Teaching is a McJob Part 1: Low Pay

In this series of blogs I argue that, under the stewardship of the current educational establishment, teaching has ceased to be a career and is fast becoming a McJob. If the purpose of schools is to educate then the effects of this will be disastrous. Wikipedia defines a McJob as a 'low-paying, low-prestige dead end job…where little training is required, staff turnover is high and workers activities are tightly regulated by managers' – this first blogpost deals with the issue of teaching and low pay.
The first thing to do is acknowledge is that, under the current system (see Robinson 2010) of national scales, teachers are (as they should be) relatively well paid. In 2012 the average yearly salary for a secondary school professional (£33,274) compared favourably with the average UK salary (£26,500). Teachers enjoy generous holidays and, as public sector workers, relatively better pay and benefits than those working in the private sector. These are all things that ought to encourage top graduates to train for a career in teaching yet are at risk given the scope of some of Michael Gove's workforce reforms. The following quotes are examples of Gove's rhetoric about performance related pay which will replace the national pay scales this year:
“These recommendations will make teaching a more attractive career and a more rewarding job. They will give schools more flexibility to respond to specific conditions and reward their best teachers.
It is vital that teachers can be paid more without having to leave the classroom. This will be particularly important to schools in the most disadvantaged areas as it will empower them to attract and recruit the best teachers.”

Gove has also scrapped some regulations that govern teachers contact time and holidays:

“We've noticed in Hong Kong and Singapore and other East Asian nations that expectations of mathematical knowledge or of scientific knowledge at every stage are more demanding than in this country. In order to reach those levels of achievement a higher level of effort is expected on behalf of students, parents and teachers. School days are longer, school holidays are shorter. The expectation is that to succeed, hard work is at the heart of everything.”

“It may be the case that there are one or two legislative and bureaucratic obstacles which prevent all schools moving in this direction, but I think it's consistent with the pressures of a modern society. I also think it's going to be family friendly,” he said.

There are many reasons to reject PRP (Andrew Old's convincing argument against PRP can be found here) and it is difficult to see how Gove's rhetoric about school hours is little more than advocacy for schools providing other (non educational) services for free effectively leading to a cut in teacher pay. Attempts to allay these concerns frequently revolve around the moral integrity of the school managers who are being given the 'flexibility' to change the terms and conditions of their employees; the assumption here is that all school managers believe that hiring the best teachers will secure better outcomes and that they will attempt to out bid each other for those teachers.

My objection to this argument is that it ignores pretty much every observation made about the effects on pay from the type of quasi market that schools now operate in. Klein (2000) documented some patterns in the behaviour of corporations vying for market domination:

  • Large corporations consider branding and 'selling lifestyles' to an increasingly younger group of consumers more important than manufacturing products.
  • In order to achieve market dominance corporations merge to create even larger bodies that can undercut competition or aggressively invade target areas. Said corporations also abuse existing laws to prevent legitimate criticism of their brands.

According to Klien the prioritisation of branding and market dominance have had the resultant negative effects on workers pay and conditions:

  • Corporations have sought to outsource burdensome aspects of their work – the decline in manufacturing in the West and the rise of sweatshops in the East are a direct consequence of this.
  • In the West manufacturing jobs have been replaced by jobs in the service sector – these jobs are often low paid, temporary and overwhelmingly part time. The public is sold the idea that these jobs are for students or recent graduates so the low pay and poor conditions are not an issue.
  • Direct or indirect union busting.
  • In order to secure a better job many competitive industries require people to work for free or pay for their training before they will consider employing them on a permanent basis.

It is often assumed that most of this corporate behaviour is limited to fast food giants or the big supermarket chains – the following excerpts from Klien (2000) are about the behaviour of Microsoft in the 1990s:

“..after employees have been scouted, interviewed and selected by Microsoft, they are instructed to register with one of five payroll agencies that have special arrangements with the company. MicroTemps are then hired through an agency that acts as the official employer: cutting pay checks, withholding income taxes and sometimes providing bare-bones benefits”

“And in June 1998 the company introduced a new policy requiring temps who have been on an assignment with the company for a year or more to take a thirty-one day break before they can take another “temporary” post.” (thus ensuring that, legally, the temps stayed temporary)

“”Don't get caught with useless fixed assets,” Bob Herbold, Microsoft's chief operating officer says, explaining his staffing philosophy to a group of shareholders. According to Herbold, pretty much everything but the core functions of programming and product development fall into the “useless fixed assets” category – including the company's sixty-three receptionists, who were laid off, losing benefits and stock options, and told to reapply through the Tascor temp agency. “We were overpaying them,” Herbold said.”

