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Education & Development

Valuing teachers

Updated Friday, 2nd May 2008

Why do teachers get paid so much less than some other professionals?

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In my last post I argued that people’s contributions can’t always be calculated and added up. That week there were two stories in the press – one about the value of migrants and the other about the value of housework that made me think that the attempts being made to put a figure on how much housework or migrants’ work contribute to an economy were inadequate. I felt that the incalculable worthiness of people too needs to be recognised.

I still hold by what I said there but the teachers' strike on April 24th made me wonder when and what kinds of calculations might be important, even necessary.

And this is why. Balls and Brown visit a school Creative commons image Icon Downing Street under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license Ed Balls and Gordon Brown on an official visit to a school

Ed Balls, the schools secretary wrote in an article Why Britain has the best teachers ever on Tuesday October 23, 2007 :

The best teachers show children and young people a world they never knew existed. They open doors of opportunity and inspire a lifelong love of learning.

I hope everyone can look back on at least one teacher who really made a difference to them. We all want our children to be taught by people who not only help them to learn and progress, but also make a real difference to their lives and aspirations.

He offers a ringing endorsement to the teaching profession. He recounts, if you like, their incalculable worthiness.

However, at least according to the National Union of Teachers (NUT), this worthiness definitely remains uncalculated in the current pay offer that the government has made to teachers. At 2.45% it is well below the retail price index of 4.1%. The NUT therefore calculates that their wage increases are well below the inflation rate. They see this not only as a mark of Government failure to reward teachers with appropriate pay increases but also as signalling the wider worth given to teaching. Poor pay leads to a feeling of unworthiness among teachers and can result in falling standards amongst those who are drawn into the profession. In short, unless teachers are paid as if they are the best, the ‘best’ will shun teaching.

At the heart of this issue is an interesting paradox. Ed Balls clearly values teachers but he does not (at least according to the NUT) place an appropriate financial value on their contributions. The teachers ask for, what they consider, rightful financial remuneration – the incalculable worthiness recognised in Ed Balls’ speech seems to be inadequate. They want appropriate commensuration for their work.

Perhaps, it is worth stopping off here to explore a little what exactly we mean by commensuration. Commensuration is the process by which different qualities are made comparable by quantifying them. Of course, this process of quantification is inherently a way of ascribing value. It is not an end point but part of a system whereby you have some expectations about the contributions that might be made by teachers.

Commensuration as a practice always simplifies complex realities by eliminating heterogeneity and selecting comparable elements. It fixes, through the process of revelation, particular aspects of their existence as valuable, while obscuring others. For Plato, this process of simplification made it easier to navigate the world. It was a necessary part of rational living as it would remove passion and emotion from processes by which we value goods or people. It would stabilize our decision making by giving less room for subjective variations in what we value. His student, Aristotle, on the other hand, thought that too much was lost in this process of simplification. Difference and uniqueness and valuing things for their own sake, were, for him, the qualities that made us ethical humans.

Irrespective of whether we support Plato’s viewpoint or Aristotle’s, the value of a teacher’s labour it appears has already been calculated. The main pay scale varies across 6 bands while the upper pay scale has three bands. Progression in the main pay scale is related to years of work while progression in the upper pay scale is based on the discretion of the governing body. The value of the teacher will be assessed by school governing bodies, in line with local priorities. In addition teachers can also apply for Teaching and Learning Responsibility Allowance, if they take up a responsibility beyond that required by others. And then there are the Advanced Skills Teachers with their own 18 point pay spine; Excellent Teachers with their salary scheme; and the Leadership group which includes head teachers and other school leaders who have a 43 point pay scale. Teachers can also apply for Performance Related Pay and some teachers will be eligible for special allowances for teaching in London.

By the time I waded through these ‘differences’ in how teachers’ pay is calculated and these marks of recognition of uniqueness, simplicity began to look decidedly appealing! Jokes apart, the recognition of what matters in a particular context is something to be lauded. Teachers may (in my mind rightly) object to the way in which they have been transferred from the old scale to the new, without pay protection, leading to a reduction of recognition of certain tasks that they do and an erasure of the value of others but the many different scales does suggest the difficulties in equating qualitatively different types of work undertaken under different conditions. So the calculation of value seems, in this case, to have been done with an eye on the diversity of conditions in which teachers work

However, what is at stake here is not just the recognition of differences between teachers but also that between teachers and other workers in the economy. Why do teachers, who are given charge of shaping a whole generation for a minimum of 12 years, get paid so much less than some other professionals? What does this tell students about respect and value? What is the metric being used to calculate value? And how does this compare with how other people’s work is valued and measured? This is where recalculation seems to be necessary and important, given the society in which we live. Perhaps Ed Balls needs to go back to school for some lessons on calculating and rewarding value!





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