Rewarding teachers

Originally published in The Herald, 9/9/2009

SINCE Scottish devolution there has been a revolution in the pay and conditions of teachers. The deal pioneered by Professor Gavin McCrone saw teachers' salaries rise by 23per cent between 2001 and 2004, while class contact time was reeled back to less than 23 hours within a 35-hour week. The McCrone deal has gobbled up much of the extra resources poured into education in recent years but it was necessary to reverse a situation in which teachers' pay had slipped behind that of fellow professionals year on year.

The Education at a Glance statistics produced annually by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) enable countries to see their own performance in a global context. The information on teachers' pay comes with a health warning. Differences in taxation, social benefits, allowances, overtime payments and workloads inhibit fair comparisons. Nevertheless, it is significant that this year the pay for a typical Scottish lower secondary teacher with 15 years' experience has slipped from fifth to eighth in the global table. And, despite recent reforms, Scottish teachers still spend longer at the chalkface than nearly all of our OECD partners.

These figures should sound a quiet warning bell. Nobody is suggesting that Scottish teachers will start heading south for more money. Scotland is still three places higher than England in the pay league.

Nevertheless, what these figures appear to demonstrate is that, while starting salaries have risen faster in Scotland than nearly anywhere, that level of growth is not sustained throughout their working lives, a factor that may have an impact on motivation and satisfaction. Ultimately, this could affect teacher retention.

By offering a fair reward for a difficult and demanding job, McCrone's vision was to recruit a new generation of bright graduates to inspire Scotland's future citizens.

Today that dream looks tattered. Hundreds of recently qualified teachers are failing to find permanent posts because the country is training more teachers than there are jobs and councils are having to cut their cloth tightly to stretch their budgets. Teachers' salaries are the largest single cost in education, making pay a critical subject for policy-makers. However, if, combined with the current dearth of full-time posts, young graduates see teachers' pay starting to slide again against other career options, they will start to look elsewhere.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider how we incentivise the most gifted teachers to stay in the classroom. The chartered teacher status was intended to do this but it has proved too costly in terms of both time and fees. Is it time to think about an element of performancerelated pay or would that create discrepancies and resentment? McCrone gave teaching the place it deserves. Now is no time to turn the clock back.