“…Microsoft contracted out the task of managing the contractors to Johnson Controls, which also takes care of the campus facilities. “Our revenue has gone up 91 percent and our head count has actually decreased 19 percent,” Bob Herbold says proudly. And what did Microsoft do with the savings? “We're plowing them into R&D and we're plowing them into profit, obviously.””

The government currently has no ideological objection to brand expansion or quasi markets in education and it shows; in the two years following the 2010 general election most of the large academy chains doubled the number of schools in their portfolio – the largest (AET) moved from 7 schools to 33 schools during this time period (Hill et al 2012). The following quotes from Michael Gove and Hill et al (2012) illustrate this zeal for expansion in some quarters of the educational establishment:

“I believe that chains such as the Harris group, Ark or the United Learning Trust are doing an amazing job on the ground, working with local authorities and turning round schools in the worst condition. As far as I'm concerned they should grow at the fastest sustainable rate.”

“The advantages reported by CEOs of expanding chains include an increased capacity to improve attainment for more young people; a broader base for developing leaders; greater scope for sharing school improvement expertise and CPD; more opportunities for staff deployment and promotion; increased economies of scale; a bigger platform for supporting innovation; and a stronger brand to attract parents and applications for admission.”

The current behaviour of many managers and/or establishments also leaves little room for optimism:

  • Many schools have already shown willingness to dump some 'useless fixed assets' by outsourcing their catering and cleaning services – the results are variable and no one is pretending that the jobs are desirable.
  • Teaching staff are, on average, already paid less in those institutions (academies) that have the most freedom over pay and conditions while the managers in those same institutions are, on average paying themselves more (see Garner 2013).
  • I know of two schools where management have implicitly threatened staff about union membership.
  • Schemes such as TeachFirst openly describe teaching as a temporary career option for graduates.

The existing system of national pay scales, where an experienced journeyman can be paid more than an effective teacher with less years in the classroom, was never going to be perfect. That said, at least it was honest in the sense that a graduate knew what to expect before investing time, money and effort to enter the teaching profession. Education is a quasi market. Just like the fast food, fashion and grocery markets of the 1990s it looks set to be dominated by a small number of big name organisations and there is no shortage of managers out there who seem willing to facilitate further 'expansion' by cutting workforce costs. With even more freedom to set pay and conditions secured what is to stop the new CEOs of British education from making further cuts to their workforce resulting in teaching positions with McJob levels of pay?


Garner, R. (2013) Rising Number of State School Headteachers Paid £100,000 Salaries. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/rising-numbers-of-state-school-headteachers-paid-100000-salaries-8597992.html. (Accessed 30.07.13)

Hill, R. et al (2012) The Growth of Academy Chains: Implications for Leaders and Leadership. Available from: http://www.thegovernor.org.uk/freedownloads/acadamies/the-growth-of-academy-chains.pdf (accessed 30.07.13)

Klein, N. (2000) No Logo. Flamingo: London.

Robinson, G. (2010) Qualified Teachers' Pay Scales. Available from: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6000186 (accessed 26.07.13)


Mandatory Optimism

Over the last 30 years education has been subject to a barrage of reform from the government and the educational establishment. Opposition is limited to token disquiet about any reform from the teaching unions while certain reforms are met with little more than cynicism from experienced frontline teachers who have seen it all before. One of the ways the teaching profession has been controlled and opposition to reform diluted on the ground has been to reward compliance through improved conditions and pay; the TLR payments introduced in the eighties (see Lowe 2007) and the current governments obsession with performance related pay are examples of this. Although TLRs and PRP are essentially government inventions it is worth saying that they are/will be used to encourage compliance with other agendas that may even be contrary to government policy at the time.

