Only paying teachers more will raise Britain to the top of the class

December 4, 2013

–Vikas Pota is chief executive of the Varkey GEMS Foundation. The opinions expressed are his own.–

It was results day yesterday for education ministers around the world, and where they’ve come in the class will affect their prospects just as surely as a sixth-former opening their brown envelope. Nowhere around the world will the wait have been more nail-biting than in Michael Gove’s Department for Education.

The PISA results – a comparison of the performance of 15-year olds across 32 countries in maths, science and reading – make dispiriting reading for the UK. We fail to make the top twenty in any subject for the first time – languishing at 26th place in maths, 23rd in reading and having slipped to 21st in science, which was previously a bright spot.

Three years ago, greeting the last PISA results, Gove said that “these are facts from which we cannot hide”. Andreas Schleicher, the OECD official who oversees the PISA scores, though less dramatic, acknowledged, “The UK has not improved in the way that we have seen other systems improving”.

If the diagnosis is clear, what is the cure? There will be will be another bout of soul-searching about how we can replicate the educational alchemy that propels countries to the top of the league tables, but the ethos of these world-beating systems are poles apart: South Korea is highly competitive while Finland doesn’t split children according to ability.

All those countries in the upper reaches of the rankings do have one factor in common: they make strenuous efforts to attract the best candidates into teaching. In Finland all those training to be teachers have a second degree. And they draw and retain excellent candidates into the profession by rewarding them well. Research by Peter Dolton at the Royal Holloway shows that there is a demonstrable link between teacher pay and a countries’ PISA scores – those countries with the highest pay tend to be highest in the PISA rankings.

Too often education debates have simply focused on increasing funding for the education system as a whole rather than specifically looking at teachers’ salaries. Though extra resources for schools are always welcome, funding does not always lead to better results.  In 2010, the last year of available figures, the UK spent £54,000 per student whilst Germany and Hungary gain similar outcomes for £40,000 and £28,000 respectively.

Many of the leading economies in the OECD poured huge amounts into their education systems between the seventies and the mid-nineties, yet many countries failed to register any improvement in their results at all. Andreas Schleicher has said that only ten per cent of the variation in a pupil’s results can be attributed to the level of school funding. As Michael Gove has said: “despite massive investment in the last 13 years, we haven’t been improving at the rate we should have been”.

By contrast, money spent on attracting the best quality teachers can have a direct impact.  A recent study by economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman and Jonah Rockoff from Harvard University found that the ‘value added’ by each teacher to a student’s test score varied wildly. The authors estimate that swapping a poor teacher with an average teacher raises the average lifetime income of each class they teach by $1.4 million dollars. This is something that education ministers should consider when, in an era of austerity, they have to choose between spending on facilities, technology or paying for the best quality teachers.

Yet surprisingly, the status and reward of teachers is something that is not often mentioned in the UK as a way of improving educational outcomes. There are endless discussions about changing the curriculum, toughening up exams, altering everything from the length of the school day and summer holidays to the selection criteria for pupils. But, whatever the merits of these measures, none will succeed without attracting the best teachers.

It is striking too that additional pay for teachers enjoys public support in many countries, including the UK.  The Varkey GEMS Foundation recently published the Global Teacher Status Index, the first attempt to compare attitudes towards teachers across 21 countries. It found that in the UK people think that teachers are underpaid by nearly £3,000. When asked what would be a fair wage for secondary school teachers, the average figure given was £23,980, fifteen per cent more than the current average starting salary of £20,800.

The index also found that three quarters of the UK population agree with the introduction of performance related pay for teachers, which would be a cost effective way of ensuring, when Government budgets are under pressure, that additional teacher pay incentivises good teachers. It would also signal to ambitious graduates that teaching is a profession that will reward hard work and success.

Of course, to attract the best graduates, the reputation of the profession matters too.

Those weighing up teaching against the offers of other employers will not want to join a profession that is often denigrated or treated as a ‘second best’ cousin of professions such as the law or medicine.

According to the Global Teacher Status Index, the status of teachers in the UK is higher than other European countries such as Germany and France. Surprisingly it is even higher than in educational giant Finland. Secondary school teachers had a higher status than every other country in Europe polled. But, crucially, just 5% of people in the UK thought that the status of a teacher was similar to that of a doctor.

Michael Gove pinpointed the need after the last PISA report in 2009 to “raise the prestige of the profession”. This is true, but there is no short cut to the hard necessity of paying teachers well. Presenting teaching as a vocation whose ‘rewards’ are to be had from spiritual fulfilment will not attract the ambitious next generation who are essential to raise standards.  Only when more parents are as happy seeing their offspring enter teacher-training college as they are packing them off to law or medical school will the UK have undergone the culture shift necessary to lift us to the upper reaches of the PISA rankings.

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