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Priorities – Writer-insighter


I had two girlfriends who worked in banks, although not at the same time. They were nice girls; both had dogs, one was an authority on potato crisps: harmless, pretty girls from Wiltshire who smiled a lot and didn’t want much out of life, I thought at the time. In spite all that and their general willingness to please something struck me as odd then. It still does now. They were the first people the customer saw and talked to. They were young, inexperienced and that role, the crucial interface between the bank and the people whose money they used was left to those two, before they either worked their way off the counter, as it was called, or left for babies and mortgages and the long trek to now. The least trained, least experience, least paid staff got one of the jobs they could really mess up. They didn’t, so far as I ever knew.

Today Radio 4 is debating whether ‘being in a socially valuable job is reward enough’ with the clear implication that it should be. They mean specifically, should teachers and firemen and nurses get their first pay rise over 1% in seven years, or should they shut up and vote Conservative?

The PM has predictably trotted out the nursery-level homilies about living within our means, having bunged one billion pounds at the DUP this month and approved a six million pay rise for the Queen, to go with the hundreds of millions to renovate Buckingham Palace and more for the renovation of the House of Parliament, overlooking the fact that the one billion was borrowed, the same as government projects are always borrowed. That isn’t the issue.

Nor is the fact that any sensible discussion of public finances has to include tax avoidance and the ludicrous situation whereby the Inland Revenue’s main landlord is an offshore company that doesn’t pay UK corporation tax, the same way Starbucks and Amazon and a huge number of other large companies like to pretend that really, they only do it because they love the job, it’s not something they make any money on.

For teachers, it’s the same deal as those two country girls faced when they could wear an Afghan coat down the street without being ironic, or only a bit, anyway. Teachers get paid a low wage. The youngest, with the least experience, get the least. They also get the worst classes and the least attractive schools. How many people would reply to a real job ad for teaching?

Would you like to break up a real fight once a week?

Can you explain why it’s not ok to throw tables at each other? Do you know why this behavour is acceptable, week in, week out, however many kids’ education gets messed up to suit one kid who shouldn’t even be in this school? Would you like to be exposed to germs you didn’t even know existed and live on Echinacea tea? Would you be happy looking at the same kid’s unexplained cuts and bruises every week, however many times you log their appearance? Would you like to take work home with you, have to teach World War sodding One until you’d happily go over the top when the whistle blows and then get defamed on Facebook by someone you’re not allowed to retaliate to, whatever they do? Would you like to do all that for about the same you could earn doing overtime in Tesco?

If your answer is yes to all of these, you’re unlike the number of people streaming out of the profession, the same way they’re streaming out of nursing. One in five English lessons isn’t taught by an English teacher. Because they left. Most teachers haven’t taught for ten years. For the same reason.

Getting paid properly to do a job isn’t some kind of communism. It’s something MPs demand, along with everyone else. But then, they got the pay rise they wanted. They voted it through themselves.

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