New students, new classes, new courses. Maybe a few new colleagues or a whole new school. For some, the (terrifying) start of a new career. It’s that time of year again.
Now that everyone is back to work, the new year can begin. The routine is much the same every year, but this time there’s something else – something big – on the agenda: the battle for a 10 per cent pay increase for Scotland’s teachers. The EIS teaching union’s campaign has been ramping up for months and now, unless there is some major movement on the side of councils and the Scottish government, a national strike is a very real possibility.
If the union wins this fight, teachers at the top of the national pay scale will see their salary rise to about £40,000 a year. They will also achieve financial parity with those working in the further education sector, as I have been for the past few years.
In 2014, family circumstances meant that I had to leave my job at Arran High School – which I loved – and move back to Glasgow. Since then, I have been a college lecturer and, although there are also many similarities, my new role certainly feels very different from my previous position.
These days, I may be required to teach across more than one campus in the city – sometimes on the same day – and I have to develop relationships with students more quickly and frequently while delivering single-semester classes. I also teach a broader range of courses than I would have done in schools, and I now have some additional responsibilities, such as those relating to Ucas applications, which I did not have as a teacher.
The teacher pay gap
On the other hand, there is no expectation that lecturers will be involved in extracurricular activities or after-college clubs, and I have experienced few, if any, issues with my students’ behaviour. The absence of micromanagement systems, such as Seemis, means that the bureaucratic burdens of the role are notably lighter than in schools. And I can even wear jeans to work …
For me, the biggest difference is that I find it easier to switch off in the evenings, at weekends and during holidays; a consequence of adult education being, for a variety of reasons, a less emotionally demanding experience than teaching children and young people.
Yet, when I moved into FE, my previous experience and qualifications meant that I received a pay rise, which, although obviously welcome, confused me even then. It didn’t seem to make any sense that a lecturer would be paid more than a teacher. But, being new to the role, I just presumed that I didn’t yet have enough experience of the job to make a proper judgement on this.
Now, nearly four years on and fully settled into my new life, I know that my initial reaction was right: it doesn’t make sense for a lecturer to be paid more than a teacher.
The situation has got worse because, during my time in FE, lecturers have won their battle for a landmark pay deal, which has reclaimed national bargaining for workers and brought the top end of the new unpromoted pay scale to £40,000 a year.
In contrast, teachers have seen their real-terms pay decline hugely over the past decade, despite that same period being marked by spiralling workload tied to curricular upheaval. There is also an ongoing recruitment crisis, class sizes are too big and far too many teachers are being forced to deliver three or even four different levels of qualifications in the same class.
Meanwhile, the end of the chartered teacher programme and the widespread introduction of faculties in schools have limited opportunities for promotion – a likely factor in the big reduction in the number of teachers aged 45-plus since 2010. Put simply, teachers have been forced to do more and more for less and less. This situation simply can’t continue.
In recent years, the government has tried to handle these issues; ever-willing to talk the talk but rarely actually getting to its feet. Unfortunately for first minister Nicola Sturgeon and education secretary John Swinney – whose reputations, and perhaps even political survival, are inextricably linked to the fortunes of the Scottish education system – teachers are not in the mood to be “handled” any longer.
It’s been said a thousand times before, but teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. This isn’t just about the salaries of educators: it goes right to heart of the quality of our children’s education.
It’s looking increasingly likely that a government claiming to hold education as its top priority will be faced with industrial action on a huge scale. There’s talk of a new offer on the table but it is complex and unions will, rightly, be wary of any muddying of what should be crystal-clear waters.
People I have spoken to in education and the media are pessimistic about the chances of a deal being struck without at least some strike action – some have even mentioned, as a worst-case scenario, the events of the 1980s. Nobody wants to go back there, but the levee of goodwill that has held Scotland’s education system together is, it seems, about to break.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that teachers deserve to take home at least the same salary as lecturers – all things considered, they almost certainly deserve even more – and I believe that it is absolutely vital that they win this fight. We simply cannot continue to demand that the profession performs ever more elaborate miracles within an increasingly hostile environment. We cannot expect to attract the people we need to teaching while refusing to pay them properly.
Most of all, we can’t claim to really value education if we’re not prepared to pay for it.
James McEnaney is an FE lecturer, journalist and former secondary teacher