January 18, 2010 • 12:00 am

David Cameron Visits Devon To Campaign In The Local Elections

The Conservatives today announced plans to make teaching a “noble profession” as part of their pitch to middle class voters ahead of the general election. Michael Gove, the shadow secretary of state for education, claimed that raising the prestige of teaching would attract more talent.

Although the draft manifesto does include pledges on pay, Gove, speaking to the Today programme, focussed instead on the prestige of the profession and contested the idea that raising pay was necessarily the best route to higher standards.

Full Fact decided to look into the evidence around pay and performance in teaching.

The Conservatives are right to point to Finland as an example of educational success. It came out top of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests in 2006. These test 15-year-old schoolchildren in reading, mathematics and science across 43 OECD countries and are seen as the best benchmark for comparing educational performance. (The UK performed better than the average – coming 14th in science, 17th in reading but outside the top twenty for maths.)

And, the teaching profession is certainly held in higher esteem in Finland than in the UK. A survey by US academic Fenton Whelan found that more than a quarter of all young people in Finland rate teaching as their preferred career option.

In the UK, by contrast, the esteem of teachers is certainly low. A Cambridge University study found the public most commonly ranked teachers alongside social workers in terms of social status. The study also recorded a “steep decline” in teachers’ perception of their own status over the last forty years.

This comes despite a significant increase in real term pay for UK teachers. The average salary for secondary school teachers at £36000 is double now what it was in 1974. And starting salaries for teachers have outpaced those for other graduate professions over the same period (a 55% and 53% increase respectively). Compared internationally, salaries in England are above the OECD average and at a similar level to those in Finland.

When challenged, Gove pointed to Germany and Spain as examples where teacher pay is higher but educational standards are not. A cross check between salary levels and Pisa 2006 test scores support this assertion. Germany was around the OECD average for reading and maths; Spain was significantly below average for both. However, the statistics on teacher pay show both countries pay their teachers more than England (or Finland).

The Conservatives aim to raise the prestige of the teaching profession seems entirely reasonable. It is clearly low and that has an impact on the attractiveness of the career.

International examples support the view that countries which perform best are those where the prestige of teaching is higher. They also support the view that raising pay is only one tool in supporting better educational performance.

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