Tuesday, 29 May 2007

You must be NUTs

Before I discuss the latest example of union brass neck, I need to declare an interest.

Occasionally I dine at the expense of the National Union of Teachers (NUT). They kindly and generously like to lay on a fish and chip supper with complementary wine at the close of the Liberal Democrat Party Conferences (I think they do both), and I have been known to avail myself of their hospitality.

The cynical among you my wonder whether the NUT hopes to curry favour with the Lib Dems through this act of largesse (If only they were trying to curry favour!). Shame on you for thinking so. I’m sure it has never crossed the mind of the NUT to try to gain access to our hearts via our stomachs.

And to prove that there is no link between free food and drink and political favour, I am going to now point out how disgraceful and irresponsible the NUT’s latest pay claim is.

Now lets be honest. Few of us would not like to enjoy a 10 per cent pay rise, with a minimum raise of £3,000 a year. I know I could put it to use. But if we were all to enjoy a 10 per cent pay rise then the 2.8 per cent CPI and 4.5 per cent RPI inflation that Steve Sinnott is using as justification for his demand would soon rise sharply.

Not that the NUT has any interest in the rest of us. It is only interested in its members, which is understandable. However, the fact remains that a 10 per cent pay rise with a minimum rise of £3,000 per annum is greedy and selfish. 10 per cent is way beyond that enjoyed by the rest of the country, and as it would be funded from general taxation, it would further reduce the net gain of those whose pay rises were far more modest.

It would also punch a hole right through the government’s (long overdue) public sector pay restraint. Where teachers lead, doctors and nurses would follow, and soon hundreds of thousands if not millions of public sector workers would be agitating for higher wages. This would necessitate higher taxes – as previous public sector binges have done, pushing the tax burden and the size of the public sector up to record levels – and stoke higher inflation, which is already beginning to escape the iron grip of the Iron Chancellor and push interest rates up to uncomfortable levels.

Again, the NUT are not interested in the rest of the public sector (at least, not that they would admit, though I suspect that all the public sector unions agree that public sector employees as a whole should be paid a lot more). They simply want “pay levels for teachers that are competitive with comparable employment.” But what, exactly, is comparable employment?

As the son of two teachers (another interest I’d best declare) I have spent a lot of time around teachers, and have heard them compare themselves countless times to the other great “professions”: lawyers and doctors. This is largely based on the rather facile fact that educational professionals require a university degree, though these days the same could be said of work in a call centre. While there are undoubtedly many dedicated and well qualified teachers out there (my chemistry teacher had a PhD and my parents used to do marking throughout their evenings and weekends), the fact remains that teaching does not require the qualifications or the training that is required of a lawyer or a surgeon. Nor do they put themselves in harms way (at least, willingly!) as do police officers or fire fighters. Nor again do they need to demonstrate the research acumen of the only profession that really is comparable – that of university lecturers.

Mr. Sinnott is correct about one thing, however: “This is an illustration of the failure of successive governments to recognise the importance of the teaching profession to society. It must stop.” The solutions are straightforward.

Firstly, put an end to national pay bargaining. There is absolutely no logic in paying a teacher in Grimsby the same as a teacher in Gravesend. Salaries should reflect supply and demand, and the sum needed to tempt a teacher to work in any particular school is largely dependent on the local cost of living. National pay bargaining simply transfers money from teachers in areas with high costs of living – who struggle to afford houses and other necessitates – to those in poorer areas for whom the national salary goes a lot further. It is no wonder that it is hard for teachers in the South East. The Government lacks the spine for this, however, and would rather respond to the failure of their meddling with further meddling.

Secondly, if there really is a shortage of good teachers, as the NUT would have us believe, then pay should be based upon an honest assessment of the number and quality of teachers required. If this necessitates higher salaries, so be it. But higher salaries should be based upon an assessment of what is needed to get more and better teachers into the profession, not the self-serving demands of those who represent people who are already doing the job.

Thirdly, break up the public sector education monopoly. The only reason why the NUT has so much power is that its members almost exclusively work for a single employer. If tens of thousands of independent schools were negotiating with their discrete workforces, wages would reflect local need. There would be no government cap on pay rises; nor would the NUT be able to demand a set rise for all. What is more, as schools competed for the most talented educators (and other staff), really inspirational teachers – and we’ve all known some – would be properly rewarded. Meanwhile, the ineffective teachers – and I’m sure we can all think of some of them, too – will be encouraged to move to new careers where their talents would be put to better use. Good teachers would benefit, and so too would some of the bad, but most of all, the children would benefit.

It may very well be true that education is a commodity that we naturally under-consume (or under-fund) because the benefits are delayed or because those who pay are not those who benefit. Nonetheless, I believe that parents on the whole are more concerned with the welfare of their children than the policy officers in unions. Give them the money – through an education voucher scheme – with which to buy their education, from any private, public, voluntary, charity, social enterprise or any other kind of provider whom they choose, and further allow them to top up the voucher with whatever they can afford, and I’m sure that for the most part they will pour far more into their children’s education than the three to four thousand pounds currently spent by the state.

Parents are bound to be more liberal with their money when they can control how and where it is spent. And by exercising choice they will drive up standards in the profession. This may not be what the NUT want, but it is undoubtedly what children need.

All of which aside, I will thank the NUT next time I use their fish and chip supper to line my stomach before a night at the Glee Club.

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