Where teachers live like kings

5th July 2013 at 01:00
With sky-high salaries compared with cost of living, Luxembourg and South Korea are the best countries to be a teacher, TES research suggests.

Luxembourg may be one of Europe's smallest countries - too small, indeed, for its name to appear in full on most maps - but its residents are a pretty contented bunch. According to the International Monetary Fund, it is the second-richest country per capita in the world, behind Qatar. And it's safe to say that even the oil-rich Middle East nation cannot compete with the world's only remaining grand duchy in terms of its lush valleys, ancient forests and fairy-tale castles.

But this is not all that the tourist-packed nation nestled between Belgium, France and Germany has to offer. Research carried out by TES comparing salaries with living costs has revealed that there is no better country in the world in which to be a teacher. View a PDF of the research results for primary and secondary teachers.

From Japan to Poland, in recent years many nations have been put forward as the educational model that all ambitious countries should aspire to emulate. But our analysis has revealed a few surprises in terms of how well their teaching workforces are remunerated.

Wealthy Nordic nations such as Finland and Sweden have long been hailed as educational pioneers. However, with secondary teachers (of children typically aged 11-16) paid an average of $38,601 (pound;25,311) and $34,280 respectively after a decade in the profession, salaries rank well below those in England, the US and Spain. Factor in high living costs and it comes as no surprise that Finland and Sweden languish in the bottom half of our league table of countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Similarly, Japan - another consistent high-flyer in terms of educational attainment - is let down by the expense of day-to-day life for its citizens. Despite offering a solid if unspectacular average salary of $38,665 for secondary teachers 10 years into their careers, the hefty price tag that comes with life in the Far East archipelago knocks Japan down to a mid-table position.

Of the new wave of Asian nations drawing admiring glances from the West, only one has managed to drag itself into contention for the top spot: South Korea. Here, the average teachers' salary after a decade is a respectable $41,268, nudging the country ahead of wealthy European nations such as Austria, Belgium and Norway. When you take into account the relatively low cost of living there, it is perhaps no surprise that South Korea has managed to fight off competition from the likes of Scotland, Spain and Canada to claim second place in the table for both the primary (for children typically aged 4-11) and secondary sectors.

Held in high esteem

But forget about Finland, never mind the Netherlands: if you want to maximise the earnings from your time at the chalkface, the raw data show that, by quite some distance, Luxembourg is the place to be.

The starting salary for a secondary school teacher is a whopping $72,499 - more than teachers in any other OECD nation earn after a decade of teaching.

After 10 years in a Luxembourg secondary, the average teacher can expect to bring home $90,625 a year. To put the sheer size of this salary in context, it is more than seven times the amount earned by teachers 600 miles away in Hungary.

With new, detached, four-bedroom homes in the village of Eschdorf - about 20 miles from the capital Luxembourg City - on the market for about $380,000, it would not take long for the average teacher to save for the home of their dreams.

Even bearing in mind the punitive tax regime and inflated cost of living in the notoriously expensive country, compared with their colleagues in other countries around the globe, Luxembourgian teachers really do live like kings.

According to Karin Priem, associate professor in educational sciences at the University of Luxembourg, teachers' high pay reflects their social standing in the country.

"The status and salaries of teaching professions in Luxembourg indeed are very high, especially if they work as secondary teachers," she says. "Secondary teachers study abroad and earn a master's degree in an academic discipline. Traditionally, they thought of themselves, and were perceived, as the intellectual elite of the country. This tradition, of course, is still impacting (on) their salaries and status."

This, in turn, influences the background of people who choose to enter the teaching profession in Luxembourg. The majority of trainees, Priem says, come from wealthy families that can afford to send their children to study at universities overseas, most commonly in France, Germany, Belgium, Austria and the UK.

"This tradition in teacher education is well received and very much supported by secondary teachers, because it is part of their elitist image, which includes a multilingual and multicultural mentality," she explains.

And the most elite school of all is the Athenee de Luxembourg, which has provided many of the country's leading politicians.

Even in less renowned schools, the country's education establishment prides itself on a culture of strong professional development, with plenty of time devoted to collaboration between teachers who, by and large, have to endure significantly less government meddling than their peers in most other countries.

And Luxembourg's teachers have the backing of strong and politically influential teaching unions, which are prepared to robustly campaign for the profession's lofty status to be mirrored with generous pay and working conditions.

Language barrier

So far, so idyllic. Does this mean, therefore, that envious teachers in other countries could be set to arrive in their thousands?

Perhaps not. Vicki Hallatt spent two years as a teacher in Luxembourg, working at the private St George's International School. The country's state schools, she explains, require all teaching staff to speak Luxemburgish - as well as French, German and English. With few teachers outside the country able to speak the native language, its state schools are effectively a closed shop to outsiders.

This, Hallett believes, is a real shame - not least because international school teachers earn barely half as much as their peers in the state sector.

"It's a very easy job (in the state schools)," she says. "You don't have a form group, there's no pastoral role for teachers. You just have to turn up for your classes and can go home afterwards.

"Luxembourg is a good place. It's not the most exciting place in the world, but there are lots of opportunities to travel around Europe, there are lots of restaurants. Luxembourg City is a very small city. Lots of people commute in from France, Belgium and Germany. And there are lots of rich bankers so it's an expensive place to live."

With its wealth and well-respected - not to mention well-paid - teaching workforce, it is easy to imagine that the Luxembourgian model is one that other countries would be keen to emulate. But, perhaps surprisingly, its performance does not quite match up to its reputation.

The country is certainly not among the global elite. In the most recent Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tables, it came 30th in the world for mathematics, and a lowly 38th in both science and reading attainment.

