A friend of mine has just qualified as a GP. Her salary is £80K. I have just qualified as a teacher. My salary is £23K. Fair? Right? I don’t think so.
My friend drives a BMW generously coated with special glittery paint and with heated seats for those chilly winter mornings. I drive a rusting Ford Focus and wear woolly tights. So much for John Major and his 1990 promise that the ‘man in the woolly jumper and battered Sedan’ would no longer be the local teacher.
If I sound a trifle peeved, that’s because I am. It is a small consolation that my fellow citizens judge teachers’ wages too low, but there’s no way the profession is going to get the 15 per cent rise they consider fair.
Of course, I realise that my GP friend makes the occasional life-and-death decision – and everyone wants her to get it right. But bear in mind that ‘teachers hold in their hands the success of our country and the wellbeing of its citizens’. Quite a tall order.
Teachers are also ‘the most important fighters in the battle to make opportunity more equal’. In addition, we are ‘the critical guardians of the intellectual life of the nation’. Furthermore, we ‘give children the tools by which they can become authors of their own life story and builders of a better world’. And finally, as if we didn’t have enough to do, we are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of mankind’.
Mr Gove, whose words I have just quoted, expected an awful lot for his £23K.
There are other parallels between teachers and medics. Workload is one. Both professions are overburdened, but it is possible to work extremely part-time on a GP’s ample salary. It isn’t on mine. This is a controversial point because it is seen as being anti all the GPs who combine raising a family with having a career. Let me just say that I support part-time working for all: men, women – and teachers.
Nevertheless I was peeved (again) by a recent encounter with a local GP. I was suffering from a bad hip; she was young, glowing, Superhero fit and ever so slightly smug. It became apparent that she earned twice my wage for two days a week work. She enquired if my hip pain was enough to stop me jogging. No, I shouted to myself. I hate jogging. I can’t work out how to carry and mark all those books at the same time.
Ah but remember, I hear you cry, those poor medical students. Look how hard they work and how long their training is – so much longer than that of would-be teachers. But surely having to do a responsible job with insufficient training is a reason for paying teachers more not less? GPs have had eight years to prepare themselves for the routine maladies presented by Mr and Mrs Jones for seven minutes at a time on average. Most teachers have had one year to prepare themselves for routine challenges presented simultaneously by 25 or more young people for several hours a day.
It just can’t be done, however good the training – and mine was very good. There is no way the most committed trainers, the best mentors and the most excellent teaching schools can possibly impart everything a teacher needs to know in a single year. Every day, I discover, stumble over and fall into the inevitable crevasses that await a teacher doing everything for the first time.
I am supposed to be a member of Mr Gove’s ‘best generation of teachers ever’, so why do I feel as if I have been thrown in the deep end of a murky pool with a very small and punctured lilo for support. I do sometimes reach for my passport and check out the price of flights to Helsinki. Teachers in Finland are the most respected and trusted professionals in a country remarkable for its ‘paramount commitment to social and educational equity through a genuinely comprehensive school system of consistently high quality,’ as the Cambridge Primary Review pointed out. Their training is lengthy, rigorous and thorough. No sinking feelings for them.
But no glittering BMWs either. Perhaps surprisingly, Finnish teachers’ pay also lags behind that of GPs – though the gap is not as wide as it is in the UK. I put my passport back in the drawer. Of course, it isn’t all about money, but my woolly tights would have to be a lot woollier to see me through a bitter Finnish winter.
Stephanie Northen is a teacher and journalist. She was one of the authors of the Cambridge Primary Review final report.