Ever looked across the staffroom and wondered why a colleague is paid more than you, even though you are the better teacher? If they are more experienced than you, or run a bigger department, that is just the way it goes. But if national pay bargaining were scrapped - and there are rumours of a review - you would be free to demand a pay rise.
So would individual pay negotiations be a good thing? Currently, academies are free to set their own salaries. But by and large they adopt pay scales close to national norms. "What we've seen is extra money getting diverted towards a small number of senior staff," says the NASUWT's general secretary Chris Keates. "Classroom teachers don't benefit, and often have worse working conditions."
Some academies even pay under the going rate. Or they tempt teachers at the lower end of the salary scale but without much progression higher up. If you find yourself being offered less than expected, you can either take it, leave it, or ask for more money.
"It's an individual decision," says Andrew Morris, the NUT's pay and conditions expert. "But feeling undervalued is perhaps not the best start to a working relationship."
Like academies, independent schools take the national scale as a benchmark - though some depart from it quite drastically. Big-name schools may boost salaries by pound;10,000, but plenty of small independents pay less than the maintained sector and rely on attracting applicants with longer holidays and smaller class sizes. And heads can break the structure when it suits. "I'm happy to start an NQT halfway up our scale if I'm investing in a really good teacher," says one.
This flexibility is not just to a school's benefit. Teachers who know their market value can push for a better deal. "I looked at the other candidates at interview and knew that if the school didn't appoint me it was in trouble," says a head of PE who negotiated pound;5,000 more than the advertised salary.
But lack of regulation has its downsides. A 2009 ATL survey of independent school teachers found one in six had suffered a pay cut because of the recession.
"A national scale offers protection and security," says Andrew Morris. "It's transparent and fair. Two teachers doing similar jobs will receive similar rewards."
Unions are also wary of unregulated chaos. "If schools establish their own salaries it will lead to bidding wars and set schools against each other," warns Chris Keates. "Pay negotiations would take up time that could be better spent on improving teaching and learning."
But some analysts champion greater flexibility. "If salaries are the same, teachers will gravitate towards the most comfortable jobs," says Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King's College London. "Schools in deprived areas should be free to use extra funding to recruit better teachers. More computers won't make much difference - better teachers might."
Professor Wolf points to the example of Sweden, where pay has been set by individual schools since the 1990s. "When the system changed, it didn't fall apart. Why should teachers be paid the same, when they don't all do the same job? Some schools are harder work than others."
DEAL OR NO DEAL?
- Know your market worth. Teachers in shortage subjects are in a strong position to negotiate with academies and independent schools.
- If schools cannot be flexible on salary, ask about other incentives such as Teaching and Learning Responsibility (TLR) allowances or relocation packages.
- Tread carefully. Some heads do not like haggling; others see it as a normal part of the appointment process.
- Even in maintained schools, heads can appoint you at a higher than usual point on the scale if there is a good reason to do so.