How far is Sports Direct from the ELT industry?

Most of us in U.K private language schools work zero hours contracts and at an hourly rate that covers teaching hours only. This pay is said to ‘cover’ other unwaged duties like administration, marking and class preparation. However, the extent of these duties has no defined cut off point and at various times, and particularly for the less experienced, the time given can be significant. During a time of external inspections, where lesson plans are required in much greater detail, I once left my school at 9:30pm. Having begun at eight and with a thirty minute lunch break, I was paid for five of those hours. That was extreme but on any given day the official hourly wage in no way reflects the truth in terms of the time/ pay ratio.

Which brings me to Sports Direct. They have recently been exposed for some horrendous working conditions built around the abuse of zero hours contracts (some of these have also since been addressed). There were a number of abuses beyond the nature of the contract itself, such as workers being penalised for time off sick, but the key thing that really put them in the dock was where hourly pay had come to dip below the minimum wage. This wasn’t because people weren’t officially paid an hourly rate that met the base amount – that would have been obvious immediately – but that they were being paid only for specific hours omitting time spent on a range of additional responsibilities. Along with the other contractual parallel found in zero hours, this is very much the way we English language teachers are paid specifically for teaching hours. In the case of Sports Direct it was the extent of time employees were spending on these unwaged tasks that was found to drag the pay rate down to a figure that broke the law – but does a higher wage make everything ok simply because it keeps things legal? In terms of exploitation, the degree might change, but it’s exploitation nonetheless.

I think it’s fair to argue it’s not just the fact Sports Direct workers were working below the minimum wage that’s wrong here, it’s the nature of the employment conditions that allowed this to occur. Legality should not mitigate the essential unfairness, not least given the expectations and pressures of working as a language teacher today. The manner in which these contracts are handled will vary from school to school, but the professional standards expected of teachers, which seem to grow year on year, means they are a major contributing factor to the way we can be both underpaid and undervalued.    

As I understand it, many schools do not make vast sums of money and employing teachers on full time contracts can be financially risky. The state of the ELT industry is becoming more and more precarious, but at the same time has a false sense of its own level of professionalism which cannot be met by the economic reality. Given this state of affairs, teaching standards should be focussed on quality teaching methods that don’t require high levels of preparation and materials, and extra curricular work be handled sensitively and graciously. 

Unfortunately today, as industry standards seem to consistently be geared toward adding to the workload, a Director of Studies is being pushed to make demands of staff which are almost unavoidably exploitative. Inspection bodies, an expensive essential for a school’s reputation and recruitment potential, insist on the demonstration of commitments such as heavily detailed weekly plans, completed outside paid hours, to meet their approval.

When the next wave of updated inspection guidelines are churned out by the British Council (I expect for which a team of people will be paid good money on full time, pensioned contracts), maybe they could include one or two for minimising the exploitation of staff and reducing admin time. Sadly, this doesn’t appear to be on their radar. Instead they – I like to think unknowingly – more or less ask schools to exploit in order to meet their demands. On the flow chart, “professional standards” goes one way while “employment standards” goes in the other, yet only one line seems to be included in the snazzy powerpoint presentation.

That said, none of these new standards would be half the problem if hourly pay reflected actual hours spent working. The bottom rate for a teacher is around £12.90 an hour (though some schools don’t pay the breaks  – so a 3 hour class will pay 2.5 hours). On zero hours it is complicated but not impossible to pay an hourly rate which reflects the reality. A twenty hour week of teaching could imply a specific number of admin hours, bringing pay to a more realistic and honest amount. At present, when asked to extend our duties to meet new guidelines, we have no limit or control on how much time this could involve and how that will impact on pay. I concluded that when my wage was around £14 an hour I was often on an actual wage of something more like £11.50. If this remains the state of affairs it would be nice if the fact of employees working part time, zero hours contract with no sick pay, on little over the London living wage, were reflected on, and factored into, any given inspection criteria that demands their time and skills.        

For Sports Direct this system, of what could be termed ‘false pay’, allowed them to break employment law. However, allowing unspecified actual pay well below the official figure, regardless of amount is still wrong. I am open to optional zero hours contracts – they have suited me and many others at various times – I just don’t think they should be used as the norm and imposed on people who need security. But the practice of ‘false pay’, seen at its illegal worst with Sports Direct, should be given some serious attention. Even without new pressures to exploit as discussed above, legal limits and defined rights are desperately required to guarantee that staff are protected. That said the ultimate goal should be a return that reflects the quality and skills required for the profession and that encourages those dedicated and enthusiastic about teaching to remain in the trade (of actual classroom teaching). For that the whole school system may require an overhaul.

Until then, while Sports Direct have been held accountable and reversed many practices, it’s business as usual in the ELT world. 


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