What they want is a little respect

7th September 2001 at 01:00
Of course teachers aspire to earning a decent salary, but surveys show that what they really want is to be valued and supported in what they do. Caroline St John-Brooks reports

The warning sounded by Mike Tomlinson, the Chief Inspector, shows how far we still have to go in solving the crisis in teacher recruitment. And part of the problem is the image of teachers as a downtrodden profession battling with riotous pupils and stroppy parents, and constantly under the Government cosh.

Yet the status of teachers is not just a British problem. In 1999, Unesco's Fourth World Education Report, on teachers and teaching in a changing world, found that teachers everywhere are complaining about lowered status and diminishing respect.

There are 57 million teachers across the globe - roughly two-thirds of whom work in developing countries. The Unesco report argued that they are an important force in most societies, being the guarantors of the education of future generations.

It concluded: "What society currently expects from teachers in most countries could be out of proportion to the rewards it is prepared to accord to teachers, and the means typically put at their disposal."

The report also points out that government policies can have a negative effect on teachers' status. In some countries, an increased emphasis on accountability (while desirable in itself) has led to a loss of faith in public services and a shift towards a market philosophy.

In Australia, a parliamentary committee has expressed anxiety that a free-market approach can reduce the status of teachers by encouraging parents to see them virtually as their employees, paid to produce results.

Status is a slippery concept. Everyone wants it - but few people, it would seem, feel they have it. Scottish teachers seem to have more of it than the English do. Yet the conventional notion of social status - material possessions and a lifestyle envied by the neighbours - is not seriously important to most teachers. They tend to be motivated by other values. The kind of status which matters to teachers seems to be made up of three elements: pay and conditions; public attitudes; and morale within the profession.

Money in itself is not a crucial issue. It is perfectly possible for teachers to be modestly paid - as in Denmark - but still highly respected. The pay question, however, becomes disproportionately significant when the other two elements in the equation go awry. In a political climate where teachers feel that society does not understand the job they do or appreciate their achievements, pay becomes symbolic.

In 1999, the starting salaries of teachers in England, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, were only slightly below the average (see table). After 15 years they were earning above the average, substantially so at primary level and at key stage 3.

However, they reached the pay ceiling very quickly compared to most other countries, and the top of the scale at secondary level was lower than for most other countries. In 1999, English teachers were reaching their maximum within nine years (the same sort of timescale as in Australia, Denmark and New Zealand).

In systems where top pay is extremely high (such as Switzerland, Korea, the Netherlands), it can take a long time to reach it - 37 years in the case of Korea. Swiss teachers are consistently the highest paid at all stages of their career, and at all levels of the system.

Of course, the English scales have now all been shifted by performance-related pay and the threshold payments, and the new system should improve the position of British teachers in the international pay tables. But pay will still need to be higher to attract and retain young graduates when so many exciting options are available to them.

The pay of other professions is another important indicator. The latest OECD figures compare average primary teachers' salaries with the amount of money earned by 12 other public-sector employees. By and large, primary teachers in OECD countries earn more than computer operators, about the same as nurses, and less than civil engineers and doctors.

But there are some striking differences. In most countries, doctors earn more than 30 per cent more than primary teachers, but in Japan and Mexico they earn about the same amount. Nurses in Canada earn more than 30 per cent more than primary teachers, as do social workers in Denmark.

British teachers tend to look longingly at other European countries where teachers are, in effect, civil servants. Certainly this has advantages in terms of status and security, but brings with it restrictions which British teachers, accustomed to a degree of autonomy, might well find irksome.

For example, French teachers, especially in the early years of their career, must accept being drafted to whatever part of the country the education ministry decides. France, like Britain, faces a teacher supply crisis, and one reason is thought to be this lack of choice of where to work, especially since there is a growing problem of school violence in the tougher suburbs.

Different societies value occupations differently and the same is true of public attitudes to teachers. Teachers in countries with a long, strong commitment to a state education system, like France and Denmark, tend to have higher status than those in countries like Britain and America, where the system has grown up in a more piecemeal fashion.

Confucian philosophy, which values knowledge and wisdom, means that teachers in Japan and Korea are still highly respected. In fact, the message in Britain is mixed.

Teachers feel their status is low, the media project a negative picture, and relatively few young people want to join the profession. Yet opinion polls normally show that teachers are respected and that parents are satisfied with the people who teach their children. For example, in 2000 a MORI poll commissioned by the General Teaching Council suggested that most adults in England (91 per cent) agree that teaching children is a highly-skilled job.

More than three-quarters of childless adults said they would trust teachers to take good decisions in the interests of children's education, and 81 per cent of parents agreed. More than 80 per cent of parents and non-parents said that teachers in schools do a good job. And most adults (78 per cent) also agreed that teachers deserve more public respect than they get (see table).

The morale of teachers is profoundly affected by the attitudes of the public, the Government and the media. But day-to-day experience has a role to play as well.

Although it is hard to compare morale across cultures, international teacher organisations see the morale of British teachers as being particularly vulnerable and view recent developments in this country with some alarm. According to John Bangs of the National Union of Teachers, education watchers in other countries believe that a punitive inspection system has had a damaging effect.

Testing and targets, however successful they may be in raising standards, have resulted in a colossal growth in deadlines and paperwork, while disruptive pupils and aggressive parents are reducing job satisfaction for British teachers.

The media, too, has a corrosive effect on teacher morale - witness the disreputable fuss over this year's improved GCSE results.

What British teachers want, above all, is respect for the crucial role they play in holding the fabric of society together, and for the enormous improvements they have achieved over the last decade.

The Government can play its part by toughing out the periodic press panics over standards in the knowledge that public opinion does, in fact, value teachers. The conditions are there for the reinvention of teaching as a high-pay, high-skill profession.

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