It’s not about the money

In a world run by money, Hilary Moriarty discusses how to keep talented teachers in the classroom

OK, so never let them tell you it’s not about the money because it surely is.  Straight up. Hands down. Always and forever. It is about the money.

And that is probably the problem in education in particular: relative poverty. ‘I thought I was doing OK, but a footballer earns how much?!’ Actually, the Daily Mail has just informed us that, ‘the AVERAGE Premier League salary is now £2.4 million,’ presumably per annum. Manchester United has apparently ‘smashed’ the £100k a week barrier, and is now the world’s top paying football club.  The rest of us surely know our place.

Over a certain age, we are probably accustomed or immune to the bizarre extravagance of stellar salaries for those who, actually, just bash a ball about. (Please don’t write in – I know there’s more skill to it than my casual verb implies – but honestly!) We know it’s crazy, and only justified by the crazy economics of global television and the world’s unbelievable appetite for watching the ball-bashers.  

But young people? More impressionable.  More aspirational, perhaps, because I suspect there really has been a generational (or two) shift which means that children and young people are more clued-up about what jobs pay well, or seriously well or may make you Donald Trump. And you’re at work a long time, so why not go for the big bucks and the yacht? Back to the pitch and blow the long Victorian novel. Young people are actually at a stage in their lives when they could make the decisions which take them to the starry, glittering niches in the world, when many of us will have come to terms with the paler outcomes of our own decisions made in our youth. Sadly, if you are reading this, you are unlikely to be earning squillions.  Well, not being paid squillions, which is slightly different from not earning them.

It would be a shame if the highest posts in one of the most important professions were to be handed to businessmen or ex-servicemen who really wouldn’t know what to do with a stroppy Year 11 Set 12, on a wet Friday afternoon

As I write, a young rugby player is in the news for a career decision which he cheerfully admits was all about the money. Born in Fiji, he qualifies to play for England by virtue of three years’ residence in England, which now ‘feels like home’. Putting aside any consideration of today’s amazing flexibility of nationality, he simply says he’s doing it for the money. England pays more than Fiji. And I thought nationality used to mean something. How old-fashioned!

And this has what to do with schools and teachers? In my working lifetime, teaching gave you a reasonable living (and, yes, yes, long holidays). But as a career, it had no glamour at all. How often did I hear murmurs, “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.” It was almost shameful to admit, “My name is Hilary and I am a teacher.”

“Really? And you have two degrees? You’re mad.”

After three years lecturing in further education, and having relocated to the Welsh borders, I taught for two terms in a grammar school, then moved over with half the staff into the newly created comprehensive school next door. Today a grammar school and a secondary modern, tomorrow, at a stroke, a comprehensive school. Not easy for anyone – Head, staff, pupils, builders in a sea of mud. None of this reality seemed to appear in the slightly professorial educational press.  So I wrote about it myself. And when I look back, a long career in education was financially enhanced (a little) by writing about it all on the kitchen table, in the small hours of the long evenings marking, usually, 30 essays a night, 500 words minimum each. I really believed you don’t learn to write by thinking about it or hearing about it, you learn to write by writing – and then reading what I wrote about what you wrote, of course.

What we do not need is for those brightest sparks to be seduced away from the profession by the lure of mega-bucks and lots of respect

Apart from the money, writing offered shreds of kudos: it was lovely when at distant conferences someone said, “Oh My God – you write ‘Thank God it’s Friday!’” even if they hated what I wrote.

Kudos, respect – do they matter? Yes, yes, yes. The irony of teaching was that you got little respect, a fair amount of derision, and poor pay as well. Maybe those two are connected. You pay a solicitor a lot of money because he works just for you, one client at a time. Teachers? Ten a penny, and classes of 30 youngsters – ‘Altogether now. . .!’ 

So, what is a self-respecting teacher to do? Reach for promotion. Better, ‘I’m Head of Department,’ than ‘I’m a teacher.’ Then you are off up the ladder: middle management, senior management, senior leadership team, Assistant Head, Deputy Head, Head and now Executive Head of a chain of schools, and getting further from the classroom.

And it appears that at the highest levels, there are vacancies. In fact, there are now scare stories of too few Heads being available when the need for them is expanding. The baby boomers in senior, respected positions of leadership and authority, are heading for the retirement hills. Who will replace them?

Here is an irony: maybe not teachers.  Clarissa Farr, Headmistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School has offered the view that the skills of a Head, the leader, are ‘related but not identical to’ those of a brilliant teacher. That would be sad for ambitious teachers, for whom the most money and kudos and respect is only to be had at the most senior level. With the looming vacuum in mind, the University of Buckingham is starting a course to train leaders for schools, including applicants interested in doing so as a second career, after already demonstrating their leadership capacity in business or other professions.  

It would be a shame if the highest posts in one of the most important professions were to be handed to businessmen or ex-servicemen who really wouldn’t know what to do with a stroppy Year 11 Set 12, on a wet Friday afternoon (I do not jest – I am proud to have taught such a class). Good people will want to rise, and this is their world. The ladders up to kudos and cash have to be available.  

Teachers in general do not take kindly to Heads who seem to float in on wings of different experience and – like the professors of education – have no connection to, or experience of, the realities of the classroom.  Are doctors not the same – to lead doctors, you need to have been one of them? Senior ranks in the army are surely given to those who have distinguished themselves in lower ranks, not those who have had great careers in farming, or dentistry.

So, you need high-calibre people attracted into teaching – the Teach First scheme, admitting only the brightest and the best, goes some way to erasing the ‘Those who can’t’ slur. What we do not need is for those brightest sparks to be seduced away from the profession by the lure of mega-bucks and lots of respect –  we need reactions at parties and in bars that say, “You’re a teacher! How amazing, tell me how you got in to that?” 

We need them in the classroom now, and in the Head’s office in due course. And in the end, yes, it is about the money.

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of the Boarding Schools Association

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