Saturday, 19 October 2013

Who'd be a teacher? At least, in a nation of shopkeepers?

It was Napoleon who said that England was a nation of shopkeepers.

He wasn’t being complimentary. It seems unfair to hardworking shopkeepers, but a nation made up of them? Nah. An idea we
’d treat with scorn

That even includes many of the English. Which is odd, because when it comes down to it, it isn’t commerce that attracts most contempt from a large part of the English public. It's the public sector.

Take teachers, for instance. Those long holidays – they’re clearly underworked. And at the end of their career, the most valued teachers may be on nearly two and half times median earnings, so they’re clearly overpaid. And they’re all infected with a sad, sixties-hippy radicalism, that somehow contrives to be ineffective but also dangerous – don’t they teach arithmetic by phonetics, and leave all the important battles out of geography?

On the other hand, you can go a long way if you stick to commerce. Consider Tony Hayward. He was Chief Executive of BP and being paid a little over a million a year (only a little over: £45,000 over the million mark, not even two median salaries).

Tony Hayward. Role model of the leader who steps up,
accepts the buck and takes the bullet 
Of course, he couldn’t possibly have got by on that amount, so shares and bonuses eked out his basic to a more comfortable £4 million. It’s not a bad salary; I’m sure teachers would regard it as reasonably generous. 

It’s not just handed out to any old guy, though: you have to be supremely competent and prepared to take responsibility if things go wrong. So when the BP Gulf oil spill took place in 2010, it fell to him to describe the incident as ‘relatively tiny’, an inspired choice of words for what turned out to be the worst ever man-made marine oil disaster.

Faced with a lot of ill-spirited criticism from the States, Hayward followed up with the heartfelt, ‘I want my life back.’ Well, who wouldn’t?

Still, responsibility is a demanding master. Hayward had to give up his job and lower his sights. Like a teacher who has been disciplined, his career was shot. These days, he holds a couple of corporate directorships (Corus Group and Tata Steel), has merged a company into Turkish oil firm Gemel Energy to pursue opportunities in Northern Iraq, and is interim chairman at Glencore International, the world’s twelfth largest company. The rumours have it that the position may become permanent.

You can imagine that he may well be struggling to get his income anywhere seriously into the seven-figure range. What teacher would want to face that fate?

And Hayward isn’t alone in showing how we value most highly those who serve the public most gladly. As long as they do it the world of commerce.

Sam Laidlaw is the Chief Executive of the energy conglomerate Centrica. He takes, or to use the courteous if misleading term, earns, well under £5m a year.

Well, not that far under.

It’s only reasonable to expect some pretty remarkable stuff from the guy, and boy did he deliver this week: 10% increases in energy prices from the old British Gas, now a Centrica subsidiary. That’s just over three times the rate of inflation.

Sam Laidlaw.
Also understands that high rewards come with an obligation to serve
To be able to pull off that kind of stunt and keep a straight face takes the kind of talent you just can’t buy. Well, actually, you can buy it and Centrica have. And it clearly doesn’t come cheap.

You have to remember that Laidlaw achieved this stunning success in a highly competitive environment. Six companies control 98% of the market. Imagine just how difficult it is, with six suppliers, to rig things so as to allow all the companies to make the same excessive price increases and pull in the same obscene levels of profits.

In this nation of shopkeepers, Laidlaw’s is the kind of talent that’s really appreciated.

It’s not the same everywhere. In Finland, for instance, teaching is seen as one of the most desirable professions. Only if your degree is among the top 10% will you be considered for appointment to teaching, and even then you need a minimum of a Master’s degree.

Curiously, pay isn’t all that much higher than in England. At the top of the scale, allowing adjusted for purchasing power, Finland’s only about 4% above England. Sounds like the only really substantial difference is in the public perception of teaching and its prestige.

The impact, however, seems significant. Finland comes top of evaluation after evaluation of educational systems. The OECD, as I mentioned recently, finds that England is right down there among the also-rans when it comes to literacy and numeracy levels. 

Englands answer to this kind of difficulty? Under the current Education Secretary, Michael Gove, it is to launch ‘free schools’, free of irritating constraints like having to use qualified staff as teachers. Finland succeeds and demands a Master’s degree as a minimum; England fails and is pioneering unqualified teaching.

You want to understand our admiration for men like Hayward and Laidlaw, our contempt for the profession of teaching? Perhaps you need look no further than the OECD’s findings. I like the American expression, ‘go figure’, but the OECD found levels of numeracy which suggests that those who most need to do the figuring probably can’t. 

Lack of education feeds the undermining of education. And that perpetuates the forelock-tugging to our elite of high-earning mediocrities.

Too many electors cling to their comfort zone, content to live in a nation of shopkeepers. When what they really need is to build a land of talent. For which it would be a good start to learn a lesson from Finland

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