According to this year's Education at a Glance report, it was ranked 23rd out of the 35 OECD countries for the proportion of young people expected to complete upper-secondary education (typically for 16- to 18-year-olds) in their lifetime.

One possible explanation for this is the unique multilingual nature of the country's education system. While lessons up to the 6th grade (ages 11-12) are taught in German, from the 8th grade (ages 13-14) onwards the language of instruction is French. This, Priem points out, is a challenge for immigrants and children from lower social backgrounds, and could be a factor in the country's poor international performance.

An OECD report published last year noted some "worrying inequities within the Luxembourg school system": students repeating their school grade is a "common practice", it says, and close analysis of the data suggests a "larger than average group of low performing students and a major performance disadvantage for students with an immigrant background".

Its pride bruised, the country decided to take decisive action. It has, as the OECD put it, implemented a "central drive" of policy focused on "student performance and progress in classrooms". As part of far-reaching reforms announced in April, a parliamentary commission has proposed restructuring teachers' career progression, salary levels and core subjects.

This has not gone down well with the two main teaching unions, SEW and APESS, which have balloted their members on strike action. However, not enough union members voted in favour of the strike, and plans for the industrial action have now been shelved.

While Luxembourgian teachers tend to be pretty happy with their lot, Priem insists that they are prepared to stand up for what they see as their rights.

"Of course they tend to immediately raise their voice as soon as they sense that their comfortable situation and their status as experts for secondary teaching might be threatened," she says.

And the most worrying thing for Luxembourg's teachers is that they feel that their voice - regarded with respect and reverence in most of the country - has been ignored by the politicians. Recent unrest in Luxembourg suggests that, just perhaps, all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

On second thoughts

So where next in our quest to find the promised land for teachers? Perhaps South Korea, our runner-up, deserves closer examination.

It may have come to the world's attention thanks to its burgeoning tiger economy built on the manufacture of cars, electronics and technology, but South Korea's educational transformation has been no less impressive. Indeed, the latest Pisa rankings saw it finish second, fourth and sixth in reading, mathematics and science.

In 2011, OECD research revealed that some 98 per cent of 25- to 34-year- olds in South Korea had completed an upper-secondary education - the highest proportion among OECD countries and a remarkable increase over the past three decades. The equivalent figure among its 55- to 64-year-olds is just 43 per cent.

A characteristic of the South Korean education system that is likely to attract envious glances from teachers in other countries is that it does not have national exams at any level. But this certainly does not mean its students are not prepared to knuckle down. Indeed, a hyper-competitive culture has led to a boom in so-called crammer schools, or hagwon. As well as going to state schools, students often attend these after-hours academies to try to boost their test scores in the hope of eventually winning a place at a prestigious overseas university.

A recent study found that almost a quarter of high school students in Gyeonggi Province, the area that surrounds Seoul, dozed off in class on a daily basis, with many studying through until 2am only to be up again at 7am for the next day's classes.

Tom Stockwell, a teacher from England, spent three years working in a hagwon, where staff can expect to earn about $25,000 (pound;16,200) a year - significantly less than long-serving state school teachers. But Stockwell insists that the money goes considerably further than back at home in the UK.

"I could certainly believe that in terms of ability to save money, it's right up there," he says. "I'm able to send 75 per cent of my pay home each month and still live comfortably, taking day trips around the country, eating out several times a week and enjoying nights out with friends. I was able to clear debt from four credit cards and a loan, totalling around pound;10,000, and managed to save up for a round-the-world trip, within the space of three years."

After his travelling comes to an end, he plans to return to teach in the country. So what does he love about life at the chalkface in South Korea?

"I decided to teach in South Korea because of its unique culture and the fact that the pay is relatively high, you're able to save a lot of money and there's a lot to do in the country," he explains. "As a comparison, the pay in China is much lower, with a lower cost of living. Japan's pay is around the same but it's much more expensive, and the countries with the highest pay - Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia - allow teachers a great standard of living but not much to actually do or see."

And a teacher's quality of life is about more than the money, according to Vicki Gardner. And she should know: she started work at Dwight School Seoul - an international school in the capital - last year, after spending 12 years teaching, initially, in Leicester, England, and later in several countries across the globe. South Korea, Gardner believes, is the best place she has been a teacher so far.

"(I) have longer work hours in South Korea than anywhere else (I) have worked, but (my) pay and overall package is very generous and allows (me) to save money each month," she says. "There are so many things to do in this beautiful country and the public transport network is vast and easily accessible. There has not been a moment's regret since I made the move, and I am looking forward to many more years in South Korea."


In contrast to the riches on offer in Luxembourg, Estonian state school teachers are the paupers of the profession in the developed world. Their average starting salary is a mere $11,621 (pound;7,630).

Of all the OECD nations, only Hungary and Slovakia offer less. Even after 10 years in the job, pay reaches only $12,306. This is $5,000 less than the country's average salary across all professions - and barely a seventh of the pay on offer to teachers in Luxembourg.

Only Hungary offers lower salaries at this stage and, taking into account the higher cost of living in Estonia, teachers there are forced to make their pay stretch further than their peers in any other country.

National strikes took place across Estonia last year after calls for a 20 per cent pay rise by Eesti Haridustootajate Liit (the Estonian Education Personnel Union) were rejected.

The government, however, does seem to be listening. This year it gave EUR160 million (pound;137 million) for teacher salaries - up from EUR143 million the previous year - and it has claimed that average pay went up 10 per cent compared with 12 months previously.

While this is hardly enough to see Estonia triumph in our league table, it could at least see it pull away from the bottom.


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