Announcing a pay rise for public-sector workers is the right thing to do.
These past months have underlined what we always knew: that our public-sector workers make a vital contribution to our country and that we can rely on them when we need them.
That last sentence is not mine. The words belong to the chancellor of the exchequer.
The prime minister, too, has been full of praise for public-sector workers in schools during the crisis.
This week’s announcement has been seen in some quarters as a reward for going above and beyond the call of duty during lockdown. But it is important to say that none of the people working in schools has been looking for a reward or a pat on the back.
A fair deal
What’s more important is a fair deal when it comes to pay. In education, this hasn’t been the case for a very long while. This week’s pay announcement should be the start of a process to restore pay in education to a level that reflects the sector’s importance to society.
Had pay for school leaders kept pace with RPI inflation since 2010, the minimum salary on the leadership pay range (excluding London) would have been £49,371 in 2018. The actual minimum salary for the leadership pay range in 2018 was £39,965.
Over eight years that salary has lost £9,406 against RPI inflation, representing tens of thousands of pounds of lost income over the period to an individual school leader.
Now, school leaders are responsible for the safety of all in the school community and the future of young lives. But, elsewhere in the job market, salaries can be much higher. Average school leaders’ salaries are markedly lower than fully qualified chartered accountants, for instance, who can typically earn £84,000 a year, according to the UK's biggest graduate careers website.
Is looking after the money of a multinational worth much more than children’s futures? No wonder our best mathematicians are not attracted to a career in education – quite simply, they can do the maths.
The role of pay
In a survey of school leaders that NAHT published this month and shared exclusively with Tes, almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents, when asked what could be done to improve the attractiveness of teaching as a profession, chose “more competitive pay across the profession”.
Pay is undeniably a factor in tackling the leadership drought that exists in our schools.
Government data shows that 22% of head teachers new in post in 2011 had left within five years of their appointment.
Even before covid, leading a school was a challenging job: 82% of respondents to our survey reported that in the last 12 months their role has impacted negatively on the quality or quantity of their sleep. More than three-quarters told us that, in the past year, their role had had a negative impact on their family or personal life.
We can, and should, be able to do much better than this.
A fragile system
During lockdown, away from the media's noise, teachers and school leaders have proven how essential they are to society and demonstrated their dedication and resilience by keeping their schools open for the children of key workers and for the most vulnerable.
They have totally redesigned the way they deliver education, moving from a face-to-face approach to distance learning, either online or with work posted through letterboxes. They have supported families brought to their knees, even delivering food to some homes.
It is correct that education is beginning to be recognised properly as a key frontline public service. The promises of funding, support and better pay are long overdue.
But the attractive headlines mask the reality of a fragile system.
Even with the much-needed money the government has announced – to recognise historic underfunding and, more recently, to spend on helping pupils move on from covid-19 – school finances remain frighteningly tight.
Spend here, cut somewhere else
Every penny a school spends requires a choice: spend here, cut somewhere else. So school leaders still have to make some difficult decisions: what do they cut to pay their staff the money the government says they deserve?
Again, they must do better.
The prime minister talks a great deal about “levelling up”. For young people, getting a good education is what levelling up looks like. The more chances we give our young people to succeed, the better our nation will fare, on the world stage and as we emerge from lockdown.
It is time to see education spending for what it truly is: an investment in Britain’s future, not a drain on the public purse. Invest in teachers and leaders, and you’re investing in young people’s future.
September will inevitably bring fresh challenges, but ask anyone working in a school and they will tell you that on a good day it is still the best job in the world. Teaching should be the graduate profession, with applicants queuing around the block.
As pupils return to schools, and MPs to parliament in September, I hope we can finally establish a positive, long-term proposition that keeps professionals in education for careers that last decades.
This blog first appeared on the Tes website.