in England do teachers spend so much time ticking boxes for pupil achievement.

The Swiss have other freedoms. In Zurich, where Janine works, the schools are small and have no headteachers. Nor do they have a school office, secretaries or bursars. The teachers have absolute authority within their classrooms.

Finally, what about status? All teachers in France are classified as the highest-grade civil servants. To qualify they must succeed in a competitive examination which passes only the number of teachers the country needs that year.

The value a society puts on education also influences the status of teachers. Until recently, teachers in the Zurich Canton were elected to their jobs for a six-year term by local people. Education is a civic issue of high importance, requiring local democratic involvement.

So the esteem of teaching is shaped by an amalgam of qualities. In France, teachers have high status because they have overcome a tough entry hurdle and enjoy comfortable working hours and job security. Significantly, they also have a clear professional role as educators, unencumbered by pastoral duties.

In Switzerland, good pay, a valued public role and a high degree of autonomy bring high status.

British teachers are neither the best-paid nor the worst-paid in Europe. But working hours are long, autonomy is restricted, the administrative load is heavy and the professional role is less clearly defined.

Professional status is tied to how hard it is to enter a profession. In Britain it is quicker and easier to become a teacher than in France or Switzerland. This issue is only partly addressed by the Green Paper's proposal for national tests for trainees; the Government cannot do more until there is a surplus of applicants.

Unable to raise entry hurdles, or make all teachers civil servants, the Government has chosen performance-related pay as its main instrument for raising teachers' status. Will it work? It's not unknown abroad. In France teachers can boost their salaries and reduce their hours by passing an additional, competitive exam. In Switzerland, the Zurich Canton is introducing performance pay based on appraisal and targets.

David Blunkett's Green Paper is a brave effort to make teaching more attractive and respected. It hits many of the right buttons, offering higher pay (as in Switzerland) in return for passing tough competitive hurdles (as in France). If there is enough money for all those who deserve it, it should help raise professional status.

But the Government must remember that professional autonomy is also an important factor in making a job both attractive and professional.

Looking across the Channel may offer insights for teachers too. Swiss and French teachers regard themselves primarily, even solely, as educators and specialist in their academic subject. The child-centred, as opposed to subject-centred, approach in Britain can mean teachers taking responsibility for many of the failings of society and family, and then taking the blame for them. Doctors, dentists, and lawyers don't try to take responsibility for "the whole child". It is an impossible task for any single professional.

Teaching will gain higher status when it offers: a clearer professional role; higher pay for those who are good at it; greater autonomy, and tougher entry. The Green Paper offers some of this; the rest depends on the profession redefining its role and the public putting greater value on education.

Mike Baker is the education correspondent for BBC News, email: mike.baker@bbc.co.uk

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