school exams

Teachers could earn less than minimum wage for extra exam work

Some teachers may end up earning less than the minimum wage for extra work around exams, prompting an accusation the Scottish Government has engaged in “morally wrong and legally dubious” behaviour over “thank you” payments.

A one-off payment of £400 is being made to teachers and lecturers this year following cancellation of the 2021 National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exam diet due to Covid-19. The fee is a recognition of the “additional workload related to the alternative certification model”, which involves assessments being set, marked and moderated by teachers rather than the SQA.

It is understood this would represent around 28 hours of extra work. But some teachers told The Ferret they will need to work many more hours than that, meaning some could actually be paid less than the minimum wage.

Internal documents seen by The Ferret show that the Scottish Government acknowledged the fee could amount to less than a “minimal” wage, given the excess workload on teachers.

Officials had originally considered a payment of £100, £200 or £500 for teachers, outlining how many hours of work each would represent – as well as the overall cost – in a briefing to education secretary John Swinney dated 4 December 2021.

While approving the payment, Swinney asked officials whether the amount being proposed was “too high”.

Critics say teachers are being forced to “bail out the qualification system” and demanded that the government pay “at least the Real Living Wage“. The Scottish Government said in response that the level of payment was agreed in informal discussions with key stakeholders.

£400, and less after tax and pension contributions, will reflect less than minimal wage for the workload of some teachers and lecturers.

Scottish Government document

A February 2021 Scottish Government document obtained by The Ferret identified potential concerns around the level of payment being offered, stating: “£400, and less after tax and pension contributions, will reflect less than minimal wage for the workload of some teachers and lecturers.”

The suggested response says the payment is being made in addition to two in-service days which will be “paid at normal contract rate”, but does not dispute the payment itself falls short of minimum wage for some staff.

On 7 December 2020, an email to the SQA from Scottish Government officials included the option of a £400 payment.

In an email response, SQA Chief Executive Fiona Robertson explained the scale of additional workload facing teachers this year.

She advised that staff “will be required to develop an assessment strategy and standardise across the department. There will then be marking and dealing with disruption (for example additional assessment for anyone who has missed one) and then the QA associated with this (professional discussions peer to peer within and across centres) prior to generating a provisional result.”

She added that “how long it takes to get an assessment strategy in place and the marking of each assessment and the associated QA” would vary depending on the subject, the size of a department and even the experience level of its staff.

A week later, a briefing for Swinney made clear that £400 was seen as “the minimum level of payment” that would be acceptable to teaching unions. 

The Ferret understands the government refused to pay £500 to teachers, worried that this may be conflated with its additional payment to NHS workers.

But even while approving the payment of £400 on 21 December, Swinney queried whether it may be too high.

The Deputy First Minister and education secretary said that he was “content with where this has reached”. However, in the scenario that two additional in-service service days were included, he asked: “is £400 too high or are we best just going with that?”

That these thank-you payments will amount to less than the minimum wage, given the number of working hours required, isn’t just morally wrong, it’s legally deeply dubious.

Ross Greer, Scottish Greens

Speaking anonymously to The Ferret, a social subjects teacher from north east Scotland calculated their marking workload would far exceed the 28 hours accounted for by the government.

“I have nearly 50 National 5 and Higher students, which are modest numbers”, said the teacher. “They will sit two assessments over the coming weeks. It takes approximately 20 minutes to mark each National 5 piece and 25 minutes to mark each Higher piece. This brings us to a total of around 36 hours of total marking. I also expect a further 27 hours as part of the quality assurance process.”

An English teacher at an independent school with similar pupil numbers said they expected marking time alone to be “around 65 hours”.

“Each pupil has three assessment pieces, each taking around 30 minutes to mark – but then you also need to add in the demands of pre-verification, cross-marking, and further verification, and we’re looking at 80 hours,” they said.

In response to The Ferret’s revelations, the Scottish Greens’ education spokesperson Ross Greer demanded the payment be increased.

He said: “If teachers are essentially being paid to complete the massive additional workload the SQA is asking of them, then they should be paid at least the real living wage. That these thank-you payments will amount to less than the minimum wage, given the number of working hours required, isn’t just morally wrong, it’s legally deeply dubious.”

Scottish Labour education spokesperson Michael Marra said: “With no proper policy or guidance for months on end, teachers are now working round the clock to bail out the qualifications system. They should be paid a fair rate for doing so and it should be negotiated by their trade unions.  

“Frankly, £400 looks cheap. This is a very significant addition to an already heavy workload. It is the minister’s responsibility to put in place a system that works and to bring the workforce with him.”

An EIS spokesperson said the fee was “not a payment for marking scripts per se, some of which would have been necessary as part of more traditional prelims, but rather an acknowledgement of the additional elements of quality assurance required”. This would “include staff who do not have assigned NQ classes”.

The spokesperson added: “Schools have been advised to prioritise qualifications so the EIS would expect in-school time to facilitate a significant element of the workload but there is undoubtedly additional pressure on teachers which fully justifies the payment. The additional payment, however, does not amount to any contractual variation for teachers.”

The Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA) said it had not been consulted about the payment and claimed teachers were being put under “pressure”. It also said some teachers have asked about opting out.

“I think many members would be happy to send the work to the SQA to mark and do everything else rather than take the £400,” a spokesperson said.

“But I feel that however unhappy teachers are they will always do what is best for their pupils rather than themselves. A point of principle could be won by refusing to participate but damage to the pupils and the teachers themselves after the event is far more important.

“This year’s approach is an imposition, the money and time is totally inadequate and the answer even now is for SQA to back away and accept the teachers’ professional judgement.”

A spokesperson for John Swinney MSP said: “Various levels of payment were examined, as were different models of payment.

“It was generally felt impractical to ask teachers to laboriously record their individual time spent on the Alternative Certification Model as this would simply add to the workload burden. Instead, in discussions with stakeholders, including teacher professional associations, it was felt that a flat rate approach was more appropriate.

“The precise level of payment was agreed in informal discussions with key stakeholders.”

Exam work payment documents

Photo thanks to iStock/InspirationGP.

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