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4 December 1998

Hard times in the classroom

Francis Beckett thinks that David Blunkett should do the simple thing: give all teachers a decent sa

By Francis Beckett

Some years ago university lecturers noticed that their pay had been overtaken by that of some college teachers. Horrified, they marched down Whitehall to lobby their MPs, carrying banners which expressed with academic precision their sense of grievance. The banners bore the slogan: Rectify the Anomaly.

The Association of University Teachers is a sophisticated union, well able to learn from its mistakes. The next year, believing the government wanted to shelve its pay claim, it again mobilised its members, but this time the banners read: Don’t Duck Dons’ Dosh.

It did them little good. Most people who teach, whether in nurseries or universities, are shamefully badly paid. Their sense of self-worth is further decreased because the people who administer their work, inspect it and are consulted about it are very well paid indeed.

David Blunkett’s adoption of performance-related pay, announced this week, won’t help, particularly because it comes on top of his creation of “advanced-skills teachers”, or “superteachers”, whose pay can go up to £40,200. To make an impact in all of Britain’s 25,000 schools, you would need thousands of superteachers. If thousands of superteachers are created, then those who are not given such status will think they are failures. They may leave teaching, creating a shortage. Those who cannot leave will be so demoralised that, if they were not already failures as teachers, they probably will become failures.

If the government does not intend to create that many superteachers, there will not be enough to go round, and a new status gap will open up between schools. Whose children will go to schools with “superteachers” and whose children will get taught by the riff-raff?

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Blunkett has £1.2 billion to spend, and he could have used it to give all teachers a sensible increase. Instead he is creating a new and higher salary scale for just some teachers.

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But administrators, inspectors and bureaucrats of all sorts do not, apparently, need to prove to anyone that they are doing a good job before being put into higher salary brackets. The bureaucrat whose pay really irritates teachers is Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector. Woodhead frequently points out that inspecting schools is hard and responsible work, but I am inclined to think that doing the actual teaching may be almost as onerous.

Woodhead’s salary of £115,000 and his 34 per cent pay rise this year contrasts with classroom teachers who cannot earn more than £22,038 a year without taking on other responsibilities outside the classroom, such as being co-ordinators of something or other, or getting themselves on to one of Blunkett’s privileged pay scales.

University lecturers find their vice-chancellors’ pay almost as galling as teachers find Woodhead’s. Lecturers who are held down to a staged increase of between 2 per cent and 2.9 per cent this year, when inflation was 4 per cent, are unlikely to have their tempers improved by the news that increases for vice-chancellors are expected to be at least on the same scale as last year, when they averaged 6.8 per cent. Before this increase the average vice- chancellor earned £105,344. The best paid, at University College, London, earned £144,709, while lecturers start on £16,655.

Yet hundreds of our brainiest and most able young people dream about getting that job with its £16,655. The entry level for full-time university teaching jobs is now a doctorate, at least for mainstream academic subjects, and few are appointed under the age of 30.

Most new full-time lecturers in academic subjects have already spent most of their twenties scratching to keep body and soul together while they complete a vast and demanding doctoral thesis, living on odd spots of ridiculously badly paid demonstrating and research work, supplemented, if they are very lucky, by some tiny sums doled out by one of the research councils or by a charity. Most of them are still, at nearly 30, heavily reliant on parents who have already supported them through two degree courses.

A large and growing proportion of university teaching is done by the academic “lump”, a vast army of part-time lecturers. I teach, one day a week, an MA in journalism at the University of Westminster. I was not paid for nearly three months, until I telephoned and was abruptly told that I had failed to return one of the many pieces of paper despatched to me for signature. This turned out to be their insulting contract (“. . . as my contract is of a fixed-term nature, I have waived all my statutory rights . . .”). The part-time lecturer is the poor white of the academic community.

Each year the union negotiators and the vice-chancellors dance an elegant quadrille round each other, and end up settling on slightly less than the amount the government allocated in the first place, which generally means a pay cut in real terms. There is no forum in which the proper rate for the job can be discussed. The unions are asking for a pay review body, but instead ministers have passed the question to a committee.

University lecturers are, nonetheless, better off than their colleagues in further education, the sector that was turned into a spiv’s paradise under the previous government. The last time there was a national agreement over FE pay rates was in 1993. National pay scales have all but collapsed, and the 350 further education colleges all set their own rates. Some lecturers earn as little as £11,000 a year, but many principals (now usually called chief executives, in deference to the spirit of the age) are in the six-figure bracket.

A few months ago it started to look as though some order might be restored, with the college lecturers’ union and the principals in serious talks over minimum standards and conditions. But the principals insisted on 27 hours of teaching a week. Since each teaching hour demands at least half an hour’s marking and preparation, and generally more, you can see why union members rejected it in a ballot.

We shall pay dearly for all this penny-pinching. The latest figures show a 15.4 per cent fall in applications for primary teaching courses, and a 7.5 per cent drop in those wishing to take a postgraduate certificate in education, usually the gateway to secondary teaching. That is hardly surprising when teachers with good honours degrees start on £14,751 (going up this week to £15,012) while the average graduate starting salary is £16,500, and the gap gets wider as they work.

On that salary, teaching attracts two sorts of people: the dedicated, and those who have no alternative. The latter are generally poor teachers who should be encouraged to find other work. What Blunkett plans is to keep them in teaching while recognising that they are no good at it by paying them less than their colleagues.