Are Irish teachers really the best paid in Europe?

As the ASTI action starts to bite in schools, an EU survey shows that some Irish teachers are sitting pretty, but it’s not the whole story

Teachers’ salaries: selected pay scales around Europe. Source: Eurydice survey 2013. Montage: Dearbhla Kelly

Teachers’ salaries: selected pay scales around Europe. Source: Eurydice survey 2013. Montage: Dearbhla Kelly


As parents face the disruption of their children’s secondary schooling as a result of the ASTI’s industrial action over the Haddington Road agreement, the question of teachers’ pay and conditions is back on the airwaves.

It’s a polarising issue. Many people believe you couldn’t pay teachers enough for the job they do; others resent what they perceive as a cushy number, with long holidays, short hours and a very attractive salary. Most frequently, however, what we hear are broadcasters and private-sector workers on the attack and teachers on the defence.

The debate is clouded by glib assertions about the relative pay and conditions of the Irish teacher. Just like the old chestnut that Ireland has the best education system in the world, which Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has been at pains to dissolve since he came to office, the phrase “best-paid teachers in the world” is used whenever teachers’ unions take a stand.

Other confections destined to infuriate teachers include “the shortest working year in Europe” and “the three best things about being a teacher: June, July and August”.

In this context it’s very hard for teachers to win the kind of public sympathy that junior doctors have had this month. One ASTI member, Fintan O’Mahony, was on a hiding to nothing when he took on Dr Ed Walsh, former president of the University of Limerick, who is an arch sceptic when it comes to teachers. Talking on Pat Kenny’s radio programme on Newstalk, a scalding salvo set the tone: “The public are astonished that some of the best-paid teachers in Europe should come back after 11 weeks’ holidays and pretend that they are going to go on strike,” said Walsh.

O’Mahony responded with figures to dispute Walsh’s assertion about pay, but the elder pedagogue was able to unpick O’Mahony’s claims using the very same OECD Education at a Glance survey.

That’s a problem for Irish teachers’ unions. For every bit of research they can find to bolster their complaints about pay and conditions, there’s another one to contest it, often within the same survey. How does the Irish teacher fare compared with those in other countries? It’s hard to answer when all the variables are factored in.

Consider some of the following. The cost of living varies from place to place. Working hours and teaching hours are different things and hard to quantify when a teacher often brings work home. Some countries pay performance bonuses and overtime. Taxation regimes differ. Surveys of pay and condition are always based on the salaries of full-time, permanent teachers – a quarter of Irish teachers are now nonpermanent. You can’t compare starter salaries and end salaries, primary and secondary teachers and, thanks to Croke Park, new recruits and those who started two years ago. Class sizes vary and, with them, workloads.

The European Commission’s Eurydice Network provides information on, and analysis of, European education systems and policies. Its new report on the relative pay and conditions of teachers across Europe provides plenty of information about how teachers are treated.

Ultimately, though, it leaves us guessing about who gets the best deal.

The lowest-paid teachers in Europe are in Bulgaria, according to the Eurydice report, with an average annual salary of €4,436. Their basic statutory minimum salary is €3,068, rising to a maximum of €4,372. Bulgarian teachers can supplement their salaries in various ways, hence the average salary coming in at higher than the maximum basic wage. These allowances can be secured by gaining extra qualifications, completing continuous professional development, teaching students with special educational needs or teaching in challenging circumstances (4 to16 per cent of the basic salary), taking part in extracurricular activities or doing overtime.

Allowances of this nature have been gradually withdrawn in Ireland over the past several budgets. There are no longer payments for completing formal qualifications, such as master’s degrees. Nor are there any longer payments for taking on special roles of responsibility, such as sports or Green Flag initiatives. We have never paid our teachers overtime.

Performance bonuses
Another common feature of teacher terms and conditions around Europe is reward for a job particularly well done.

In the UK, teachers can move up the pay scale for great results or strong teaching performance. They can be moved up by two points for teaching that is deemed outstanding. Other countries in Europe that offer pay rises or bonuses for strong student results are the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Austria, Poland and Latvia. In some other countries allowance is made for awarding bonuses at school level. It’s not a culture that teacher unions have warmed to here.
How long it takes teachers to reach the top of their pay scale differs depending on the country, so in Ireland and Belgium it’s reached after 27 years; France and Finland, 20 years; Spain, 40 years; Italy, 35 years; Luxembourg, 26 years; Austria 34 years; and just 10 years in the UK.

According to this Eurydice report, Irish teachers are not the best paid in Europe: Lichtenstein and Luxemburg take that accolade. Teachers in Lichtenstein start at €68,000-€80,000, depending on the level they teach at, rising to €131,000 at the top of the scale. In Luxembourg, the average teacher salary hovers around €100,000.

Within the EU, Irish teachers are doing pretty well, but they are not the highest paid in this category either. An overall average is not provided for Ireland in this study, but the range from minimum statutory salary to maximum is €31,000-€60,000. By comparison, in Germany teachers start at a much higher minimum, about €40,000, reaching a maximum of €53,000 at primary level but a more generous €66,000 per year at secondary level, according to Eurydice.

Other comparable nations are Cyprus, with a minimum-to-maximum range of €26,000-€58,000, and Austria, with €29,000-€56,000.

With a maximum basic salary of €59,000, Ireland is definitely at the upper end of the European scale, exceeding Finland, the UK, Sweden, Denmark and many other European countries. That’s just for teachers at the very top of the scale, however. Pay cuts in successive budgets have seen the wages of younger teachers slashed, and many qualified teachers – up to one in four – can’t even get on the first rung of the ladder.

Another confusing element of the teacher pay-and-conditions debate are the lengths of the teaching day and year. Irish primary teachers, in particular, have more teaching hours than many of their counterparts in other countries. They teach for 915 hours a year compared with an EU 21-country average of 766 hours a year.

When you look across the other EU countries, however, the actual working week of teachers in Ireland looks short. In many countries teachers are expected to be available full time (35 to 40 hours) in the school for various activities, which is not the case here.

In terms of the working year, Irish primary teachers have 183 teaching days, which is similar to other countries. The postprimary working year is three weeks shorter. On average, in EU 21 countries, pupils at primary level spend 182 days at school.

In terms of summer holidays, Ireland’s nine (primary) and 12 (postprimary) weeks are not outlandish in the European context. Some countries, such as the UK and France, have a mere six weeks off in the summer, but across the rest of Europe it’s not unusual for schools to close for 12 weeks or even longer.

According to the Eurydice report, many European countries pay teachers extra for accommodating special-needs students in their classes. Ireland is listed as one such country, but that information is only partially accurate and is out of date.

An allowance used to be paid to teachers who completed a full-time diploma in special education, but it is now not paid to new applicants and is currently paid to about 1,000 teachers even though special-needs students are in the mainstream system.

In conclusion, there’s no conclusion. Teachers at the top of the Irish pay scale may be home and dry, but they’re not the norm in Irish education.

Irish teachers may work a shorter year than teachers in some other countries, but they have larger-than-average class sizes, which translates to heavier-than-average workloads.

Pension entitlements, cost-of-living indices and many other factors also come into play.

Perhaps a better metric for how we rate our teachers is how we pay them in comparison with the rest of the working population.

This month’s Eurydice report is pretty conclusive on this: the European teaching profession remains “poorly remunerated, with minimum basic teacher salaries in both primary and general secondary education lower than per-capita GDP in the majority of countries”.

Ireland is not one of those countries – a fact that the unions at least would regard as a boon rather than a millstone.

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