In 1961, President Kennedy famously committed his country to the audacious goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. He succeeded.
In recent months, the government has committed itself to the goal of ensuring starting salaries for school teachers of £30,000 within a few years. The average pay of teachers in schools is about £38,000; for college teachers, the equivalent figure is not much above £30,000. The goal for schools may therefore look achievable – but for colleges, it would seem audacious and improbable.
An audacious goal
I would like to propose that the college sector makes it our audacious goal to ensure that all our teachers are paid above £30,000 within three years, because I believe it is a fundamental roadblock to our sector being regarded as properly educationally credible with a reputation to match.
The Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching & Learning (CAVTL) was widely praised for coining the term “dual professional” to describe our college staff – professional teachers and professionals in their own industries. But if you are master of two professions, you should expect to earn more than a master of one (schoolteachers). This salary premium simply doesn’t exist in reality. In fact, there is a salary penalty. This is inherently dangerous and risks dual professionals being regarded as jacks of both trades and masters of none.
Many will say this doesn’t affect our students. Our selfless staff simply take it on the chin and don’t let personal sacrifice damage the student experience. There is certainly a lot of evidence to support this: heroic staff who stay in a college despite year after year of no pay award, or staff who remain loyal to a college despite this mistreatment, blaming lack of government funding for their plight.
Over time, however, this approach is likely to affect the quality of what we do. Research on how people react when they feel underpaid is interesting. It affects people’s health. They are more prone to depression and absence, which will impact the student experience. Studies have shown the underpaid reduce their output and effort. In other words, they begin to adjust down to match their actual pay. Intriguingly, they also tend to make cognitive adjustments and start believing the work of higher-paid equivalents is more valuable than their own, so perhaps believing university and school teaching is inherently a more valuable and harder activity. Where possible, the most common response is to seek better pay, which in our sector might mean transferring to a school or university or back into their well-paid industries. Certainly, it is hard to see how college life would appeal to anyone already well paid in those sectors so any brain drain is likely to be one-way. Systemic underpayment affects our students.
This is not a criticism of colleagues in colleges but it does mean that over time the average quality of staff is likely to diminish. Better development and non-pay rewards can help but will only delay the inevitable.
I recognise, though, that even if you accept this argument – and many won’t – the goal seems impossible. So how might it be achieved?
Schools have two big advantages over colleges when it comes to pay. First, their unit funding is higher and this can translate straight into higher pay rates. Second, their pupils have less choice and so schools can restrict subject options to achieve much higher average group sizes. This means a typical school can pay much more and have fewer teaching hours, typically 20 hours per week against 24 in a college. When you add in preparation time, college teachers are effectively doing a day per week more than their equivalents in schools.
The 2019 Department for Education study Costs and cost drivers in the further education sector contained the interesting example of a college that calculated that if average group size was maintained at 13 or more, a college would remain solvent. This feels right from my experience. Further, the study calculated that shifting the number to 14 would save a college 4 per cent of its turnover, enough to raise staff pay by perhaps 6 per cent.
If we accept what seems to be a consensus that the most acute problem is pay at the bottom end of scales, surely this is the route to address it? If we made raising pay levels so no teacher was paid less than £30,000 a key sector-wide objective, it would force us to focus on raising average group sizes (and productivity) to fund the increases. Our staff deserve it and ultimately our students will benefit from it, but government is unlikely to play fairy godmother. Kennedy got to the Moon – why shouldn’t we try to make our staff over the moon?
Ian Pryce is principal and CEO of the Bedford College Group