Do countries pay their teachers enough?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills 


Teachers enter the profession for a variety of reasons. Intrinsic motivations that have to do with the nature of the job and the intangible rewards associated with being an effective teacher play an important role. Yet when comparing a teaching career with similarly rewarding professions, the primary and secondary working conditions and material benefits probably come into play as well. To improve the quality of the candidates for teacher-training programmes and to keep them motivated to enter – and stay – in the profession, it is essential to offer competitive pay.

For many years Education at a Glance has been tracking and monitoring the salaries of teachers, comparing them across countries and over time. A new Education Indicators in Focus brief has brought together the available data in order to chart the evolution of teachers’ salaries over the past ten years. The data clearly show that, in several countries, teachers’ salaries have suffered from the impact of the financial and economic crisis that started in 2008, and from austerity policies and fiscal constraints in recent years. In one-third of the countries with available data, mainly European countries, teachers’ statutory salaries decreased in real terms between 2005 and 2014. But in countries with no similar decreases, teachers’ salaries also did not keep up with pay rises in other professions or public services. In countries with severe budgetary difficulties, it was expected that funding for education would be reduced too; but in doing so governments might have put the long-term quality of the teaching profession at risk.

In troubled labour markets teachers might put job stability and security, or secondary benefits and working conditions first, while accepting less-favourable salaries. At the same time, high-potential graduates might look for better opportunities outside the teaching profession. Lowering salaries in the context of economic downturn and increasing unemployment thus might have an impact on the quality of the candidates seeking to enter the teaching profession and those teachers who are deciding whether or not to remain in the profession. And that could have long-term consequences for the education system in general and for students in particular.

The interesting question is how teachers’ salaries now compare with those of similarly educated professionals. The chart above compares the average actual salaries of teachers in different levels of education against the average salary of a tertiary-educated 25-64 year-old professional who works full time. The data is from 2014, when the worst of the economic downturn was over and recovery had kicked off. The data can be influenced by the differences in teachers’ ages, since in most countries teachers’ salaries increase almost automatically with seniority; but they do provide a fairly accurate basis for comparison. 

The conclusion is straightforward: in the large majority of countries actual teachers’ salaries lose out against those of competing professions. On average across OECD countries, pre-primary teachers’ actual salaries amount to only 74% of the earnings of a tertiary-educated worker. Primary teachers are paid 81% of these benchmark earnings, lower secondary teachers 85% and upper secondary teachers 89%. In only five countries do the salaries of the best-paid teachers exceed those of other professionals.

The chart also shows that the differences in teachers’ pay related to which level of education they teach are significant. In many countries teachers in lower levels of education are paid less than those in upper secondary education. This can be partly explained by differences in the length and qualification level of initial teacher-education programmes or differences in how salaries evolve over the different levels of education. And the gaps are large, adding to the lack of competitiveness of the salaries of teachers in lower levels of education. In recent years, the gaps have narrowed, mainly because of increases in teachers’ salaries at these levels of education; but they are still wider than the pay gap between tertiary-educated professionals and upper secondary teachers.  

In many countries, policies that affect teachers have been given high priority in education policy development – and rightly so: governments realise that to achieve high quality, efficiency and equity in education, improving the quality of the profession is key. Countries also want to improve the attractiveness of the teaching profession, and the quality of teacher education and professional development. The definition of “teacher” is slowly evolving too: a teacher is increasingly seen as an autonomous professional capable of making decisions in varied and complex conditions. But it is hard to see how policies that aim to upgrade the teaching profession – essentially, recognising teachers as the professionals they are – can succeed without raising teachers’ pay at the same time. Governments should not expect that prospective and current teachers will remain content with just the intangible incentives and rewards that traditionally come with teaching. Like every other professional, teachers deserve to be paid a salary that is commensurate with their training and experience. The war for talent is also fought with money.

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Chart source: OECD, Table D3.2a. See Annex 3 for notes (http://www.oecd.org/education/education-at-a-glance-19991487.htm)

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