Whispers from Westminster

20th November 2015 at 00:00
Ministers are damned if they do – and if they don’t

A line that is guaranteed to receive applause at any education conference is: “I wish government would stop doing down teachers.” Aside from the fact that this statement is misleading in terms of the government’s role, it is also untrue – read any minister’s speech and there will be paeans to the profession (and that includes Michael Gove).

But even so, surely the launch of an advertising campaign that extols the virtues of teaching would be welcomed? Apparently not. Because when the Department for Education recently did just that, civil servants would have been disappointed to find social media abuzz with shrieks of disbelief, cynicism and on occasion anger at their temerity.

The reason, in so far as I can detect one, was that the television advert dared to point out that, among other benefits, teachers can be well paid – up to £65,000. “Rubbish!” bellowed the Twitterati. “Find me someone who’s paid that!” There was even the slightly ludicrous situation of an education trade unionist reporting the government to the advertising standards body.

The powers that be not unreasonably point out that it is, in fact, realistic to be paid that much (if you are at the top of the pay scale for leading practitioners), and that constraints of national pay scales don’t apply to academies, which are now the majority of secondaries.

But the reaction, I think, speaks less of such a salary’s prevalence and more of a feeling among many teachers of ambivalence towards pay.

On the one hand, teachers and their representatives have, rightly and properly, long been arguing for more money. Last year, the NUT lobbied the pay review body for “a significant increase in pay” and the NASUWT requested “a substantial pay award”.

On the other hand, attempts to raise pay – through performance-related pay or the creation of the upper pay scale in 2002 – were resisted to varying degrees by those same organisations. The NUT in fact took the government to court over the upper pay scale.

It seems the reaction of many to the advert and these other schemes is almost one of embarrassment that pay is a motivator.

Ministers just don’t get it, and I sympathise with their confusion. Of course teachers are motivated by other, intrinsic things: working with children and a love of their subject. But pay can sit alongside that as well. I love my job, but if it didn’t pay enough I wouldn’t be doing it.

What’s more, we know that higher pay does act as a motivator in teacher recruitment and raises outcomes. The DfE no doubt knows about a recent study in Florida showing that “teachers who entered the profession during recessions [when, relatively, wages in teaching are higher] are significantly more effective than teachers who entered during non-recessionary periods”. Similar findings show that pay can be a driver for recruitment and pupil outcomes.

The fact is, pay works. It’s extremely unlikely that the government will be able to afford to use it as a lever in the near future, so I would urge the education sector not to look down its nose.

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