To illustrate this systematic entrenchment of command and control thinking I have reproduced the following quote from a teacher training source on Joe Kirby's blog:

“The system in these schools encourages conformity to the prevailing orthodoxy. SLT, very often, have risen up the ranks by being conformist. The system doesn’t encourage divergent thinking, it rewards conformity. Teachers gain promotion, not because of their phenomenal teaching prowess, but because of their ability to parrot the prevailing fashion. The promotion system is actually built upon teachers never, ever thinking for themselves. In the main, they’re follow-the-fashion, jump-on-the-bandwagon, march-to-the-beat-of-someone-else’s-drum teachers. Energy is focussed upon gaining Ofsted approval. For too many the purpose is to receive inspectorate approval; to build up inspector-pleasing evidence. Fast track career development? Above all else – do not rock the boat! Do not break the mould! Do not question the status quo! Do not question the actions of the people above you who’ve been the architects of the current, prevailing, failing school culture! Convergent thinking wins out over genuine reflection or principles – any day! The whole aim is to please Ofsted.”

Depressingly there is little to disagree with here but, if one observes the rhetoric of the educational establishment, Kirby's souce has missed the establishments expecations about the attitude teachers have towards fashionable ideas and policies. I first encountered this expectation when arguing with progressive behaviour gurus on the internet who sought to blame the predictable failure of their own methods on the attitudes of teachers.

“Jen, please, take the advice of the experienced people at your school who are trying to help you. The reason why hardly anyone with moderate, sensible views bothers to post on this forum is that it is dominated by a handful of negative right-wing zealots who live in the past and whose advice will take you precisely nowhere in future. Likewise the “blog” of “Old Andrew” – eccentric garbage that no-one with any self-respect would read, let alone bother to engage in conversation there”.

Over the past couple of years I have increasingly heard about members of SLT chastising staff who have the temerity to question the value of, say learning walks, for having the 'wrong attitude' and Ofsted teams describing inspections as something that should be 'treated as a positive experience' by teaching staff. Even Sir Michael Wilshaw seems to be complaining about head teachers who don't realise 'what a privileged position they are in' and that they 'should roll their sleeves up and get on with improving their schools, even in the most difficult circumstances' (see Richardson 2012). What was once seemingly confined to self righteous gurus has spread through the system – this is hardly surprising given the increasingly large pool of smiley, march-to-the-beat-of-someone-else's-drum managers promoting people just like them.

So the over riding message here is, if you want to get on in teaching, comply with everything and make damn sure you project an image of positivity while you do it. The worst thing a teacher can do is to be labelled negative by a positive thinking member of their SLT. The consequence for such a teacher is that they are shut up or blacklisted or passed over for promotion in favour of someone who put on a smiley face and didn't complain no matter how preposterous the circumstances. This culture seems identical to what Barbara Ehrenreich observed about the American leadership during the second Gulf war and the American financial sector before the financial crash of 2007.

“Every few years I began to encounter the same ideology of positive thinking being applied to people who were downsized from the corporate world – white collar, middle level people being sent to support groups or networking groups – there are all kinds of names for these things – where the message was it's not bad to be laid off, it's actually a good thing, it's actually an opportunity, it's a growth opportunity, and you'll come out of it much better. And if you want to come out of it at all, of course, you'd better work on your attitude because the key to getting a job in today's corporate world is not knowing things or having skills or experience but having a positive attitude. Somebody who's in an absolute low point in their lives, and certainly losing a job can be that, and just tell them, “There's nothing wrong, just put on a smiley face and get on with it and don't complain, whatever you do.”

There are, Ehrenreich points out, two arguments against the culture of positive thinking and these arguments apply to positive thinking in schools as well as business. Firstly positive thinking (and negative thinking) is delusional; how much time and money is wasted and how much damage is done in schools because new policy is not thought about realistically in the planning stage? The second argument is that it is cruel to tell teachers who are having a tough time, and working in schools failed by Ofsted is tough, that a big part the problem is their attitude.

The solution to these problems is to promote people because they are talented as opposed to compliant and uncritical, this doesn't happen because the entrenched style of management in education is 'command and control' and the voices that claim to represent the front line are as delusional about the current state of education as the policy makers are about their methods for improving it. Sadly such change could never happen overnight because the people with the authority to make it happen are the people causing the problems in the first place.


Lowe, R. (2007) The Death of Progressive Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Richardsom, H. (2012) Ofsted Chief Sir Michael Wilshaw: Teachers not Stressed. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-18025202 (accessed 20.07.2013).