With school leaders and teachers frustrated about the government’s delay in announcing teacher pay rises, Mark Lehain makes the case for scrapping centralised pay scales

There is loads about being a head that I have missed since leaving Bedford Free School last August. One thing I haven’t missed is the challenge of setting a budget that I was truly happy with and getting it approved in time to plan for the following year.

So while it is great that the Department for Education has finally announced what will happen to the national pay scales that maintained schools have to abide by, I empathise with all those who went on their summer holiday without a clear idea of what their budget or salary was going to look like come September.

The delay in announcing these pay rises, and the stress it has caused for so many, raises once again the question of why we still have national pay scales set by central government at all.

It’s almost exactly 30 years to the day that the Education Reform Act started the process of freeing up heads and teachers to run schools as they see fit. We rightly want education to be a sector where autonomous professionals can exercise their judgement and make decisions in the best interests of the children they serve. This has happened in so many aspects of school life that we take these freedoms for granted, yet rates of pay for the majority of staff are still largely determined by politicians in London.

I think we’d all be better off if national pay scales were scrapped for all schools and instead all governing bodies – not just academy trusts – were trusted to make these kinds of decisions. I say this for three reasons.

Pay ranges are still built on unhelpful assumptions

First, while they have been reformed a lot in recent years, the pay ranges are still built on unhelpful assumptions that don’t reflect reality on the ground, which still permeate people’s thinking. Staff are thus generally paid according to length of service, and normally there is only limited wriggle room above this for people in hard-to-fill posts. As a result, newer colleagues in shortage subjects or more difficult contexts often earn far less than they might if the mindset created by the national scales was removed.

The next reason for doing away with national scales is one of principle: I don’t believe that it is possible to determine centrally what the “right” kind of pay is for 23,000 schools in the country in completely different circumstances. (Yes, I know academies don’t have to follow these but they still have to bear them in mind when setting their own pay, if only because the majority of schools do.)

That we already have different scales for classroom teachers and leadership roles, and for inner London, outer London, and the rest of England, shows that it is accepted that different places have different pay needs depending on circumstances – but why stop there? Why not have pay scale determined for urban and rural Bedfordshire? Luton is very different to Lidlington. Perhaps one for Carlisle and another the rest of Cumbria? One for maths teachers and one for music too?

Treat school leaders as grown-ups and leave them to determine how much people need to be paid

Of course this would be silly. Let’s keep it simple: treat school leaders as grown-ups, give them the money that we think is needed to educate kids, and leave them to determine how much people need to be paid to do a job. After all, who do you trust more to make the right decision – officials and politicians in London who aren’t directly impacted by their decision, or governors and heads on the ground, who understand local contexts and have relationships with the people affected?

And this leads me on to my final point:

It’s good to see that teachers are getting a pay rise. But looking ahead to the next few years, what could be really powerful is unshackling even more schools from the DfE’s restraints, and allowing all schools to sort their own pay settlements.