Helen Martin: I am learning to like teachers

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WHILE defined benefit or final salary pension schemes in the private sector are predicted to all but collapse by 2020, Scotland’s teachers have no intention of rolling over to accept the same fate.

The Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, the second-biggest union, has threatened work-to-rule action, which understandably angers those of us who have no option but to lump it. Teachers’ pensions, like their salaries, are, after all, paid by us through taxation.

We rage about their long holidays and their claims of growing stress and overwork (as if the rest of the population is not also in that unhappy position, with most working way over the hours for which they are paid). What makes teachers so special? It also seems rather immoral that, when we are all suffering financially, they should attempt to get their way by hitting us in our weakest spot . . . our children’s welfare and future.

I’ve used that argument myself before now. But some recent events are beginning to show teachers in a different light. And while I haven’t reached the point of suggesting we put our hands up, give in to the Dick Turpin tactics – your money or your children’s education – and cave in to their demands, I am beginning to sympathise more than ever before.

Those long holidays are largely a myth. Most secondary teachers – especially with an ever-changing curriculum and increased paper work – spend a week or two after the end of term and a week or two prior to the start of the next one, winding up and preparing for a new session. Most have two or three weeks, just like the rest of us.

And, while they are being asked to contribute significantly more to their pensions, which on average amount to less than £10,000 a year, they are also witnessing astonishing increases in the salaries of council directors of education. . . up to 24 per cent in five years. The worst example is South Ayrshire, where the incumbent earns over £137,000 – more than Alex Salmond – for presiding over just eight secondary schools. Of course, directors can try to justify their worth by citing the vast budgets they run. But let’s be honest. To most of us they are simply highly paid, if powerful, administrators, especially as their pay is not performance-related. If there really is such money sloshing around in the coffers, we’d rather it went to the teachers.

It’s also tempting to ask just what councils are doing with the council tax, albeit that, for now, it remains frozen. When you get right down to it, their job is to provide essential local services. In essence, they don’t change much. Education, street lighting, road repair, refuse collection, and even social work are all departments for which it is possible to budget reasonably accurately, even with variations in local population, advances in recycling, and growing poverty, which arguably leads to higher social work expenditure. Of course costs rise. But nothing – apart from a council’s own foolishly ambitious schemes such as Edinburgh’s trams – comes as a bolt from the blue.

Teaching is one profession that is unlikely to be replaced by technology. With the clamour for smaller class sizes, there is every likelihood we will need more teachers, rather than fewer.

So surely their conditions are part of the local and national governments’ regular overheads, a known outgoing to be covered before spending a penny on Quixotic political gambles, rather as the rest of us put paying the mortgage before buying a sports car?

In another complication, unlike the private sector, teachers don’t negotiate with their council employers anyway. They negotiate with the Scottish Government which, in turn, negotiates with the UK government for its budget. To us, it makes little difference. It’s all our money, one way or the other. But in the impenetrable and esoteric world of public sector financing, it makes a weird kind of sense and is another fine opportunity for buck-passing and complication.

Of course, the teachers cannot win. Gilded pension schemes and pay-offs are reserved for politicians, mandarins and fat cats. Among the rest of us ordinary people, public sector employees cannot continue to enjoy expensive and preferential benefits over the rest (and what teachers have enjoyed in the past pales into insignificance when compared with, for example, police officers being allowed to retire on a pension after just 25 years service). Even paying the increased contributions which teachers describe as “an additional tax on public sector workers” will leave them much better off than those of us who have seen our pensions virtually disappear in the tempestuous, recessional financial markets.

But who can blame them for trying? In Scotland, the public sector is especially vast. There are many less worthy employees than teachers who enjoy cushioned conditions. The best they, and we, can hope for is that their profession is not being singled out and that the Scottish government’s pledge to make public sector pensions “affordable, sustainable and fair” applies across the board, most particularly to high-ranking public sector officials who still receive golden good-byes and pay-offs which, to any sensible and right-minded person, is just another part of their “pension”.