Sweaters in a freeze

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Teaching in Siberia has never been one of the world's most sought-after occupations. But it has become an even less attractive proposition under Boris Yeltsin's ailing leadership. Some Siberian teachers still haven't had their paltry Pounds 70-a-month pay cheques for the spring term, and local government officials have added insult to injury by offering to "pay" them in tinned fish and vodka instead of cash. Little wonder PE teachers are quitting school to work as bodyguards for Russia's nouveaux riches.

By comparison, most English and Welsh teachers are incredibly wealthy, but as we approach the fourth successive year of public-sector pay freezes, who can blame them if they do not seem grateful? It is now five years since a more idealistic John Major declared: "What I want to achieve is a position where the man in the woolly sweater and the battered sedan and the grimy house at the corner of the street is not the local teacher." The Government says that teachers' pay has improved in real terms by 56 per cent since 1979, but there has been no appreciable improvement in their standard of living over the past five years. Some new sweaters may have appeared in the staffroom, but there have been few new cars.

The Department for Education and Employment, however, admits to virtually no anxieties about teachers' pay or conditions in its submission to the School Teachers' Review Body. Its argument is that teachers have money to jingle in their pockets because this year's staged pay increase (3.75 per cent) was higher than the rate of inflation (2.1 per cent). Furthermore, the vacancy rate is at an all-time low of 0.4 per cent.

The DFEE could also have noted that schoolteachers have been outstripping college lecturers in the pay stakes. The STRB, while being no automatic cash dispenser, is a model of sensible pay bargaining in comparison with the colleges' chaotic arrangements (page 27). Nevertheless, Tony Vineall, the STRB's new chairman (profile, page 6), must already realise that things are a little less hunky-dory than government ministers admit, particularly in the secondary sector.

The Teacher Training Agency appears to have no chance of reaching the stratospherically-high secondary recruitment targets that the Government has set unless teachers' pay, conditions and status improve markedly. The agency is expected to attract 50 per cent more secondary teachers by 2000-01 even though it fell woefully short of the 1996-97 targets for maths, science, technology and languages. Some local education authorities are, however, already experencing shortages, and the Grant-Maintained Schools Advisory Committee is quite right to say that a means must be found to attract good teachers to areas that are either socially deprived or so expensive that teachers cannot afford to live in them.

Sickness and wastage rates are also alarming. Too many teachers are leaving for more attractive, better-paid jobs, and the number of premature retirements increased by 20 per cent between 1994-95 and 1995-96 alone. Unsurprisingly, there has been no stampede for the headships and middle-management posts that the early-leavers have vacated and re-advertisments have become commonplace.

Clearly, higher salaries alone cannot cure all these ills, a fact that the unions recognise. They are seeking a maximum class size of 30, but as this would be prohibitively expensive, the most that teachers can currently hope for is a slight increase in non-contact time.

When Mr Clarke announces the Education Standard Spending figure, even this modest aspiration will probably seem as impossibly ambitious as the local authorities' request for an extra Pounds 1 billion. But the improvements in working conditions the unions are asking for would benefit pupils as well as teachers.

Their complaints about low starting salaries and the unattractive pay rates for teachers with five years' service also merit consideration, despite the clampdown on public-sector pay, because the under-30s' wastage rate is higher than any other age group's. The pressures that heads have had to contend with also warrant recognition.

But the argument for increasing London allowances is overwhelming. Sixty per cent of vacancies are in London and the South-East, and a 1,000-strong army of Antipodean tourist-teachers is masking the true depth of the capital's recruitment crisis. As the unions have pointed out, it does seem bizarre that teachers get a London allowance of only Pounds 2,004 when Help the Aged can afford to pay its staff Pounds 3,423. Teachers deserve some charity, too.

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