When I first began teaching I thought Head of Department was a really responsible, senior position. Vaguely, I thought that most teachers would teach for about five years with no extra responsibility and, assuming they were good at it, might become a Head of Department after about ten years. A few, in my mind, would become SLT around five years after that and, five years after this a very small number would become Deputies. An even smaller number would become Heads at some unspecified point after that.
I knew there would be exceptions. Some people were so good they’d be promoted faster and others, happy in their classrooms, wouldn’t be promoted at all. But, at my first school, one with a lowish turnover, what I saw didn’t challenge this view very much; our Head was in her fifties, most SLT were in their forties and Departmental Heads in their mid to late thirties.
At the start of my career, healthily I think, I didn’t really give much thought to what I wanted to end up as. I wanted to establish myself as a decent teacher and was happy with a future which was both vague and hypothetical. I didn’t consider financial factors at all. I just sort of assumed if I wanted to be a teacher forever I could be. While, of course, I knew my decisions might mean holidaying in different places, or driving an older car or owning a smaller house, I never thought that if I wasn’t promoted I might not be able to afford holidays, or that I may one day have to sell my car because I couldn’t afford the MOT, or that it might I never own my own home.
For me, protected by a middle class financial security blanket, life has largely worked out this way. I’ve never actually given much thought to ‘CAREER’, instead taking interesting jobs as and when they came up. As a result, I’ve been a teacher, VSO volunteer, SLT in an international school, a Head of Faculty and now a teacher trainer.
I’ve had an interesting and varied sequence of jobs. Sometimes I’ve earned more and sometimes less. Although, of course, it’s always nice to have more to spend, I have never had to really think about finances when looking at a job. This freedom has been the result of a relatively privileged financial position for which I’m thankful; I had no student loan to pay back and parents who were able to help me significantly in getting together a deposit for buying a house.
I’ve ended up where I have because I’ve had the freedom to choose roles without thinking very much about whether or not they would pay enough to make ends meet. My secure financial position has also meant I’ve been able to take risks; I volunteered on a subsistence salary for two years and then took a job in a developing world school that paid comparatively little, and made no contributions towards pension or National Insurance for the five years I was away. I worked in a really disadvantaged school where good results came hard and, I think, my linear career advancement probably stalled as a result. These risks paid off personally and in the long term may do financially too but each risk was covered by a safety net. If the worst came to the worst and I lost my job, I was always confident that the money behind me would mean I’d be OK for a year or so, at least, while I regrouped and reassessed. My advantages meant I had space to breathe and think about what was best for both myself and the children I taught. Space to get better in areas I wanted to get better in, space to question established practice, free from the worry that if I didn’t jump through hoops I’d still end up, ultimately, OK.
Life isn’t this way for many, many teachers and, in an increasingly less financially competitive sector, the situation is getting worse. Since 2010 teacher pay has been capped at a 1% increase which, taking into account inflation and rises to the cost of living, actually equates to almost a £3000 pay cut for a teacher on the equivalent of the old M1 with no extra responsibility payments. Although these figures will be disputed, I doubt many people would not accept that the 1% pay cap has very significantly affected teacher pay. During the same period house prices have risen from an average of about £170,000 to almost £220,000. These figures are for outside London and, as an aside, I am mystified as to how new teachers without independent sources of income manage there at all.
For many this has made a tolerable situation intolerable. While teachers, coming from diverse contexts, have never been on an equal financial playing field, in the past it was more possible for younger teachers to take their time if they wanted to. In 2004, when I qualified, a teacher’s salary was enough, just, for someone entering the profession to think it realistic, if careful, to get to the end of the month without going deeper and deeper into their overdraft and still realistically scrape together enough money to put down a deposit on a first home.
In many areas, for many, I am not sure this is viable anymore. Teaching starting salaries are low and punitive accountability measures built around the fatally flawed performance related pay model mean many can no longer count on earning more each year, creating further uncertainty.
I worry this is causing many young teachers to seek promoted posts, not because they really want them or feel ready but because they just need more money. I am concerned that this is affecting the career development of many younger teachers, who are assuming extra responsibilities before they are ready.
Promoted posts often develop and test skills only tangentially linked to teaching. For a Head of Department, administrative tasks such as tracking data on Excel, managing a budget and entering children for exams demand at least if not more time than focusing on getting better at teaching. For a good teacher, regardless of age, this isn’t a massive problem because teaching processes have been automated. For a less skilled teacher, as those at the beginning of their careers frequently are, this extra administrative load can distract them from improving their practice in the classroom, especially as training in these areas is, in my experience, largely non-existent. Categorically, this isn’t an argument we shouldn’t promote someone just because they are young and inexperienced, but if a decision is primarily based on the urgent need of the applicant to earn more money we are right to have misgivings.
Schools will, of course, say that they would never promote someone who wasn’t ready and I am sure a lot don’t, but problems with recruitment and retention are making it difficult for some schools, particularly those in more challenging areas, to avoid doing so. We are, regrettably and for whatever combination of reasons, a profession in flux. This instability, most acute in schools which struggle the most, means that SLTs have smaller and smaller pools from which to select candidates; faced with either no Head of French or one who’s taught for only two years and still has rough edges, it seems logical to fill the position and “make sure they are well supported”. Of course, as belts tighten, timetables increase and good intentions evaporate over the heat of the all-consuming business of running a school, this support often fizzles out. Hands are further tied as a culture develops in which early promotion becomes normalised; our hypothetical 2nd year French teacher, perhaps under financial pressure, may quite understandably become disgruntled if not promoted, aware that in other schools those with similar experience are advancing.
I know this is more complicated than I have suggested so far. Our expectations around finances and an acceptable lifestyle are different; one person’s affluence might be another’s poverty. But, if we have new teachers worrying about whether or not they will ever own a house or crying over an unexpected garage bill, then we are not paying them enough. Teaching is stressful enough as it is without adding financial insecurity into the mix and ignoring this as a contributory cause to the issues we face in our schools is wilfully myopic.
There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting more money, influence or prestige and, perhaps, there is something innately human in wanting to advance ourselves. But if we have young teachers who feel the only way which they can live dignified lives is to assume extra responsibilities they neither desire nor feel ready for, we have reason to be alarmed. These young people teach our children and we should pay them enough to get better at this, free from the financial worry that in doing so they condemn themselves to a life of perpetual insecurity.