Education & Family

What is a head teacher worth?

Bank notes
Image caption What is a head teacher worth in pay?

More than £200,000 for a head teacher? Is that shocking? Or is it the market rate?

Why should we assume that someone with such a responsible job should not be paid a big pay packet?

Setting aside the specific circumstances of Mark Elms, of Tidemill Primary School - the total included back pay and extras on top of a basic of about £83,000 - this raises far-reaching questions about what people are worth.

After all, for £83,000 you could buy half a week's worth of a premiership footballer.

What's more valuable? Looking after the well-being and education of hundreds of children? Or should it be someone who generates big profits that help to pay for the school system?

Mary Bousted, head of the ATL teachers' union, says the key issue is about fairness.

"If someone is paid a disproportionate amount, it causes resentment... Pay needs to be fair, it's about working together. If there's a huge pay gap it distorts those relationships."

And she warns against education importing a "bonus culture" which targets the rewards at the top.

More bonuses

But the free market view on heads' pay is that there are not enough bonuses - and that pay could be much higher if that's what was needed to find the right people.

Dale Bassett, senior researcher at the think tank Reform, says there should be no upper or lower limits on heads' pay, it should be left to the laws of supply and demand.

"Head teachers are managing big organisations, they need to be high calibre. To get good performance you need to give them incentives, using bonuses where appropriate," he said.

"There should be no arbitrary caps." And he says that any "outrage" over high-paid heads is "focusing on the wrong issue".

Pay has become a political issue - particularly when public sector spending is under such pressure.

It has also produced a new unit of currency. The Cameron. The prime minister's pay packet of £142,500 per year has become a benchmark for salaries - a little like the way that big objects used to be described in terms of London buses.

The education secretary has said that head teachers in England should not exceed this level.

At present, the top of the pay scale for inner London is just under £110,000, with the option for governors to offer more - and about 100 head teachers earn more than £150,000.

Pay gap

Pay outside London for head teachers begins at about £41,000 - and there will be teachers in the classroom who will start on about £21,000, climbing to a maximum for advanced skills teachers in inner London of £63,000.Across the public sector, there has been increased scrutiny of the top earners.

A new rule of thumb has been put forward by the prime minister - that the best paid should not earn more than 20 times than the worst paid.

Head teachers, even the best paid, fall comfortably within these limits.

If you want more high-rise figures in education you have to look into higher education.

A survey earlier this year found that 19 university vice chancellors earned more than £300,000 per year - with some exceeding £400,000.

But such comfortably-upholstered pay rates do not stretch down to the lower end of the university ladder.

Living wage

A campaign being run in London by students and the London Citizens community group has been highlighting the vast gap between vice chancellors' pay and their universities' contract cleaners.

This "living wage" campaign, which held an event in London on Monday, says that cleaners on the minimum wage are having to do two or three jobs to put bread on the table.

A cleaner on the minimum wage of £5.80, working 40-hours a week, 52 weeks a year, would have to work more than 33 years to earn the pay of some vice-chancellors.

The living wage campaigners see this as a moral issue, not simply a financial one.

The prospect of head teachers earning six figures would seem less of an issue when compared to pay in the health service.

Average earnings for GPs who are partners in a surgery hovers around £100,000 - while consultants can earn up to about £176,000, excluding any private earnings.

Before feeling any pangs of envy, this would seem like small beer to the legal aid earnings of top ranking criminal barristers.

Figures published by the Ministry of Justice earlier this year showed that to get into the top 10 earners in the criminal defence service a barrister would need to be earning in excess of £500,000 - and that's before any other private earnings.

Hiring again

There are also parts of the economy where the frugal Cameron doesn't carry much weight as a currency.

Take the financial sector. Bailing out the banks might have emptied the public purse - and put all this pressure on public services - but don't expect to see much in the way of sackcloth and ashes.

When there was a row about the earnings of the former head of the RBS bank, even his pension was bigger than the prime minister's pay - with £650,000 available each year from the ripe old age of 50.

Last week, graduate recruiters reported a tough jobs market for university leavers, with particular problems in the public sector.

But there was a gleam of optimism. The banks and financial service companies were hiring again, said the annual High Fliers survey.

Investment bankers, once pilloried as fat cats, are looking for new recruits, offering a 10% annual hike in starting salaries, before bonuses.

Martin Birchall, managing director of High Fliers, says these recruits into investment banks could be on £200,000 to £300,000 by the time they are in their thirties.

Even the graduate recruits into investment banking, fresh from university and beginning their first day, could expect an average starting salary of £42,000. That's more than some head teachers.

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