New Labour set out to make structural changes that would not be easily reversed when they lost office, and money played a big part in them. Labour politicians, especially Blair, David Milliband and Mandelson, understood that people of all political stripes are motivated by self-interest, and that they will follow paths that seem to lead to reward. So, let the paths be Labour paths, and let the rewards come from serving them (and in the process, perhaps break down the North-South divide, as they did with Northern Rock…)
Some inflated salaries, chiefly those of doctors and dentists, stem from old-fashioned government incompetence, but most are part of an attempt to put public sector salaries above private sector ones, and then to fill these posts with people favourable to the policies of New Labour, erecting suitable barriers in selection and “training” procedures. So, when Labour local authority executive David Bell was elevated to the position of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools (he had trained as an inspector, but had precious little experience of the work), he appointed a large number of new HMI who all had to write essays on their experience of “managing change” – no prizes for guessing what sort of change.
HMI had, in the past, been seen as leaders in their subjects and powerful figures in their own right, with senior ones paid considerably more than headteachers. So, as higher paid HMI retired, new ones were appointed at under £50k, a salary similar to that of an assistant secondary head or a primary deputy. Instead of attracting big hitters, they were jobs for young people on the way up, and hence beholden to their bosses, who removed the independence of inspectors and took full control for themselves.
More about Ofsted in coming weeks, but for the moment it serves as a good illustration of the use salaries as negative political levers. The positive lever was bumping up headteachers’ salaries, while installing training systems for them that embodied the New Labour agenda, a sort of citizenship curriculum for headteachers. This was extended to include pseudo-Masters’ degrees in teaching and learning, which an excellent deputy head has described to me as “spending Saturday mornings listening to political claptrap” (and where better to do so than at the Oxbridge of Claptrap, The London Institute of Education?) Pass the course and get a pay rise – fail, and you’ve only yourself and your prejudices to blame. Balls was only beaten by the clock in introducing practising certificates that would have completely excluded those of us who refused to bow the knee. The heads’ salaries were the worst example, with heads earning over £200k, in some cases for running smallish primary schools, and in a few cases bumping it up to over half a million a year in consultancy fees.
These heads often see themselves as managers rather than headteachers, and justify their salaries as if they were running businesses, which of course they are not, as the people using their services are not those who pay for them. They are in fact beneficiaries of New Labour’s virtual economics, and there are parallels throughout local government. Moreover, not only do these people have a vested interest in the system of bloated salaries, they have become its advocates, using the size of their budgets as justification for paying them more and more. It used to be known as “Empire building”, but those who now practise it are part of a much larger empire than their own.
There is no easy solution. The “market” in local authority salaries is a sleight-of-hand created by adapting free-market terminology to New Labour goals. It is now so widespread that it can probably only be stopped by legislation.We need an Act stipulating that no new local authority chief executive can be paid more than the Prime Minister’s ministerial allowance (£133k), and that no head of department (limited to a small set number per authority) or headteacher can be paid more than the total salary of a Minister of State (£107k). These policies would be surprisingly popular with the electorate, though not with the recipients – no-one likes local bigwigs to get above their station.
The possible difficulty in filling top posts should not be over-estimated, as New Labour was not so generous to deputies, and there are plenty of people who want promotion and who have not signed up to the Labour agenda. Relocation expenses would be needed, but these are one-off costs. New Labour has used salaries to build itself a castle. The steps taken so far have begun a siege, but our opponents are prepared for it. We need to break down the walls.