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You pays your money

I'm a pick-a-side-and-fight-for-it kind of woman. I'm rarely in two minds - especially in relation to issues that polarise opinion. However, the principles of principals' wages have me lurching between poles like a penguin spotter with an upside-down map.

Those who act as principals and chief executives in colleges take home a substantial wedge. Even at the lower end they earn an eye-watering amount. And why the hell shouldn't they? Being a principal is a lifestyle, not a job; 5am starts and midnight finishes are par for the course, as is working weekends and holidays. That's before we even consider the never-ending conveyor belt of difficult decisions filling those long hours. The role is similar to a strongman dragging an unfeasibly heavy lorry, on a rope, with his teeth.

As public funding recedes ever further, principals constantly have to perform hasty cash comb-overs, reinventing their colleges to ensure survival. In this climate I want someone who is an expert in finance and business, who can negotiate funding agency rules and respond to local industrial opportunities. Having someone at the top who's good with a calculator means that as many of us as possible can keep our jobs and serve our communities.

I'm not too bothered about an educationalist being at the helm, as long as the ultimate decision-maker is surrounded by advisers who know their way around a classroom. And excellent business leaders (make no mistake, colleges are places of business) don't come cheap.

But the prime minister, arguably the biggest community and business leader in the country, earns pound;142,500 a year, whereas a growing number of FE college leaders receive in excess of pound;200,000. Some would say that earning 40 per cent more than the UK's chief executive is a bit much.

I have yet to meet a fellow teacher who is ambivalent about this disparity. The "everyone in it together" attitude so many colleges promote crumbles under the weight of one person's bank balance. The average maximum full-time wage for lecturers is pound;34,342 and some poor souls are on pound;14,500. In what skewed, Gordon Gekko fantasy is it OK for principals to earn a figure the rest of us would only ever be handed on a huge cardboard cheque?

Here's my argument. In order for any of us to receive a wage, the person in charge has to steer us expertly. Some pound;200,000-a-year principals have doubled or tripled their college's turnover. In the private sector, a chief executive's pay would reflect their success. On those terms, leaders who have led their colleges to vast financial improvement are on comparative peanuts even if they're at the top of the sector's pay scale. The line begins to blur when we ask how much of colleges' funding comes from the public sector and how much from business partnerships.

Some would say I'm defending the indefensible. I'm yet to convince myself of that, but redundancy is a reality in many colleges. If my colleagues were getting the shove while the principal earned the equivalent of 10 or more lecturers, I doubt I'd be as measured.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands.@MrsSarahSimons

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