Hard Evidence: are UK headteachers the highest paid?

Cream of the crop. Pay slip via ShaunWilkinson/Shutterstock

While teaching unions continue their campaign for higher pay for teachers, there is less clamour for headteachers to earn better salaries. With reports that 40 headteachers are paid more than the prime minister, their pay is under close scrutiny. But exactly how well paid are headteachers in England and Wales compared to their peers in other European countries? And how do their salaries compare with people doing similar management-level roles in the public and private sectors?

According to the Department for Education data for 2013-14, 900 heads earned six-figure salaries, up from 700 in 2011-12. Most of the highest earners are employed by academies, which can deviate from national terms and conditions and have more freedom over pay than local authority schools.

The exceptionally high earners make for good media copy, however as Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, asserted in April:

Those on six-figure salaries are often responsible for leading several schools and all heads have high levels of scrutiny and accountability, work every hour available and care for the futures of thousands of children.

Hobby reminded us that “The average pay of a head teacher in England is £56,000 – far below the headline-grabbing paychecks and far less than their skills would earn in the private sector.” He added that leadership matters: “If you want the best, you need to pay for it.”

Salary scales

The latest salary ranges for headteachers of schools in England and Wales were published in June 2014 by the School Teachers’ Review Body.

Headteachers are divided into eight groups within each of the four geographical pay bands: inner London, outer London, fringe areas (the home counties) and the rest of England and Wales. The minimum salary is now £43,232 a year and the highest on the inner London pay band is £114,437.

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A headteacher’s salary range and their position on it will be determined by a number of factors, such as the location and size of school and the challenges the school faces. Every school is assigned to one of the eight pay “groups” according to the number and age of pupils and the number with special educational needs.

International comparisons

Comparing these salary scales with other countries is difficult. International data on classrooom teacher salaries is easier to come by than data for headteacher pay. Since 1995, teachers’ salaries have been included in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) report Education at a Glance.

In this graph from their 2014 Education at a Glance report, English teachers’ salaries are above the OECD average and the tenth highest out of the 32 countries.

England’s teachers are paid more than the OECD average. OECD Eduation at a Glance

Unfortunately, the OECD does not provide comparable data for headteachers’ salaries across their member countries. Although we know a differential will exist between the pay of classroom teachers and school leaders, this will not be the same in each education system.

Yet data on headteacher pay does exist for European education systems from the Eurydice network. Its 2014 dataset of 37 EU countries shows that headteachers in England score quite high in European comparisons.

Across all European countries, except Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, headteachers’ maximum pay is more than the country’s GDP per capita, a measure of average earnings. The highest maximum salaries are being earned by principals in Cyprus, Portugal, England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, as the graph shows.

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It therefore seems reasonable to state that headteachers’ salaries in England are among the highest in Europe – and the world – as are those for teachers.

Public and private sectors

So, if heads are well paid internationally, how well paid are they compared to those undertaking similar roles in the public and private sector? Again, there is not much information available for the comparison of teachers’ or heads’ salaries with the salaries of other equivalent professional groups.

A study by Incomes Data Services (IDS) for the Office of Manpower Economics attempted to compare the terms and conditions, including heads’ salaries, with comparable positions in 20 detailed case studies of both public and private sector organisations.

Current pay rates for comparative jobs in the public and voluntary sector ranged from about £49,500 to £125,000. Salaries for comparative positions in the private sector were £82,000 at a retailer, £125,000 at a law firm and between £90,000 and £130,000 at a finance and professional services firm.

This compares with headteacher salary ranges, at the time of the research, of between £42,379 to £56,950 for the school leaders outside London in the lowest pay band and £72,752 to £105,097 for those in the highest. As the graph below shows, private sector leaders appeared to attract higher rewards.

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Setting salaries – who decides?

So why are salaries of school leaders in England and Wales set as they are? A number of factors are important including the last government’s willingness to recognise the importance of education and to raise the status and remuneration of the profession.

Economist Peter Dolton’s work for the 2013 Global Teacher Status Index shows that in the UK, the status of headteachers is higher than in any other country. He suggests this is partly because we’ve had the phenomenon of the “super head” and seen heads as agents of change in the education system. He notes that this is different to the culture in other countries where headteachers are seen more as administrators than pedagogical leaders.

Local labour markets matter too. It may be the case that the panels who appoint headteachers – school governing bodies in the UK – have to pay over-the-market rates to secure an outstanding candidate or offer attractive annual increments to retain their head and prevent any “headhunting” or poaching. Interestingly, the latest School Workforce Census shows a very low and stable picture of headship vacancies at around 0.2%. Yet some posts continue to have difficulty attracting high quality applicants.

Recent research into headteacher performance management suggests some governing bodies have been happy to award what might appear generous pay packages, especially at a time when teacher salaries are fairly static, in an attempt to retain their services. It also notes that, with the diminution of the role of local authorities in governing schools, governors don’t have access to salary benchmarking data. This research also suggested that problems can arise over adjusting pay during headteachers’ appraisals, which can be insufficiently candid.

There has been a long period of relative flexibility on the part of governing bodies as to how much to pay headteachers. Yet as performance-related-pay becomes more commonplace across the UK education system, there is little evidence to show that pay is a strong motivator for heads or teachers.


Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.

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