Why teaching doesn’t always add up

13th October 2017 at 00:00
The struggle to make ends meet on an entry-level salary can affect your ability to do the job well, finds Joseph Lee

Having spent time working as a freelance musician after finishing university, Chris Beecroft already knew a thing or two about financial insecurity.

But when he trained to be a teacher, he expected things to get better. Instead, after his PGCE, he found himself without a permanent job, living at home in London with his parents, working freelance in the evenings in addition to supply teaching during the day. After all his hard work, he was still broke.

“I had a really tough year doing the PGCE and I’d told myself that the light at the end of the tunnel would be the following September when I finally had a job in a school and I didn’t have to worry about chasing money anymore,” he says. “But the most my bank account ever had in it around that time was £50. I was always toeing that line with the overdraft. They were really dark times.”

Series of pay freezes

Beecroft is just one of many new teachers who find themselves struggling financially in the first years of their career. A survey by the ATL teaching union in 2010 – before a series of pay freezes depressed salaries even further compared with the cost of living – found that 60 per cent of trainees and NQTs were worried about how they were going to pay off their debts.

Many trainees reported having to take part-time jobs at evenings and weekends, and large numbers of them said they’d had to go without books and equipment, heating and even food during their initial training.

Last year, a report by the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) found that the gap between teachers’ starting salaries and other graduate jobs was widening, and concluded that it was contributing to the current recruitment crisis.

“The relative position of earnings across the teaching profession has deteriorated in recent years and classroom teacher earnings continue to trail those of other professional occupations in most regions,” it says. “These are worrying trends.”

It recommended a pay increase “significantly higher” than 1 per cent in 2016 to help teacher salaries catch up.

A Department for Education spokesperson has since said that the government “recognises and values the hard work” of teachers, and has accepted the recommendations of the STRB, adding that teachers’ pay will be in line with the 1 per cent public sector pay policy “but allowing heads to give teachers in the early stages of their career up to a 2 per cent pay uplift, alongside generous training bursaries and competitive starting salaries”.

Economic hardship

But will such measures be enough to lift new teachers out of economic hardship? Chris Powell, a teacher who mentors NQTs at a school in Hertfordshire, says that the financial difficulties of new teachers will continue to be driven by the high cost of living in many places.

One NQT at his school is living with her parents and working at a pub at the weekends in an effort to be able to afford a deposit on a home.

She put aside £10,000 in her first year using this approach but still faces another four years of saving to have a hope of owning her own place.

Powell says this frugal lifestyle takes a toll on new teachers. “I would never advise anyone to take a second job, and if you did have a second job I’d advise you to quit it,” he says. “Because otherwise you’re never going to have any sort of downtime.”

Difficulty keeping up with marking

Financial problems are rarely discussed by NQTs, he says, but they usually emerge when new staff begin to struggle with their work. Often it turns out that they have difficulty keeping up with marking because there is nowhere at home for them to do it, or they cannot transport all the books home because they have to travel on public transport.

It is increasingly common for new teachers to have to travel to work on school buses. Powell says this can undermine their authority with the students.

There are practical problems, too: travelling on school buses means leaving at 3.30pm with the students, which prevents NQTs from attending full staff meetings after school or leaves them with a headache about how to get home afterwards.

“A lot of teachers under the age of 30, I would say, probably do live with Mum and Dad. Maybe it’s the norm now,” says Powell.

“But, for me, it was a sign that I was being successful and it was good for my self-esteem to be able to move out when I started my career.”

Professor John Howson, an expert in the education labour market and visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University, says that recent data from the Department for Education show rising levels of departure from the profession in the early years of a teacher’s career.

NQTs were 25 per cent more likely to leave the profession than teachers who had been in continuous service for a number of years, says Howson, and the odds of quitting peaked in the second year after gaining qualified teacher status. Howson believes it is a “major error” for the government not to address the widening gap between starting salaries for teachers and other graduate professions.

Salaries for NQTs fail to take into account that they have spent a year in additional training after graduation, often building up significant debt, he explains.

Unless a new teacher has trained through a salaried programme, such as Teach First or School Direct, where they are paid from day one, they will start their first post a year behind in pay progression as well as being paid less than they would be for similarly demanding jobs. “The present system is illogical,” argues Howson. “[PGCE leavers] get a double whammy of having to pay fees and we put them a year back in the salary stakes,” he says, adding that the financial position for new teachers has also been hit by the ending of automatic progression up the pay scales.

Bargain for better pay

Teachers in shortage subjects such as physics, in areas of high demand like London and the South East, may find that they can bargain for better pay, Howson says. Otherwise they may find that they face a pay cut from a generous £30,000 training bursary to a starting salary of £22,467.

Powell says it does get better for teachers but it depends on the accruing of more responsibility, and pursuing jobs such as head of department or head of year to get teaching and learning responsibility payments.

“Unless you go into assistant head, deputy head or headships, you’re unlikely to ever be on more than £55,000 throughout your career,” he says.

For Beecroft, it was a move into private schools that rescued his finances. After more than 40 job applications and dozens of interviews in the state sector, the only job he landed was maternity cover at an international school on a salary of £38,000 a year. That opened the door to a permanent job in an independent school, which helped him on the road to financial security.

“It’s been a big rollercoaster and, financially, I went from the worst-paying job I’ve ever had to one of the best in a very short period of time,” he says.

The outlook is now positive for Beecroft. And things are also moving in the right direction for state school teachers at the bottom of the pay scale following the recent government announcement that they will receive an automatic 2 per cent increase in September.

However, with the current 1 per cent cap on the majority of teachers’ pay still set to remain in place until 2019-20, incoming NQTs are sure to be left wondering whether teaching is a profession that really adds up.


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