'In the real world, teachers and nurses work to the point of exhaustion – and pay their taxes'

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By Anne Southern

When I was a young teacher, my father said I had chosen my profession wisely as I wouldn’t survive in ‘the real world’. I thought this was a bit rich coming from someone who met nothing more challenging in his working life than rows of figures.

How would he cope, I wondered, with a class of 32 six- and seven-year-olds, listening to two at a time read, while supplying words for those engaged in story writing, while checking that Johnny at the back was not inflicting serious wounds on his neighbour with a pair of scissors. Is ensuring the safety of 32 children, while trying to foster literacy, numeracy and a love of learning somehow not living in the ‘real world’?

This early sense of indignation was triggered recently when a group of retired civil servants and teachers were accused, presumably by someone who worked in finance, of not living in the real world. He was outraged when I suggested that people in the public sector worked hard, and deserved their 7.9% pay rise (in effect a pay cut, when inflation is running at over 12%). Then in the UK, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, Rishi Sunak said that the demands of teachers and nurses could not be met because ‘they would have to be paid for by “hard working” people’.

This should hardly need comment, but comment I will, for the hard of understanding. Teachers and nurses work to the point of exhaustion – to the point where they are leaving their professions in droves. I retired from teaching (even though by then I was teaching older and less-demanding students) just before my 60th birthday because I was burnt out, and didn’t want to burden my colleagues with covering for the sick days I would inevitably have if I tried to continue. And in the last ten years it’s got harder, with more demands for record keeping and raising standards.

Teachers and nurses also pay their taxes. In Jersey, if a teacher has a pay rise, they will probably be paying the marginal rate on anything extra that they earn – so 26% of the pay rise will be returned to the Treasury. I suppose some think they are not in the ‘real world’, though they deal with real people from every walk of life, because they don’t generate money – well, not directly. But I would like to ask the rich, who think it is legitimate to avoid tax, where they would be without an educated and healthy workforce. How many working days have been lost due to people not receiving the timely healthcare that they need? And does it make sound financial sense to recruit expensive agency nurses, locum doctors and supply teachers rather than recruit and retain regular staff with attractive terms and conditions?

I reported this ‘not in the real world’ accusation to my son, who was astounded. He worked as a trainee accountant for a year before leaving to train as a doctor, precisely because he didn’t find that helping rich people avoid tax was either rewarding or real. As the clinical lead for cancer services in a UK hospital, he sees both rich (who rely on the NHS for serious conditions) and poor, saving lives or meting out death sentences. There’s nothing unreal about his world, though he is paid by the taxpayer, as well as paying hefty taxes himself.

I find it invidious that we should think of our tax obligation as ‘our money’ and that we are entitled to think of ways of hanging on to it. It is the price of living in a functional and civilised society. If the rich object to paying the bulk of it, they should remember that they have by far and away the lion’s share of the wealth – wealth generated by the workers, including those in the public sector who support them.

Do those who quote the ‘Laffer rule’ live in the real world? Actually it is the Laffer Curve – a graph which plots at which point a rise in the tax rate will result in less tax being paid, as more people will try to avoid it. What few seem to realise is that the average figure at which this is estimated to operate is at tax rates of 70%. This gives us plenty of leeway if we were inclined to raise more money from taxation. I don’t think that in the ‘real world’ our wealthy would flee if asked to pay a little more.

And as for ‘trickle down’, which even President Biden says is a myth, is growth more likely to be generated from those who will spend every extra penny that they earn, or from those who can put their tax savings in the bank?

However, we perhaps all have a different notion of reality. I recently asked a friend for his definition, and he claimed his ‘real world’ was the prettier parts of the UK, excluding big cities and industrial heartlands. Well, we can all dream.

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